At the end of the First World War a clumsy solider ends up in the hospital for twenty years with amnesia. When released he goes back to his barber shop unaware that his country is now being ruled by a tyrant of a dictator, who he happens to be the spitting image of and one day gets mistaken for.
Charlie Chaplin’s (though billed as Charles in this film) first full length all sound picture, The Great Dictator was a ground breaking in its time for its anti-fascism. When the film first started production in 1937 the world hardly knew of the atrocities Hitler was doing. Charlie decided to do the film after a friend of his told him how much he looked like Hitler. After learning they were born a week apart, were the same height and weight, Charlie decided to use these similarities to make a strong political statement. What came of it is the classic film The Great Dictator.
The film starts off in an elaborate war scene where Charlie plays a hapless solider (who is never named in the movie and only goes by “The Barber”). After many comic high jinks that showcase Charlie’s silent film powers The Barber narrowly escapes the enemy and saves the life of a military pilot named Schultz. Only to suffer amnesia and be put in a hospital for over twenty years.
When The Barber leaves the hospital he goes back to his barbershop unaware that the menacing Dictator Adenoid Hynkel now rules his beloved country of Tomania. He starts a romance with Hannah, (Paulette Goddard, his real life wife at the time) the girl next door to his shop after getting into a fight with Hynkel’s Storm Troopers because he has no clue of the new rules. Everyone thinks he is heroic for standing up for their rights when in reality he his oblivious to the plight of the country. When the commander comes to reprimand him, to his luck, it is Schultz, the man he saved years before, who is now a high commander. He tells the troopers to leave the ghetto alone and things are fine, for a while.
Meanwhile Dictator Hynkel decides to take over a neighboring country. When Schultz disagrees with his actions, he is sent to jail along with the Barber. The two eventually escape from prison dressed in full military garb. Hynkel, happens to be hunting that day in civilian clothing. The guards arrest Hynkel thinking he’s the Barber while The Barber gets mistaken for the great dictator. Though this film is almost seventy years old, the comedy within it holds up well. At fifty years old Charlie was still pulling off physical comedy that shows why he is still the greatest comedian of all time. Though at times some sketches tend to go on too long. One particularly hysterical speech by Charlie playing the dictator is made up of nothing but gibberish with a fake German accent! Though funny, at almost six minutes long it gets a bit old.
Some of the highlights of the film are the last screen appearance of Charlie in the Tramp outfit (though he says this is not a tramp film), the patriotic, passionate end speech and the now famous “globe dance” as Hynkel dances with a giant blown up globe. All of which are worth a watch.
At times the morals are a bit heavy handed. Watching it in the context of when it came out and how Charlie was one of the first people ever to denounce Hitler and make fun of him in such a public way, is truly remarkable.