The Enduring Gravity of Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”

The Great Dictator is a 1940 American film starring, written, produced, scored, and directed by Charlie Chaplin. This was Chaplin’s first true talking picture as well as his most commercially successful film. Today this 80-year-old film is not only still startlingly poignant, but staggeringly relevant. The Great Dictator is arguably Charlie Chaplin’s best and most important film, and is, for good reason, considered by many to be one of the best films ever made.

The Great Dictator – The Criterion Collection

Years after the First World War the nation of Tomania has fallen under the dictatorship of Adenoid Hynkel, a ruthless fascist dictator. Meanwhile a Jewish Tomainian barber, and war veteran, witnesses the persecution of the Jews ghetto. This barber is spared such persecution by Commander Schultz, whose life he saved in the war. But when Hynkel’s drive for an Aryan nation and world domination demands the Jews of Tomania be rounded up and imprisoned, the barber and Commander Shultz find themselves on the front line of the resistance. Ending with The Barber delivering a speech in which he calls for peace and compassion while impersonating Hynkel.

At the time of its first release, the United States was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Chaplin’s film advanced a burgeoning condemnation of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini’s fascism, anti-Semitism, and the Nazis, in the United States.  Chaplin stated that he wouldn’t have made the film had he known about the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.  However, one could argue that without his film many would not have found the courage to stand against the march of fascism.

Chaplin worked for years to make The Great Dictator, by best guesses he started working on this in 1935, after seeing Triumph of the Will a German Nazi propaganda film.  He risked his fortune, studio, reputation, and even his life. The historical attributes of this film and the circumstances around its making are endlessly fascinating. The Great Dictator is 80 years old in 2020 but doesn’t feel 80, it feels as though it could have premiered in 2016.

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator – The Criterion Collection

This remarkably funny film is a superb way to introduce a pretty serious subject to generations that may not recognize fascism, or even Nazism walking the streets today. The Great Dictator may server another critical purpose in the modern age. Considered one of the first great works of cinematic satire with a serious political repudiation. The Great Dictator plays a vital role in the introduction of satire to an audience that may lack the experience to recognize or understand satirical works.

Germany began the invasion of Poland in September of 1939, the same month Chaplin started filming The Great Dictator.  The United States was just climbing out of the great depression.  Things were not exactly looking good for humanity. The world of 1939 bears some startling resemblance to the world of 2019, and The Great Dictator may provide the impetus to once again save the world from the grip of rising fascism.

 

About Kyle J. Steenblik

Kyle J. Steenblik is a resident of Davis County Utah, husband, and father of two children. A local film critic, author, and Podcaster (Utah Outcasts, The Nerd Dome Podcast), with a passion for comedy, fantasy, art, the natural world, science, and discovery, and road trips to various landmarks, and historical sites around the United States. Kyle has been a longtime activist in the hopes of leaving the world a better place for his children. Whether that is through standing up to inequality, injustice, or by adding a little laughter or a good story.