I was invited to look at the final speech in the Chaplin film, The Great Dictator. How could I resist? A critique of a fictional speech is a first for this blog, and it has been hailed in some quarters as the finest speech of all time.
Is it? No. There could never be any such thing. Nevertheless, of its time it is a pretty fine example.
Bald opening! And you thought the concept was revolutionary!
Are you surprised that, for a star of silent movies, his enunciation is so good? Don’t be. He was not always a movie star: he paid his early dues on the live stage, and you didn’t get anywhere in those pre-radio-microphone days without having learnt this facet of your craft. I know his vowels, to the modern ear, are a little pale and clipped, and also he’s part-rolling his ‘r’s (a little like Olivier in the same period); but listen to how he always speaks right to the end of every word, never swallowing a syllable. If you found yourself having to speak in a large hall with a PA system that had broken down, that is how to enunciate. And he’s not over-enunciating. At 0:45, “Human beings are like that,” the final ‘t’ is barely touched…but it’s there!
I mentioned the paleness of his vowels, but it’s not with all of them. Yes, at 2:30 he speaks of people being treated ‘like kettle’, but that vowel was the fashion of the day. Also the fashion was to make the long ‘o’ sound desperately pale, almost like a long ‘a’. I once heard someone address Noel Coward, calling him “Nail”. However listen to Chaplin at 2:20. The ‘o’ in the first syllable of ‘soldiers’ is really quite dark, and there’s a reason for this. He learnt to enunciate correctly from the front of his mouth, and that always darkens the ‘o’ sound. I feel myself getting on too much of a hobby horse here, so I shall cease this subject. I cover it all in my booklet, Every Word Heard.
Chaplin’s eyes are fixed to a little below the camera lens. Is this supposed to represent humility, or is there an idiot-board there? I don’t know, but let us remember that he directed this film, and directing steals a hell of a lot of the time that could otherwise be spent learning your lines.
When he gets worked up towards the end of the speech is when the age of the film really shows. No speaker could get away with that sort of ranting, stylized oratory in front of an audience of today. The man he was lampooning, Adolph Hitler (or Adenoid Hynkel, as they called him in the film) got away with it – but that was then.
What about the value of the speech’s message? My problem is that because it calls for all sorts of obviously desirable things – freedom, happiness (or, rather, heppiness), brotherly love, etc. it can be cited as supporting any political doctrine that claims to achieve those things – i.e. all of them. It wouldn’t surprise me if even Soviet commissars used to wheel it out to promote their disgusting creed. I know that it calls upon people to throw off dictatorial yokes – a consummation devoutly to be wished – but how many dictators would admit to using yokes? This ain’t aimed at me, guv, honest!
I know what I choose to assume the speech means, and I like it for that reason; but …
At 3:40 he calls for the doing away of national barriers, and immediately I’m onto another hobby horse. That concept is superficially very seductive, but withstands no examination whatever. Consider: someone has to run things. In order that they do so on behalf of their fellows and not on behalf of themselves or anyone else, they need to be accountable chiefly to their fellows. Tyranny thrives on distance between governors and governed, because accountability diminishes proportionally. Administrative units should therefore be as small as practicable. World government would be guaranteed to become tyrannical, exploitative, incompetent and corrupt. Look at the EU, and then multiply several-fold. What a ghastly prospect!
All right, I have attempted to encapsulate a very complicated matter into a single paragraph. I concede there is more to it than that, but be in no doubt that sovereign national barriers are A Good Thing, particularly if the national administration fosters localism. Good! I’m glad I got that off my chest!
I’ve never seen the whole film of The Great Dictator. I think I shall get it.