Film: The Great Dictator (1939)

If you like watching classic movies then HMV stores in the UK have got an interesting mix of classic and recent DVDs: 2 for £10, 5 for £20.

Having just recently pruned our home DVD collection, I wheeled into the store with my housemates, crying: “we can look but buy nothing”.  Ten minutes later, we walked out – they had indeed bought nothing; I was clutching 5 newly purchased DVDs.  But one of them was “The Great Dictator” and I have over-justifications for all the others….

This film was made in a very different time to ours, when world leaders were preoccupied with trying to look more important than each other, minorities were being persecuted periodically for no reason, leaders made sweeping decisions which brought misery to millions on a whim, world leaders were living in huge palatial houses while security forces carried out random acts of bullying violence in certain neighbourhoods and…. oh wait….


Well, at least satire can make us laugh at times.

“The Great Dictator” is Charlie Chaplin both thumbing his nose at Hitler and Mussolini (who were at the apex of their power and looking unassailable), and urging people to maintain human rights.

Is it worth watching?  I’d say a hearty ‘yes’.  It’s always healthy to see posturing world leaders being self-important and ridiculous at the same time.  And to appreciate that we have the freedom to view it – France did not see the film until after its occupation was ended, in 1945 – they loved it.  The iconic scene is where the Dictator plays with a globe of the world.  But as well as that, there is fun to be had from the start, where the character of the little German Jewish barber fights in WW1, through watching the arrival of the self-important Mussolini-type character, and of how the two dictators wrangle for the upper hand, and the interactions of Mussolini with his sidekicks.  There is also a food fight.  More seriously, but important to see, are the random thuggish attacks of violence against the Jewish ghetto – how this comes and goes in unpredictable waves – and what it is like to be on the run for your life.  The violence is obviously sanitized as it is a comedy – but there is enough pace and attack to get a fleeting sense of the randomness and unexpectedness of what happens to those on the receiving end.

Be aware: The running length is 2 hours, which does feel long to our eyes.  But bear in mind that this film was made 80 years ago, for an audience used to a whole evening at the cinema – with double bills, B movies, and newsreels.

As it is a budget buy, unsurprisingly there are few extras.  There is an interview with the Greek/French film director Costa-Gavras (who specialized in political and comedic films) who gives key comments on the times in which the film was made.  He points out that Chaplin wrote the script in 1937/8, when Hitler was viewed as someone who had brought full employment and stability to Germany, with large firms keen to do business with Germany.  However, Chaplin was “a visionary – he saw what was going to happen later.”  

“While Charlie Chaplin, film-maker and clown, in a certain way looked into history and he saw the future – while the great spiritual and political leaders of the world couldn’t see it and remained on Hitler’s side”    – Costa-Gavras

He began writing and planning it, aware of some of the persecutions of Jews, as the stream of European refugees reached America.  However, later, he apparently said that if he had known the full scale of the genocide, he would not have made a comedy around the figure who caused it.

As Britain scrabbled to try and make peace agreements with Hitler, the plans for film production were proceeding to begin….. so by the time Britain finally declared war with Germany, 6 days later the shooting schedule began.


It was a gamble.  The great silent film actor made his first fully talking film.  He also jettisoned his familiar tramp character.  And in the film, he makes a serious, rousing speech. He poured his own money into it – around 1.5 million dollars.  And it was personal – he was working in it with Paulette Goddard – and on its opening night, he formally announced she was his wife.

In my personal opinion, it is worth watching as a film, because it speaks to its times and, more worryingly, it speaks to ours also.



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