The last two Sundays, I’ve written about Shakespeare and the Beatles. Keeping with this theme of all-time-great artistic geniuses who were British, I will write today about Charlie Chaplin—and in particular, his satirical classic, The Great Dictator.
I first saw this film in 1997 or 98. It happened to be on AMC that night, and I happened to catch it just as it was starting. I’d never seen a Chaplin movie before, and I was expecting it to be 1) dated, 2) silent, and 3) overrated. It was none of those things. Watching the film, I was stunned at how good it was, how topical, and how funny. Clearly Mel Brooks and Woody Allen watched a lot of Chaplin, because so much of their humor has its antecedent here.
The plot of The Great Dictator concerns a Jewish barber (played by Chaplin) who is injured in the Great War and develops a case of amnesia. He returns to the ghetto after 20 years in hospital to find a very different world. The country of Tomainia, for which he fought in the war, has been taken over by a dictator named Adenoid Hynkel—who bears a striking resemblance to another strongman with the initials A.H.: same physical size, same mannerisms, same spit-speckled oratory, same Charlie Chaplin moustache. But instead of a Swastika, there is (ha!) a Double Cross.
This is Chaplin’s first “talkie.” And boy, does he talk!
Chaplin was inspired to make The Great Dictator after watching Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. While others watched the movie in horror, terrified at the power of its propaganda, Chaplin saw right through it. Read more….