Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Today, if you watch any of the rallies Hitler addressed it’s easy to see how dangerous he was or would become. At the same time, he comes across as a raving madman. He exhibited a style of delivery and a espoused a form of dogma which characterises most despots. It almost looks comical from the outside, but it’s impossible to understand the impact it would have had at the time. In many ways The Great Dictator was a searingly prescient film.
During World War I, a Jewish Private (Chaplin) fighting for Tomainia heroically saves the life of a wounded pilot (Reginald Gardiner). They subsequently crash and when the former barber awakes he can’t remember a thing. Twenty years later and he’s returned to his profession in the (Jewish) ghetto, still suffering from amnesia. Tomainia is now a dictatorship governed by the iron will of Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin).
The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first ‘talkie’, bringing the mannerisms and comedy of the ‘little tramp’ and placing them against a character based on the embodiment of evil. It was a brave move, especially considering filming started just after Germany invade Poland, but one which really pays off. Featuring great supporting performances from Paulette Goddard and Jack Oakie, it’s incredibly funny and piercingly clever. It works wonderfully, but The Great Dictator will perhaps be remembered most fondly for Chaplin’s moving closing speech.
- New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- New audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran
- The Tramp and the Dictator (2001), a documentary narrated by filmmaker Kenneth Branagh and featuring interviews with author Ray Bradbury, director Sidney Lumet, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and a host of others
- Two new visual essays, by Chaplin archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli and Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance
- On-set, colour production footage shot by Chaplin’s half-brother, Sydney
- Deleted scene from Chaplin’s 1919 film Sunnyside
- Theatrical trailer
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Wood and a 1940 article by Chaplin on the film
The Great Dictator is released on Blu-ray in the UK as part of the Criterion Collection on 26 September.