#56: The Great Dictator (1940)

When and how did I watch this?

January 17th and 18th, 2017, on YouTube.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

Chaplain film, but the only non-silent of his on this list.  WWII theme strikes again. I had a general idea of how the film proceeds, and its concluding speech delivered by Chaplain himself.

What do I know about it now?

The Great Dictator is really a glorified anti-Nazi propaganda film, saved by some irreverent humor, occasionally moving sequences involving the Jewish ghetto, and indeed a riveting monologue that shatters the fourth wall. Chaplain plays a dual role: a happy-go-lucky Jewish barber named Schultz, and a maniacal yet completely absurd dictator of the fictitious nation (yet bearing a striking resemblance to Germany) called Tomainia. The latter character looks a lot like Schultz, but they never meet, somewhat miraculously swapping places in the end without anyone noticing (who would question the Fuhrer/Hynkel?).  This sleight-of-hand exchange of characters allows for Chaplin a literal platform to deliver a four minute discourse on the state of humanity in the 1940s, and the promise of a future hope that resonates into today. The film takes several shots at Germany, Italy and Mussolini, the general makeup of Hitler’s confidants, who are at times as inept as their cartoonish supreme leader, and the whole premise of the war and “concentration camps”, which is taken too lightly to be repeated tactfully today. Regarding the state of the Jews, they’re presented as impoverished yet hopeful in the film, oppressed by the presence of a belligerent standing police/army, and a pair of haunting scenes prophetically remind us of the horrors of a war that pushed a vast population of Jews into a corner and squashed them. They still huddle in fear, have secret meetings, and escape just in time on multiple occasions.  The score is fantastic, drawing out each scene in all its seriousness or outrageous silliness. Chaplain dominates the screen, of course, with the expected facial expressions and witty physical humor, but surprises us with moving dialogue, both in writing and delivery, both satirical and deadly serious.

What are some themes in the film?

WWII, nationalism, determination/perseverance, interior of Nazi Germany

Did this affect me personally?

How could one not be moved by the final speech?  It’s easily found on YouTube, and worth a look.  There’s also one scene where a family of Jews — perhaps forty of them, crowded in a small plaza and huddled in fear — where they look on beyond the camera frame, the men in the foreground expressing terror and desperation while the women sob behind them. This sort of scene is now commonplace in cinema depicting the Jewish condition in WWII.

Why is this ranked #56?

World War II strikes again.  It’s Chaplin.  It’s hilarious.  And yes, the speech.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She watched half and I got tired; I watched the second half alone the next day. She was distracted during most of it.

Would I watch it again?


Would I recommend it to a friend?

How did the U.S. feel about the Germans before entering the war?  This question is answered with utmost clarity in this film. It’s nice primer for all of the WWII films that followed once the world discovered how terrible it actually was.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Yes. While the film bordered on campy and Adam Sandler-esque humorous sentimentality — the love story might be as underdeveloped as a standard Bogart movie — the context and the film’s treatment of the period makes up for it.  Chaplin takes his work seriously, and no one does it like he did (starring, writing, production, direction, and score all at once is unheard of today). In an era when films were put in theaters as a means for people to escape the realities of poverty and world violence, Chaplin dared to write one that created the diversion we needed while presenting a hope we desired at the time and still strive for today.

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