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Charlie Chaplin’s Timeless Appeal for Peace in the WWII Satire “The Great Dictator”

Matthew Gaskill
Chaplin in The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 movie The Great Dictator is recognized as a cinematic masterpiece.

It was not only a great comedy but a comment on the times and a great political satire. No one was or is in any doubt who The Great Dictator was meant to lampoon – Adolf Hitler.

Though Chaplin had tried to make a talkie previously, The Great Dictator was his first true talking picture. Chaplin had continued to make silent movies well into the talking picture era, believing that silent movies could bridge chasms created by language.

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator

Remember, Chaplin was working in the first years of popular motion pictures and not many people at the time could imagine dubbing, foreign language subtitles that worked in tandem with the actors, etc.

Chaplin’s popularity at the box office suffered because of sound pictures, but everyone recognized that it wasn’t because the man lacked talent – it was that technology had passed silent movies by. Chaplin was one of the most recognized figures in the world, and his “Little Tramp” was a beloved character.

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp.

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp.

Chaplin was more than comfortable economically and didn’t have to make another movie in his life, but as the 1930s wore on, the British actor, like many people at the time, was alarmed by events in Europe.

At a New York screening of the infamous Nazi propaganda film “the Triumph of the Will,” Chaplin was joined by his friend, French director René Clair, who was terrified of the film and the trance-like subservience of the people in the Nazi rallies depicted in the film.

Hitler congratulates Riefenstahl on the premiere of Triumph of the Will, 1934. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99035 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Hitler congratulates Riefenstahl on the premiere of Triumph of the Will, 1934. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99035 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Chaplin recognized the power of the film but saw in Hitler a pathetically comic character, and the screening provided the seeds of Chaplin’s film, which he began work on in 1938-39.

The movie is a take on the old tale of a look-a-like. Chaplin plays two characters: “The Barber,” a Jewish war veteran who simply wants to live his life with his wife to be and her family, and the dictator, humorously named “Adenoid Hynkel.”

Chaplin satirizing Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940)

Chaplin satirizing Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940)

The story follows both of them: the Jewish barber is a war veteran who is now being persecuted, like many others in the fictional nation of “Tomainia,” and the anti-Semitic Hynkel, who is surrounded by his yes men and fellow dictator (Goering/ “Herring,” Goebbels/ “Garbitsch,” Mussolini/ “Napaloni”).

Also, there is Schultz, a friend of the Barber and fellow veteran who finally sees the truth about his leader and joins with the Barber to overthrow him.

The film is both comedic and dramatic and was the forerunner of the 1997 Oscar winner Life is Beautiful, which also took a “comedic” look at the Holocaust.

The end of Chaplin’s film is probably its most remembered part – the Barber has become the Great Dictator through a case of mistaken identity and delivers a speech to his gathered troops, but it’s not a call for war and hate, but a plea for love and understanding.

Charlie Chaplin as Hynkel the Dictator of Tomania in the film The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin as Hynkel the Dictator of Tomania in the film The Great Dictator

 

Charlie Chaplin had two things in common with Adolf Hitler: a mustache and the fact that they were born in the same week in the same year. The fact that every time someone looked at his “Little Tramp” movies, they would now think of Hitler bothered Chaplin no end. In the late 1930s, a popular English comic wrote a hit song titled “Who is that Man? (That looks like Charlie Chaplin?)

Though Chaplin hated Hitler and everything he stood for, he did admire one quality of the German tyrant – his acting ability.

The comedian had seen the infamous Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will in 1935, and while it terrified his friends, Chaplin thought it hilarious, and Hitler one of the greatest actors of his day.

Chaplin with Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni.

Chaplin with Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni.

He wasn’t far wrong – Hitler rehearsed his speaking technique endlessly in the years before he came to power, and his mannerisms and normal speaking voice were very different from what you hear on stage.

During WWII, a Finnish recording engineer secretly recorded a meeting between Hitler and Finnish leader Mannerheim – the Führer’s voice is nothing like what people were used to hearing.

Chaplin’s films had been banned in Germany since the Nazis took power in 1933, as they erroneously believed he was Jewish. Chaplin had been immensely popular in Germany (and everywhere else) in the years before the war, but The Great Dictator was not seen by many, for obvious reasons.

However, a black-market copy was smuggled into Yugoslavia during the war. The Resistance substituted a German film for the Chaplin movie, and it was shown to a theater full of German officers.

Chaplin in the globe scene

Chaplin in the globe scene

At first, they thought it was funny – the movie was in English with no German subtitles. Eventually, however, they got the gist and were NOT happy: many left, but others pulled their pistols and shot at the screen.

Another person reported having seen the movie was Hitler. This was told to Chaplin by a refugee during the war.

The comedian always wondered what Hitler had made of the movie, but most people can probably guess.

Portrait of Adolf Hitler. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA

Portrait of Adolf Hitler. Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA

As more and more information about the horrors going on in occupied Europe reached England, Chaplin began to regret having made the film.

He publicly stated that had he known the full extent of what the Nazis were doing and planned to do, he would never have made the movie.

Still, despite its creator, the film was immensely popular, though some on the extreme right in England and the United States believed it to be “pro-communist,” because in its speech at the end, Chaplin speaks about equal rights and the horror of war.

Chaplin’s uniform as Hynkel in The Great Dictator. Photo by Rama CC BY-SA 3.0 fr

Chaplin’s uniform as Hynkel in The Great Dictator. Photo by Rama CC BY-SA 3.0 fr

Others, including the very conservative Daughter of the American Revolution, loved the film, and even asked Chaplin to deliver the ending speech at one of their fund-raising rallies in support of the war effort, which he did.

The film was still controversial years after its release. It was not until 2002 that an unedited version of the movie was shown in Italy. This was not because of the characterization of Mussolini, but because of an unflattering portrayal of his wife, who lived until 1979.

It was not until the 21st century that the Italians were able to get a full version of the movie. Likewise, Fascist Spain banned the movie until dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975 though he was not included in the film.

Read another story from us: Grave Snatchers Once Held Charlie Chaplin’s Body for Ransom

In one final dig against Hitler, Chaplin used Hitler’s favorite music, that of the composer Richard Wagner, in the end, scene of The Great Dictator, in which the Barber speaks about the coming liberation of the Jews.