At the end of the Great War, one soldier (Charlie Chaplin) on the side of the antagonistic Tomania is having trouble keeping up with his countrymen and their lust for battle glory. He is supposed to be operating the huge cannon which is pointed at Notre Dame cathedral miles away, but the shell misses by quite some distance, and the second attempt leaves the following shell revolving on the ground nearby. When enemy planes fly overhead, the soldier is no better at shooting at them, and he ends up helping one Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), a pilot in trouble. But when he loses his memory in a crash, he is unaware of the path his country is taking...
Possibly Charles Chaplin's most controversial film, it's certainly the one which divides opinion into those who see it as an embarrassment and a case of bad judgement, and those who regard it as a vital and necessary attack on what was a looming and devastating menace to the free world. That menace was of course the Nazis and fascism in general, and Chaplin's main target was Adolf Hitler, who here is spoofed as the Adenoid Hynkel character - let us not forget many Americans did not see the big deal about his rise to power when this project was begun in the mid-thirties. So the question remains, how much did the filmmaker know about the Nazi atrocities when he was making the production?
According to Chaplin afterwards, he would not have made the film if he had known about the Holocaust and the persecution to the point of death of the minorities and left-wingers the fascists hated, but there are those who believe he was well aware of the situation in Europe and all that it entailed. It's hard to accept that the way in which Chaplin defends the Jews as he does here was not born out some kind of horror at their treatment, and at one point his Jewish barber character is sent to a concentration camp, although the character is not executed (he escapes).
The barber is the same man as the soldier we saw in the introduction, with the star playing two roles as the dictator and one of the victims of his regime. Also in the film is Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's wife at the time, playing the neighbour of the barber (who is never named) he falls in love with despite the dire circumstances they find themselves in. As they suffer in the ghetto, Hynkel closes his iron grip on the population and draws up his plans to invade other countries, an ambition encapsulated by the famous scene where he toys with a balloon of the globe as if it were his own personal plaything. The film is full of these outwardly humorous but actually grim passages, and that's part of the problem.
When Chaplin recreates the notorious speeches of Hitler, he uses a made up version of German to turn him into the cartoonish figure he seemed to those not part of his country in newsreel footage. It's a clever impersonation, as much of the skewering of this targets is clever, but is it funny? Not especially, largely because there's a steeliness behind every gag that might provoke a tacit nod of the head, but little to cause one to laugh out loud. The Great Dictator is all "I see what you did there", worthy of one who wishes to be taken seriously on the world stage without doing much for his reputation as a comedian. It is fascinating to witness one of the most famous men who ever lived squaring up to another, and there's no doubt that Chaplin comes off better, yet as the impassioned speech that climaxes the film shows, the best intentions do not make for brilliant works of art all on their own. Music by Meredith Willson.