I’m fairly certain I’ve known about The Great Dictator since before this year, or at the very least I knew it was notable for a certain speech. It was only a few weeks ago that I decided to check out this film after a video of the famous speech at the end came across my Facebook feed. So in a sense, I learned about this film backwards, since I saw the ending before I watched anything else.
Once I saw the entire film though, I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d never seen this film before, since it is amazing, not to mention it’s the ballsiest film I’ve ever encountered. It’s one thing to make a film or a tv show that mocks dictators and evil regimes like Hitler and Nazi Germany, but it’s quite another to make a film while said dictator is very much alive and in charge of that evil regime. The Great Dictator went into production the week after World War II started, and the fate of the world was very much up in the air when it was released in late 1940. That took a lot of guts, since if things had gone differently, Chaplin would have been in huge trouble.
The film is a pretty straight parody of what was currently happening (or, more accurately, what was known to be happening) in Nazi Germany. Chaplin swore afterward that if he’d known the full extent of what was going on, the film would never have been made. The story is split between two polar opposite characters (both played by Chaplin): a nameless Jewish barber (who bears a suspicious resemblance to the famous Tramp of the silent era) and Adenoid Hynkel, the power-hungry dictator of Tomainia. Chaplin spent hours watching newsreel footage of Hitler giving speeches to nail his impression and it shows in the film’s opening speech. While the words are nonsense, the diction and pacing is straight out of something seen and heard in a Nazi propaganda film.
Of all the Nazi-parody characters, the one that actually scares me the most is Garbitsch (the parody of Joseph Goebbels), brought to terrifying life by Henry Daniell (best known to me as Lord Wolfingham in The Sea Hawk). While Hynkel and Herring are fairly comedic portrayals of Hitler and Goering respectively (with minor exceptions for Hynkel later in the film), Daniell plays the role of Garbitsch completely straight. At no time is there anything funny about this character, and that’s what makes him so scary.
While I could mention a number of moments in this film that stood out to me, the one I must talk about is the food fight between Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni (a dead-on parody of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini). It almost feels wrong to laugh, but the comedy between Chaplin and Jack Oakie (playing Napaloni) is just so funny, I can’t help but laugh, especially when the two are gesturing and shouting, each caught up in their own individual tirade.
And of course, it all leads to the iconic speech Chaplin gives at the end of the film, dropping both of the characters he’s played to give a rousing address that left me in tears the first time I heard it. If you get the opportunity, you should definitely watch The Great Dictator in its entirety. Let me know what you think of the film in the comments below and have a great day!
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