Charlie Chaplin’s first movie with sound represented an end to silence in more ways than one. The star emerged from muteness by writing, directing, producing, scoring, distributing and starring in The Great Dictator, a film that culminates in a voice-giving sermon that sits comfortably at the top of any given search for ‘the greatest speech ever made’. This double-edged meaning to breaking silence is an example of the movie’s eerie prescience in every which way.
Looking back, it would seem that Charlie Chaplin’s entire life journey was woven into place by some mystic figures of fate so that he would arrive at a position to yield his power for positive change when the world needed it most. The biography of his life is an extraordinary tale of rags to riches and a legend of singular determined benevolence therein. He was a celestial superstar who propagated his powers for the greater good, and 132 years on from his birth, we’re looking back at his magnum opus of sound.
The year was 1940, and the Axis forces had already descended the world into war under a banner of fascism, antisemitism and Nazi ideologies. The American political discourse at the time was tentative and ambivalent. Charlie Chaplin sought to make a movie that would elucidate the dangers of fascism, stir up empathy for the persecuted European Jews and call for direct action. He achieved this daringly and unequivocally.
The film, as a result, is one of the most important in the history of cinema. The cause for celebration is not just in the poignant message that the movie imparted and the impact that it had, but the fact that, in order to achieve this, it had to exhibit everything that cinema can be. It disseminates a forthright message that was heeded because of how potently yet palatably it was produced. The movie depicts the absurdity of prejudice with humour, fosters empathy with an uncompromising heart, and rejoices meaning and hope through the inviolable power of story and speech, all the while avoiding the sinister clutches of succumbing to cynicism.
The crescendo of this life-affirming picture is a soliloquy so spiritually profound that it seems to have been harnessed from the ether of history. It is tempting to dole out the cliché that ‘the speech is as rousing now as it was then’ and there are various comments to that effect online, but quite frankly it is almost impossible to comprehend the way in which the movie must have tore out from the screen and seized the millions of Americans present in theatres with its unified cry of the commonality of man, and the imperative to help those in dire need across the ocean in Europe where millions were already mindlessly put to slaughter.
Chaplin’s entreaty was not proclaimed after the grim fact, or even at the height of it for that matter, but presciently as the world sat on a knife-edge — with heart and artistry, he tipped the balance the right direction.
Part of the reason that the film, and the famed speech, in particular, remains so profound to this day is not just owing to the inspiring historical artefact that it represents, or even the fact that it’s sadly still relevant; but because it illuminates a vital lesson for political art. The speech is imbued with undoubted power for a multitude of factors, but a few of the most pertinent ones are indicative of how best to propagate political artistry moving forward.
For one, it is not just what Chaplin says in the speech but the undeniable sincerity with which he is saying it. That is not only a showcase of phenomenal acting, his eyes locked on the future of us all with the touching nerve of a child, but the transcendent power of a soulful entreaty. The film also offers hope.
It might sound simple, but in times of despair and uncertainty — as it was in America at the time — shining a light on suffering through the lens of what was possible on the other side was, and is, what makes the film so poignant and powerful. The world is tired of postmodernist irony, and when push comes to shove, it just doesn’t have the same strength as sincerity in times of need.
The challenges that the world will face moving forward should be reconciled with this vital narrative and what the film was able to achieve with it. The humanised power of hope is simply more affecting than cynicism and despair, and when it is coupled with the subversive vigour of art, changes can be made. Whether they are huge or near negligible, they will be valuable all the same.