Friday, March 02, 2007


I have a great deal of respect for Charlie Chaplin - as a director, comedian and as a man fully engaged in the political issues of his time. (Any man so viciously persecuted by J.Edgar Hoover can't be half bad.) The silent movies featuring The Tramp take us into the world of the homeless, the hungry, the abandoned and the new immigrant and not a few times leave us with a tear in our eye once the belly-laughs have subsided. But while a rich vein of humanitarian concern was present in all Chaplin's earlier films, who could have predicted the brilliant union of physical comedy and political satire contained in THE GREAT DICTATOR?

It is an admirably brave and politically prescient movie in which Chaplin plays on the similarity between his tooth-brush moustachio'd Tramp and Adolf Hitler to create a spoof character: Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania. Chaplin captures with eery brilliance the oratorical style of Hitler - the increasing frenzy and cadences - through speaking in a gobble-de-gook language littered with chilling references to "Juden". But he also captures the absurdity of aggressive competition, not least in the games of one-up-manship between Hynkel and Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria. And let's not forget the famous scene in which Hynkel dreams of conquering the globe, performing a little ballet with an inflatable globe and bouncing it off his bottom.

Meanwhile, Chaplin also plays a Jewish barber - a typical kind-hearted but unempowered Chaplin protagonist. The slow process by which and his tentative girlfriend (Paulette Godard) come to realise the straits they're in is heart-breaking. But by chance, the barber helped save an important Tomanian General in World War One, and when that General decides to do a Stauffenberg, he enlists the barber's help. By a series of pratt-falls, the barber is switched with Hynkel on the eve of the Osterlichian anschluss, giving the barber his chance to speak to the world.

THE GREAT DICTATOR is an unabashedly funny film, which is itself a brave gesture given the target it is mocking. It is prescient, in that Chaplin was planning to expose the sinister basis of Hitler's mesemerising oratory when Western politicians were still appeasing him. And it is, I think, one of the most perceptive pieces of work about the human failings and insecurities that go towards making a popular demagogue tick and making us fall for them, for a while at least. It's truly a pantheon movie. No surprise that the Academy overlooked it then....

THE GREAT DICTATOR was released in 1940 and is available on DVD.

Here's the speech in full......

......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 as 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!

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