|Chaplin with Gandhi, London, 1931|
Perhaps you have heard of Charlie Chaplin, the “Silent Clown” so famous for his slapstick films of the silent-movie era. But his most commercially successful film–and perhaps his most prophetic–was actually a “talkie.” Released in 1940, when the United States was still at peace with Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator was almost entirely a product of his creative genius. He wrote it, he produced it, he directed it, he starred in it. Notably, it was the very first feature film to satirize and condemn the antisemitic and fascist policies of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Chaplin was an admirer of Gandhi. His son, Charles, Jr., would later recall “how admiringly he spoke of Mahatma Gandhi…not only one of the most brilliant men he’d ever met, but one of the most godlike as well” (My Father, Charlie Chaplin, p. 339). The actor was inspired by Gandhi’s choice to live in solidarity with the poor and the outcast. He was also impressed by Gandhi’s assertion that supreme independence requires shedding all that is unnecessary. He regarded this principle as the foundation of Gandhi’s argument against the varieties of “machinery” that destroy human beings politically, economically, socially and spiritually. That he shared Gandhi’s perspective on this point is quite evident in The Great Dictator.
In this film Chaplin plays a Jewish barber trying to survive in the fictional nation of Tomania (i.e., Germany). Toward the end of the movie, his character is mistaken for the country’s ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel (i.e., Adolf Hitler), with whom he shares a remarkable resemblance. (Chaplin was playing both roles.) Made to deliver a victory speech in front of a massive military crowd and also over the radio to the entire nation, the Jewish barber instead rails against “machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts.” He begs his people to unite as human beings, to “fight [nonviolently] for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security.”
“Let us fight,” he cries, “to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness!”
The Jewish barber’s speech, of which I’ve quoted just a few lines, is the rousing climax of the film. Its delivery is so passionate that I agree with those critics who believe that Chaplin stepped totally out of character to speak the words from his heart. Comedic commentary this is not. It is an ardent humanitarian appeal. Today, if we forgive the sexist language of his day, Chaplin’s final speech as The Great Dictator continues to resonate powerfully. Such is the timeless nature of prophecy. It testifies to Truth, just as a finger points toward the moon. Truth, like the moon, is unchanging.
I invite you to watch the Silent Clown deliver his plea to Tomania in the video below. It is a plea to us as well. It is a plea to that within us which too readily obeys, and becomes, The Machine; to that within us which can resolutely rise up and resist The Machine. The original film clip has been remixed in this version with news footage and music by Hans Zimmer. Generations after Chaplin, its claim upon us is as contemporary as ever.
(Note: If for some reason you can’t see the viewer above, please click here to watch the video.)