Body language, vocal variety, and The Great Dictator

You’ll find it on YouTube as “The Greatest Speech Ever Made.” Technically, it is the greatest fictional speech ever made. Regardless of how you look at it, Charlie Chaplin’s final speech in The Great Dictator is powerful for its message and how it turned the evil rhetoric of the movie’s target, Adolf Hitler, on its head to serve noble purposes. If you look at this speech closely, you’ll see that its real power comes from how Chaplin uses body language and vocal variety to drive home the speech’s eloquent words. Let’s take a closer look at a master at work. (Spoilers ahead.)

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor…”

In the story, Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who is mistaken for dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin). When the barber has to give a speech in the dictator’s place, he is naturally frightened. But he knows that he must speak to save himself, his friends and community, and his country.

Chaplin projects the barber’s nervousness at the beginning of the speech. His eyes are lowered, and he avoids eye contact. His shoulders are slumped, and he keeps his arms tight against his sides. His tie is unevenly tied at the top and does not hang neatly down the front. As he speaks, he keeps his voice low, and he hesitates for a moment.

Normally, we expect speakers to step to the podium relaxed and confident. In this case, we find the barber’s humility endearing. Even if we don’t know this speaker’s story, his sincere humbleness already builds a connection with us.

This connection begins from the moment he nods to the soldier saluting him, giving him a silent and respectful “thank you.” Hynkel’s top henchmen can already tell there is something different about him. The barber doesn’t approach the speech with the brash bravado they would expect from Hynkel/Hitler (and a number of politicians). Chaplin’s barber seems overwhelmed and humbled by the responsibilities he has assumed, just as any of us would. We see the barber as one of us, and that helps us relate to him.

“Human beings are like that…”

As the barber continues, he grows in confidence and conviction. He stands straighter and raises his eyes. His voice becomes firmer but keeps a humble, conversational tone. Even as he moves to broader themes, we still feel that he’s talking to us. He does this to appealing to our compassion and sense of humanity:

I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world, there is room for everyone…

Even as he cautions how losing our sense of humanity can lead to disaster, he offers reassurance to his audience:

To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

In this passage, we can hear a change in the barber’s tone. His voice rises in passion and firmness. He then pauses, showing us that he is about to say something important.

“Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes…”

His important message was to the soldiers who had assembled in front of him. Notice that he is looking down at them, speaking to them directly:

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

Chaplin’s barber continues to appeal to their sense of humanity, but he adds a call to action. He is calling on them to resist orders to brutalize others and to join him in the cause of freedom.

From a political standpoint, this is dangerous. Hynkel and his cronies ordered those soldiers to commit atrocities. Now dressed as Hynkel, Chaplin’s barber is essentially leading a coup d’etat against the state Hynkel created. It would take more than an appeal to humanity to convince these soldiers to disobey their officers and commit treason:

In the 17th Chapter of St. Luke, it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men!

The barber knows that he must appeal to the soldiers’ religious faith to win them over. He needs to convince them that they aren’t just doing what their leader tells them or what feels right, they are doing God’s work. Because so many use God and religion to justify horrible acts, we’re moved to see someone invoke God’s name to fight for justice and freedom. When we consider that Hitler used religious-based hatred to persecute and slaughter others, Chaplin’s message becomes even more powerful.

“Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people…”

As the barber brings his speech to a rousing climax, we can see him taking on a lot of the characteristics of Hynkel/Hitler. His passionate delivery charges at a nearly breathless pace as his head trembles with passion. At the end of the speech, the barber even shoots up his hand in a nearly Nazi salute.

By ending the speech this way, Chaplin makes the most powerful statement about Hitler of all. He hints at it in this passage:

Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. (Emphasis added)

It wasn’t just the promise, but the passion and the urging to join a community. It was the image of a better world and the call to fight against those who want to destroy it. But Hitler poisoned this call with hatred. He desired to raise his people, but only by destroying others. Chaplin’s barber took Hitler’s own techniques and used them to call for a decent world of freedom and compassion.

The Great Dictator — as well as the tragedy of Nazi Germany — reminds us of the power and danger of speech. Words made a cultured and progressive society repressive and genocidal and then drove it into a war that killed millions and led to its own self-destruction. The Great Dictator also shows how words can turn a nation away from hatred and lead it to fight for justice and peace — just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did 23 years later.

The words, body language, and vocal variety that can mesmerize people to commit evil can also inspire us to do good. Therefore, we must use the power of speech wisely and with good intentions. This is the lesson of Charlie Chaplin’s final speech in The Great Dictator.