A movie where the lead actor suddenly drops character at the end and delivers a passionate 5-minute speech directly to the audience shouldn’t work. But somehow, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator endures, and his plea for kindness still seems revolutionary nearly a century later.
Viewed 80 years on, Charlie Chaplin imitating Adolf Hitler doesn’t seem so radical. Mocking der führer has been done since by everyone from Donald Duck to Mel Brooks to Taika Waititi.
But what separates 1940’s The Great Dictator is he was one of the first, doing it while Hitler was still alive, still in power, on the rise. America wasn’t even at war with Germany yet. Time shouldn’t dim how revolutionary and bold this film was. It pulls no punches about the Nazi campaign against Jews, its warmongering and spreading of hatred. (Even Chaplin didn’t have any idea of how truly horrific the Holocaust was in 1940, and years later expressed some regrets about his film as a result.)
Chaplin walks a fine tightrope here – he plays two roles, a “Tramp”-like kind-hearted Jewish barber, and the raving Hitler stand-in Hinkel. He’s magnificent in both roles. As the movie goes along the Jew and the dictator’s identities become swapped (never mind that nobody until the end of the movie seems to note the resemblance between the two characters).
That leads to the grand climax of The Great Dictator, when the little barber has stumbled into the dictator’s shoes and has to address a crowd of thousands of his subjects on the eve of war. After years of silents, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first full talkie, and he unleashes a torrent of pent-up words to make up for lost time.
What happens next is still controversial – it’s a naked act of utterly mawkish sincerity, and from a strict storytelling perspective it barely works at all. Yet it doesn’t matter, because Charlie Chaplin, the mostly mute film star, stands up before the cameras, drops all pretence of acting as the barber, and delivers an impassioned, 5-minute long call for peace and understanding among all people. It’s like Iron Man stopping before the final battle with Thanos and sitting down on a stool and talking about brotherhood in Avengers: Endgame.
Chaplin starts slowly, almost apologetically: “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.”
Nobody likes a sermon in place of a climax, do they? And indeed, the first time I saw The Great Dictator years ago it did strike an odd note. It breaks the spell of the story, but that was Chaplin’s intention, as France fell and Hitler’s plan gathered speed. The older I get, the more Chaplin’s no-bullshit appeal stings for me:
“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in.”
Those words seem to ring even louder in the age of coronavirus and populist blowhards. Or is it just that sadly, humanity’s flaws and foibles haven’t changed a heck of a lot since 1940?
It’d be nice to say that Chaplin’s big speech made a difference. But history tells us otherwise. The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s biggest hit, but it also was the end of the road for him. The “Tramp” character never returned, and while Chaplin made a few more great films, they weren’t hits. His liberal politics during the McCarthy era saw him exiled from America to Europe. Despite the boldness of The Great Dictator’s final speech, Chaplin ended his career as a kind of pariah.
Yes, it’s a strange way to end a film. Yet when artifice and bombast and trolling seem to have an unbreakable hold on us, I’ll take kindness over selfishness every single time.