The Great Dictator opens in 1918, during a decisive battle for the Tomainian Army. One of the soldiers is a nameless Jewish barber, who ends up saving a wounded pilot named Schultz. As they’re escaping, the plane crashes, and the barber receives a concussion which wipes out his memory. As a result, he spends the next 20 years in hospital.
We’re then introduced to Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomainia, who gives a speech in a German-sounding language. After this frenetic rant, he falls down the stairs, and is then compelled to pose with a baby and get flowers from his young female admirers.
The barber meanwhile has just escaped the hospital, and returned to the Jewish ghetto. He has no idea what’s been going on, and arrives to find his shop overrun by cats and covered in cobwebs, with the windows defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti. His attempts to fix his windows are met with ire by Stormtroopers, but he’s saved when Schultz comes driving up and recognizes him. Schultz gives orders for the barber to be left alone.
We then go back and forth among scenes of the barber and Hynkel. Hynkel deals with official business (some of which he’s quite annoyed by) and plots to invade Osterlich, while the barber re-establishes his business and begins courting Hannah, Chaplin’s real-life common-law wife of the time, Paulette Goddard. Another ghetto resident is the comedy legend Chester Conklin, with whom Chaplin previously starred in three 1914 shorts and his 1936 classic Modern Times.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Hynkel dances with an inflatable globe as he daydreams about becoming Emperor of the World. Conditions in the ghetto worsen, and Schultz is arrested when he protests Hynkel’s newest anti-Jewish measure. Schultz attempts to hide in the ghetto, but both he and the barber are caught. The others flee to Osterlich, and Hynkel allies with dictator Napaloni.
Schultz and the barber escape in stolen uniforms, and the barber is mistaken for Hynkel, while Hynkel is mistaken for the barber and arrested while duck-hunting in civilian clothes. The barber and Schultz have ended up at a huge rally waiting for Hynkel to give a speech. The barber is terrified, but Schultz implores him to speak, since it’s their only hope.
The speech which closes the film is one of the most powerful moments in film history. Some people criticize it because they think it’s just Chaplin speaking to the camera instead of a naturally-flowing part of the film, but I feel it’s absolutely perfect. This speech always gives me goosebumps. Chaplin was that rare comedian with the gift of being able to make people both laugh and cry, at all the right moments.
The film was extremely popular in both the U.S. and Great Britain, even though the U.S. was formally at peace with Germany and Britain was still pursuing that ridiculous appeasement policy while the film was in production. The British government had announced they’d ban the film, but by the time of its release, war had been declared and the horse had already galloped off the property.
The film was banned in several Latin American countries, due to how many Nazi sympathizers lived there, and also banned in many places in Europe. When it was belatedly released in France in 1945, it became the year’s most popular film. It eventually earned a total of $11 million worldwide.
In total, The Great Dictator was nominated for five Academy Awards, though it didn’t win any. In 1997, the Library of Congress chose it for inclusion in the U.S. National Film Registry on account of its great cultural importance. This was to be Chaplin’s last popular film in its original theatrical run, since he soon fell from grace on account of his politics and personal life. This smear campaign involved a paternity lawsuit, four FBI charges, and his marriage to 18-year-old Oona O’Neill when he was 54. Thankfully, his reputation recovered near the end of his life, and he’s now rightly recognized as one of our great cultural icons.
However, I do feel the film is rather bloated, at just over two hours. Many scenes are too long or don’t really move the plot along. About 30–40 minutes could’ve easily been edited out for a tighter focus. I usually love films over two hours long, but this isn’t a story suited to such a long length.