The Great Dictator (1940)

the-great-dictator

Director: Charlie Chaplin Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell

After spending years in a hospital recovering from memory loss brought on from an accident in the First World War, a Jewish barber returns to his old neighbourhood to find it is suffering persecution under the rule of a new dictator. Meanwhile the dictator himself struggles to assert his new authority.

I think the most interesting aspect of the film is putting it into the context of when it was made- 1940, as the Second World War was really starting to get underway. Post-war films have often struggled about how to portray Hitler and the persecution of the Jewish people, and for many years film-makers avoided it altogether, not wanting to provoke controversy. However The Great Dictator is both an amusing satire that successfully pokes fun at Hitler and the politics of the time, as well as a poignant and powerful portrayal of what was then the present-day reality of Germany under the Nazi regime. The film was made before the full extent of the atrocities in Europe were known, and so perhaps benefitted from not having the pressure to consider the extreme aspects of the Second World War that we now know.

Subject matter aside, the film (which was Chaplin’s first “talkie”) is pleasantly amusing. There’s plenty of Chaplin’s signature slapstick, as well as some clever satire which is still funny almost 80 years later. One particular scene in which Hynkel and Napaloni (Chaplin’s portrayals of Hitler and Mussolini respectively) can’t work out whether to shake hands or salute had me reminiscing about a Dad’s Army style of humour.

While I wouldn’t say that the film is light, it’s certainly not your usual intense Second World War drama (no Das Boot levels of tension here). It’s enjoyable, but quite clearly makes its points about fascism. It’s also considered a classic on a number of levels, so certainly worth a watch.

5 stars

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