In the autumn of 1938, when the Munich Agreement was being signed in Europe, Charles Chapin was putting the finishing touches to the first draft of a script written in the greatest secrecy. Rumour had it that the creator of the Tramp had decided to make his first talking film. Moreover, it was said that he would be playing the part of a character inspired by Adolf Hitler.
Finally, after the long and painstaking process of revising and then directing, Chaplin presented The Great Dictator in New York on October 15th 1940. The historical circumstances in which he had found himself during those two years were quite extraordinary. His native country, England, had declared war at the beginning of September 1939, but the United States, where he had been living as a permanent resident – but British citizen – since 1913, had resolved to keep out of the conflict that was to bathe the Old Continent in blood.
By waging war against Hitler via the silver screen, Chaplin was making a personal commitment and, albeit with more gravitas, repeating the experience of Shoulder Arms. Even before shooting began, The Great Dictator had enraged German and British diplomats posted in the United States and brought Chaplin to the forefront of celebrities harassed by the House of Un-American Activities.
This struggle in favour of a democratic idea of peace is in itself reason enough for the historian’s interest. Chaplin, however, added to the credits of The Great Dictator the following warning; “Any resemblance between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental.” This was a playful way of hinting that what was really at stake was not so much Chaplin’s double role but the tension between him and his twin, the Tramp. Up to now the Little Tramp had conveyed an experience of the world through the language of pantomime, and because he embodied no national identity and spoke no mother tongue, he had touched the hearts of spectators everywhere. His immense success rested on popular acclaim but also on the recognition of intellectuals, especially in France in the 1920s, where many artists and authors praised his genius.
Getting Charlie to speak also meant putting to death this character that had made his creator famous and taking the risk of exposing himself without a mask. Does the declamatory speech at the end of The Great Dictator betray Chaplin’s inability to sustain the aesthetic and comic register all the way through to the end of the film? Chaplin was well aware of these issues, which is why he wrote the words “First picture in which the story is bigger than the Little Tramp.”
Chaplin’s real history was not just the one he was facing up to, but also the one he was recounting by combining the characters of the Tramp and the Jewish barber in the image of the “pariah”.
The final speech from the film is Chaplin's Magnus Opus.
The full speech is transcribed below -
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone - if possible - Jew, Gentile - black man - white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness - not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men - cries out for universal brotherhood - for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world - millions of despairing men, women, and little children - victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. …..
Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes - men who despise you - enslave you - who regiment your lives - tell you what to do - what to think and what to feel! Who drill you - diet you - treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate - the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” - not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power - the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then - in the name of democracy - let us use that power - let us all unite. Let us fight 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. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight 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. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!