The Greater Dictator
The Short Version
The Long Version
“You must speak.” “I can’t.” “You must.”
The Great Dictator stands as one of Charlie Chaplin’s most enduring and famous films, for any number of reasons. It was his first entirely sound film, it was an anti-Nazi film before it was fashionable in the United States, it was a Jewish man commenting on – and portraying – the most vehement anti-Semite of the 20th Century. It’s most famous sequence is generally held to be the “Dance of the World” bit in the middle, a visually surprising comic set-piece regarded as the funniest bit in the film. I agree that it is the funniest part of the film. But it is not its best.
The final part of the film is also very famous, an impassioned speech following from a classic case of identity mix-up. Yet, to my knowledge, the full depth and mastery of this sequence has not been fully explored. Many dismiss it as too preachy, or too at-odds with the comic tone of the film (and Charlie himself); others will accept it as a righteous act of resistance against fascism. I do not disagree with any of you: it is preachy, it isn’t funny, and it is certainly anti-fascist.
And yet, there is so very much more embedded within these few minutes, yet these elements never seem to get much attention. Amidst all the talk of tyranny and democracy, the speech is itself a fascinating historical document, not only of anti-fascist sentiment but also of Charlie himself. He placed a great many ideals and philosophies into this little speech, touching, directly or indirectly, on subjects that had nothing to do with the tribulations of Europe but informed his own view of the world. But in 1939, when he began work on the film, these assumptions were under attack: this speech was his response. It was a speech that was absolutely a product of its exact instant in time, that in fact could only be delivered by a pantomimist named Charlie.
“You must speak.” “I can’t.”...