The Great Dictator (1940)

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People who are kind enough to read many of my reviews will know that I like to be as vague and spoiler-free as possible. Even when discussing something as well-known as Psycho or Planet Of The Apes I don’t like to spoil anything for anyone visiting the movie for the first time. I’m going to make a slight exception here with my review of The Great Dictator. I don’t think that, seen out of context, the lengthy speech I will be quoting at the end of the main review actually DOES spoil anything for those who have yet to see the movie but it’s certainly an integral and amazing piece of cinema that I feel deserves, even demands, full reproduction here. And please feel free to stop reading once you get closer to the quotation if you want to savour every syllable of that impassioned plea when it appears onscreen.

But first, let’s get the main review written for a movie that may not be Chaplin’s very best (I still go with Modern Times for that choice) but certainly stands up as one of the most astounding pieces of work to have ever been put out to audiences by a comic actor. It’s the story, funnily enough, of a great dictator (played by Chaplin) and the way he ruins his country with his mad schemes. It’s also the story of a gentle, Jewish barber (also played by Chaplin) who finds the will and strength to fight back thanks to his own moral compass and the support of the beautiful Hannah (played by the luminescent Paulette Goddard). While the stormtroopers go about causing pain and misery, the dictator gets bigger and bigger ideas that keep moving things from the absurd to the ridiculous, best epitomised in the scenes showing his power struggle with Napaloni (another dictator, played by Jack Oakie).

It may not be a movie that always moves at the right pace or has enough laughs in the balance of the material but The Great Dictator certainly has some great set-pieces throughout (the beginning is hilarious, a sequence involving puddings containing coins made me laugh out loud for the entirety of it and many people will already be well aware of the wonderful scene in which Chaplin dances around with an inflatable globe).

Written and directed by Chaplin, the main purpose of the film is to use comedy and absurdity to highlight the damage caused by dangerous individuals who choose to lead their people to the brink of oblivion in order to further their own power-grabbing agenda. It also, more generally, points toward the ridiculousness of war altogether and makes a plea for harmony and co-operation amongst individuals to move forward as a people. This may seem ridiculously naive and idealistic but it’s also something, like a lot of humour, that was, and indeed still is, necessary to offer audiences. It’s not providing the solution that is verbalised by Chaplin but it is showing people that there are others who feel exactly the same way as they do. It shows that any human being can make a stand and point out the huge failings apparent in the schemes of “superiors”. And just knowing that other people do think the same and will act when the time is right can be enough to start some positive thoughts snowballing into something that changes the ways of a society. Or maybe I’m just as naive and idealistic.

The cast are all faultless. Chaplin, in both roles, remains a figure at the very top of the comedy ladder for good reason and his timing and expressions here remind you of just why his movies remain a source of amusement to many. Paulette Goddard is spirited and beautiful, even more adorable here than she was in the superb Modern Times. Reginald Gardiner is just fine with his stiff upper-lip holding up even in the face of mounting adversity and Jack Oakie is very funny, in a number of scenes throughout the second half that help to break up the developing bleakness of the premise.

I really wouldn’t understand anyone arguing against this movie as a classic. It IS funny, it IS wonderful and it IS hugely important for both what it represents and the emotional heart that beats within almost every frame.

And here is that entire speech, so deserving of the space given to it:

“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. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. 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. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite! Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up Hannah! The clouds are lifting! The sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world; a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow! Into the light of hope, into the future! The glorious future, that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up!”

WRITER/DIRECTOR: CHARLES CHAPLIN
STARS: CHARLES CHAPLIN, PAULETTE GODDARD, JACK OAKIE, REGINALD GARDINER, HENRY DANIELL, BILLY GILBERT
RUNTIME: 125 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★½

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