The One about Charles Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”

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Audacious. A masterpiece. Chaplin’s greatest film ever. The greatest speech in a film.

Decade after decade, many critics, many audiences have had their own say of how they felt about “The Great Dictator”.

I truly believe that for many of us living today, far from those who watched the film and had to live through both World Wars, we look at this film and while we expect physical comedy, scenes that are hilarious and Chaplin being Chaplin, sometimes a few minutes can change the course of a film and make it something entirely different. In the case of “The Great Dictator”, when I first watched this film, I felt like clapping, hooting and just being proud of the words that were coming out of the mouth of the Jewish barber. It was so unexpected but it was Chaplin being bold, being brave and reaching out to the millions who have watched him and give them a personal message.

After all, there have been juxtapositions between Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. From the mustache, their upbringing and how both had captured the attention of millions, one through comedy, one through brutality and force. And as Adolf Hitler was invading and persecuting the Jews, at the time, Chaplin had no idea of the extent of the atrocities that Hitler and Nazi Germany has done but yet that speech he gave at the end was the cherry on the cake.

After using satire to make fun of Hitler and his men, he delivered the unexpected grand slam by giving a speech that was loud and clear. Well, for me it was. Hitler was the force of evil, Chaplin was the force of good.

And I say that because not everyone felt that way back then. Back in the ’50s, due to McCarthy-ism, many in America turned on Chaplin as being un-American. A decade after “The Great Dictator”, public sentiment was not exactly at its kindest for Charlie Chaplin and also many entertainers, radio hosts, screenwriters and filmmakers at the time were boycotted and Chaplin was upset at how he was treated that he renounced his American citizenship and made Switzerland his home, only to return back to the US when he received his Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1972.

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Each time I read about how critics lampooned Chaplin at the time is surprising and it was the sign of the times. Francois Truffaut once wrote,”Whenever I hear, ‘Now that Chaplin is taking himself seriously, his work is finished,’ I can’t help thinking that his work is beginning. An artist can create works for himself to “do himself good”, or “do good” for others.

Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote in his book “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” in regards to “The Great Dictator”, “But even his devastating parody of Hitler was discounted by audiences and critics on the grounds that the old comedy conventions were inadequate for the sleek new tyrannies. Only when absurdest modes of expression became the rage in the sixties and seventies could “The Great Dictator” be appreciated for the psychologically complex vision it provided through its stylized spectacles.”

When I read the various reviews from film critics from 1940 through the 1970′s, you can’t help but see how the times and the appreciation of this film would change. After all, if you lived in the ’40s and all you have heard is Hitler this and Hitler that, non-stop, especially if you grew tired of a war that last many years, you probably would want to tune-out as well.

But here we are. Over 70-years later and for me, “The Great Dictator” is a film that is bold, masterfully created, choreographed and performed with great efficacy, but without knowing the extent of the atrocities caused by Nazi Germany, what Chaplin was able to capture was one’s will to live. Those who are persecuted fought to survive, those who followed the dictatorship were fanatics, troglodytes that didn’t think for themselves but were people who were taught to think like their dictator.

But it was Chaplin who dared cross the man that he has been juxtaposed with. The other man with the similar mustache who rose to popularity like himself but chose a different path. And to think of today’s filmmakers, not being able to use a film as a platform to showcase their creativity, for the sake of making profit, there was no doubt that Chaplin had his back towards the wall, he risked everything for this film in the hopes that it would be successful but also understood.

“The Great Dictator” is a masterpiece that one must watch and experience in their lifetime. Sure, it’s not Chaplin, the silent tramp that silent fans may have fallen in love with but with “The Great Dictator”, Chaplin was able to make a statement to those who are persecuted, to those who are being oppressed and to think of the context of when this film was released and who the man that Chaplin himself was mocking. It makes you wonder if Hitler actually watched the film and if so, how he felt about it.

In the end, “The Great Dictator” is a film that showcases Chaplin as a genius and this is one masterpiece that I can easily give it 5-stars. Highly recommended!


 

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Dennis A. Amith