A satire of Nazi Germany where a poor Jewish barber is mistaken for the dictator Adenoid Hynkel.
Written and Directed by – Charles Chaplin
Starring – Charles Chaplin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Grace Hayle, Carter DeHaven, Paulette Goddard, Maurice Moscovitch, Emma Dunn, Bernard Gorcey, Paul Weigel
I’ve only recently started diving into the films of Charlie Chaplin but from the moment that I started watching them this was the one I was most looking forward to. This was something that I just had to see to believe. It’s certainly nothing new for someone to mock Adolph Hitler but to do it in 1940 seems like an especially brave move. Chaplin spoke later on that he wouldn’t have made this film if he had known the true extent of the Nazi’s despicable treatment of Jewish people but I think that would have been a tragedy. The Great Dictator shows the plight of the Jewish people with a great respect while managing to mock the disgusting and little man that Hitler really was. It’s odd to think that so much humour could come from satirizing such an evil man but it seems empowering to view Hitler as nothing more than a bumbling idiot.
Maybe Chaplin was right to say that he wouldn’t have made the film knowing the real atrocities that were going on. In our very PC times it would be impossible to craft a film like this and have the general public accept it. Some group somewhere would be up in arms but what’s worse, to openly acknowledge that such a person exists and try to make a jackass of him or to ignore him entirely and hope he just goes away? My fiancée even suggested that I not review this film because of the subject matter. In my opinion, Hitler was an ass and viewing him as such only strengthens my feelings and I think it can show just how small-minded and utterly ridiculous an individual like this is. I’m not here to discuss my deeper feelings on the matter though and I think it should be obvious what my opinion on the Nazis is.
Here comes the SPOILER paragraph! Chaplin plays a double role here. First as a Jewish barber who got amnesia in the WWI while helping another soldier and then as dictator Adenoid Hynkel, a man who has tightened his grip on the country of Tomania. The barber bears an uncanny resemblance to Hynkel and this eventually leads to problems for both men. Eventually the barber leaves the hospital he had been staying in for years since the war and returns to his barber shop in the Jewish ghetto. He finds a very different place where soldiers patrol the streets and harass the Jewish people. Without understanding what is really going on in the city, the barber gets into a scuffle with a few soldiers which is stopped by Schultz, the same soldier that the barber had saved in the war. Schultz orders his men to leave the citizens of the ghetto alone and they begin to enjoy more freedom than they have in years. Hynkel soon turns his aggression back onto the ghetto having Schultz, and later the barber, arrested and taken to his camps. Poised to invade Osterlich, Hynkel is waiting by the border pretending to be on a fishing trip while Schultz and the barber have escaped from the prison in some guards uniforms. Hynkel is arrested for escaping from prison while the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and lead into Osterlich to oversee its occupation. The barber delivers a stirring speech to the people of Osterlich which ends the film. SPOILER ENDS!
I know I’ve probably given away the entire film but I just couldn’t help myself. While the film contains numerous hilarious moments, usually at the expense of Hynkel, it also has plenty of very touching scenes portraying the hardships that the Jewish people in the ghetto have to deal with. Soldiers treating them with no respect and letting them have little, if any, human rights at all, buildings being destroyed and people being arrested for no reason other than being Jewish. Also, Chaplin’s final speech in the film is completely out of character and is obviously a personal moment. It’s quite stirring and you can see the passion in Chaplin’s eyes. While it has everything to do with the plot of the movie, it has even more to do with the personal feelings of Chaplin and I think it’s obvious. It’s a speech that has as much meaning today as it did then so if you’ve seen the film then here’s that clip for you. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film I would suggest skipping this clip and just watching the movie.
This isn’t the first film to feature the voice of Charlie Chaplin but it was his first ‘talking feature’. Modern Times (1936) featured Chaplin singing a song but the majority of that film is still silent. I guess if Chaplin was going to talk in his films then he was going to do it properly. When he’s mocking Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel he’s hilarious but when he speaks from his heart about the real atrocities being committed it’s even better. It’s important to remember that Chaplin was never mocking the situation that the Jewish people were living in, only the pitiful man who put them there.
From the very little that I’ve seen of Chaplin and his work, it seems like he was a man with a message and that message was always one of kindness and acceptance. This is my personal favorite of his films that I have seen so far. When it wasn’t inspiring me it was making me laugh until it hurt. While there’s plenty of moments of physical comedy, Chaplin getting wacked on the head with a frying pan or diving into a barrel, it’s this one moment in the film that had me laughing the most. It’s a brilliant mix of music and movement that instantly made me think of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Created over 70 years ago, The Great Dictator is more moving, more inspiring and much more funny than almost all the films I have watched until now. I personally think that this is an important piece of cinematic history and should be a must watch for any lover of film. Not only does it showcase the great talent that Chaplin had as an actor, it also shows just how well he could craft a script. The Great Dictator proves what a talented man Charles Chaplin truly was and it’s an incredible experience.
Under the marquee – Will