When I first heard that Charlie Chaplin made a movie that poked fun at Adolf Hitler, I didn’t quite believe it. Chaplin started work on The Great Dictator well before World War II broke out, and the film was released before the United States entered the war, so, rather unintentionally, this became one of the first American propaganda films. Chaplin later said that had he known what was going on in Germany, he never would have made the film. But the film was made, and it is quite funny even today. Chaplin held onto his silent film style for a long time after sound became the norm, and this is his first foray into the world of recorded dialogue. But this is a Chaplin film, so wacky physical humor still takes center stage. This film is a bit of a relic, but it is interesting to see something I learned about mostly in history books lampooned in such a spectacular way, and also to learn more about the pop culture that contributed to America joining the war. And, like I said, it is surprisingly funny even today.
The film opens with a Jewish barber fighting on the front lines of World War I and getting injured. While in recovery, the dictator Hynkel takes over his home country of Tomainia and begins arresting the Jews after blaming them for the country’s financial troubles. The Jewish barber discovers the plight of the Jews and unwittingly joins the resistance. Meanwhile, Hynkel plots to invade neighboring countries and develops new weapons of war to do so.
We’ve just discovered the most wonderful, the most marvelous poisonous gas. It will kill everybody!
As I mentioned, Chaplin’s wacky physical humor is the main draw here, and it’s considerably more charming and funny than the phrase “wacky physical humor” would suggest. The gags are surprisingly winsome and work well. In the world of cinema, it’s been a long time since physical humor was done this well. The gags actually support some of the social commentary rather than just elicit laughs and some are pretty elaborate, so it’s not just people getting hit in the groin over and over.
In the middle of production, Hitler changed from a political figure to a warmonger, making the subject matter of Chaplin’s film much more serious than he had intended, leading Chaplin to write a new ending for the film which adds a surprising level of depth. The new ending consists mostly of an inspiring speech at the end about working for the betterment of mankind and fighting to protect what is good. The best part about it is that it doesn’t feel like this tacked-on incongruent last-minute addition—it really feels like a natural extension of the satire throughout the rest of the film, and serves to make it more meaningful, not cover it up. I’d heard about the speech before watching the film and thought it would be cheesy, but it was a damn good speech, showcasing the depth of Chaplin’s writing and acting abilities.
I’ll be honest, I initially wasn’t expecting to like The Great Dictator—but I did. Chaplin was a genius at doing Chaplin, and he succeeds where I don’t think any other filmmaker would. As I said, this film is a bit of a relic, but it’s interesting to see this little slice of history, and the humor holds up surprisingly well today. I don’t know that I can recommend this to a general audience, but if it’s piqued your curiosity, give it a try. It will not disappoint.
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Genres: comedy, war