“I remain just one thing, and one thing only, and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.” For Charlie Chaplin, making people laugh was part of who he was. Having made his name as a star of silent cinema in the 1920s, it took him the better part of a decade to embrace new technologies and make his first talking film. It was worth the wait. When The Great Dictator premiered in New York on October 15, 1940, Chaplin showed the world just how much power words can have.

With this film the director offers a twist on his much-loved Little Tramp character. Here he plays a Jewish barber living in the fictional nation of Tomainia, suffering from war-wound-caused amnesia and blissfully unaware of the fascist, anti-Semitic dictator who now rules over his homeland. He also plays the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel. A blatant caricature of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, The Great Dictator sparked controversy even before it finished production.

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Courtesy of: United Artists

This wasn’t the first Hollywood film to satirise Hitler – that claim belongs to The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy – but it has gone on to be considered the most successful. Initially the outlook was bleak. Written throughout 1938 and ’39, it was a time when the world was on the brink of conflict, and Chaplin’s latest project (as it then was) seemed certain to run into censorship issues. This caused great concern not just for United Artists, but for Chaplin too, even before filming started – just six days after the outbreak of World War Two.

In his autobiography the filmmaker recalls how he received hateful letters from people threatening to throw stink bombs in the theatres, shoot up the screens, and start riots – all before production on The Great Dictator had finished. “But I was determined to go ahead,” he reflects, “for Hitler must be laughed at.” That said, Chaplin expressed that had he known the extent of the travesties Hitler was responsible for then this film would never have been made.

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Courtesy of: United Artists

The first time we see Chaplin as Hynkel he’s standing in front of a parapet lined with microphones addressing the nation – and everyone watching this film. What follows is both amusing in its absurdity and testament to the power of speech. In a pitch-perfect parody of Hitler, he speaks largely in vaguely Germanic gibberish (intended to be his native Tomainian) to rapturous applause he has a ludicrous degree of control over. His intonation is so impassioned that microphones literally bow before him, while a translator censors out any and all violent meanings (no matter how much his words and gestures give those meanings away).

Of course, Chaplin’s humour remains largely physical, particularly in his portrayal of the Barber – a character devised, much like the Little Tramp, as being “more or less silent.” On the battlefields of World War One he tries to outrun a smoking bomb. On the streets of the ghetto he shakes off a hit to the head by waltzing along the curb. Inside his barbershop he shaves a man in movements synchronised to Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance No. 5.” There’s a great degree of physicality at play with the character of Hynkel, too. One of the films most memorable scenes sees the dictator lost in his delusions of grandeur, dancing gracefully with an inflatable globe – the same world he dreams of conquering – until he causes it to burst and promptly bursts into tears.

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Courtesy of: United Artists

Chaplin’s affinity for physical comedy is reflected by his co-stars, too. Paulette Goddard shines as Hannah, as ready to hit a stormtrooper over the head with a frying pan as she is to lose herself in contemplations about the ephemeral nature of life. But more than for comedy, Goddard’s character is captivating for her strength. Even when she’s daydreaming, her mind completely elsewhere, she manages to empower. “There’s no future in housework,” she deadpans, absent-mindedly letting the Barber lather her face for a shave.

For his role as the dictator of Bacteria, Benzino Napaloni (a parody, of course, of Benito Mussolini), Jack Oakie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The dynamic between his character and Hynkel as they constantly try to one-up each other (in one scene quite literally as they race to position themselves above the other in adjustable barber chairs) is the source of a lot of the film’s laughter. Ultimatums are laid down, food is thrown, and despite the characters’ vindictive natures their slapstick altercations are as playful as they are entertaining.

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Courtesy of: United Artists

The film’s most iconic moment, and an enduring part of Chaplin’s legacy, is its final scene. After using the old stolen-uniform-as-a-method-of-escape trick to break out of a prison camp, the Barber is mistaken for Hynkel and brought to a platform to address his people as they invade a neighbouring nation. It’s at this point that any attempt at pretence is abandoned. What we see is not an attempt at imitating a dictator. It’s not an attempt at acting at all. This is just Charlie Chaplin standing in front of the camera, hoping his audience will hear him.

Film, in its very nature, is a fiction. Even documentaries are made to tell a story. The tragedy within The Great Dictator is that it takes fiction for these words to be spoken. It’s only in a fiction that the tyrant is apprehended, succeeded by someone who genuinely wants to do some good for the world and the people in it. So in the final moments of this film, Chaplin uses the fiction he created to plant a seed of hope that still thrives in his words today. He’s speaking directly to every person who saw The Great Dictator at the theatre in 1940, every person who’s watched it in the eighty years since, and every person who will watch it in the time that follows. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business…”

With The Great Dictator Charlie Chaplin revels in the power of words and silence. From the expression of hatred and censoring of violence from Hynkel and his translator in the character’s introductory speech, to this in the film’s final moments, it’s one hell of a journey. Watching it now, it’s harrowing to think on how much this film resonates with the world around us today.

Eighty-odd years ago a man who made his living being silent set out to try to say something with meaning. That voice of hope is still shared, still commemorated, still celebrated today. If there’s anything to be gleaned from The Great Dictator in 2020, it’s what a difference one voice can make. If someone in power were to stand for humanity instead of inciting conflict, how different could things be? What Chaplin asks in the final moments of The Great Dictator is that we stand up, speak up, and find out.