To be honest, I was never a great fan of Charlie Chaplin. I was always more of a fan of the Laurel and Hardy-type of humour. I find that Charlie Chaplin’s movies are quite dated when compared to the aforementioned, Laurel and Hardy films.
However, there is one notable exception. There has been one Chaplin movie that has stood the test of time. That movie, of course, is The Great Dictator, released on 15 October 1940. It is as relevant now as it was in 1940.
The film is a satire of Adolf Hitler, played by the main character Adenoid Hynkel. The story is based on Hynkel, a Jewish barber looking exactly like Hitler, and is played by Charlie Chaplin. It begins with a notice: “Any resemblance between Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental.
Chaplin spent two years developing the script and began filming in September 1939, six days after Britain declared war on Germany. He had submitted to using spoken dialogue (it was his first talkie movie), partly out of acceptance that he had no other choice but also because he recognized it as a better method for delivering a political message. Making a comedy about Hitler was seen as highly controversial, but Chaplin’s financial independence allowed him to take the risk. “I was determined to go ahead,” he later wrote, “for Hitler must be laughed at.” Chaplin replaced his Tramp character (while wearing similar attire) with “A Jewish Barber,” a reference to the Nazi Party’s belief that he was Jewish.
Adolf Hitler banned the film in Germany and all countries occupied by the Nazis. Curiosity got the better of him, and he had a copy brought in through Portugal. Historical records show that he screened it twice, in private, but records did not reveal his reaction to the film. Charlie Chaplin said, “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.” For political reasons in Germany, the ban stayed even after the end of World War II and was lifted in 1958.
By the time Chaplin made The Great Dictator, he had long despised the Nazis and vice versa. A German propaganda film denounced him as one of “the foreign Jews who come to Germany,” never mind that he wasn’t Jewish—while the US press nicknamed him “The 20th-Century Moses,” because he funded the escape of thousands of Jewish refugees. When he started work on the film originally titled The Dictator, he was “a man on a mission,” according to Simon Louvish, the author of Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. “Some of his contemporaries, like Laurel and Hardy, just wanted to make funny movies and money. But Chaplin was very serious about what he wanted to say. The Great Dictator wasn’t just a film—it was something that was required.”
Chaplin was motivated by more than humanitarianism. He was also fascinated by his eerie connections to Hitler, who was born only four days after Chaplin in April 1889. A comic song about the Führer, recorded by Tommy Handley in 1939, was titled, “Who Is That Man…? (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin). There is, of course, also the moustache. Rumours that Hitler copied Chaplin’s moustache were not true. The so-called toothbrush moustache was prevalent at the time, and not surprising that it lost its popularity after World War II.
Hitler wasn’t the only dictator parodied in the movies. A character named, Napaloni, played by Jack Oakie was a satire on Mussolini.
Unlike Adolf Hitler and later dictators, Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel atoned and redeemed himself, and the speech at the end of the movie is still a powerful message which should be listened to today.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone—if possible—Jew, Gentile, black man, or white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness—not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world, there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, and has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in from the world. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness was hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…
The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cry out for the goodness in men—cries for universal brotherhood, for the unity of us all. Even now, my voice is reaching millions throughout the world—millions of despairing men, women, and little children—victims of a system that makes men torture and imprisons innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say—do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed—the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish…
Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes—men who despise you—enslave you—who regiment your lives—tell you what to do—what to think and what to feel! Who drill you—diet you—treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate—the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: ‘the Kingdom of God is within man,’ not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power—the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then—in the name of democracy—let us use that power—let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world—a decent world that will give men a chance to work—that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers—to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”
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