Michael Wood wrote, of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, “The greatness of the film lies in the bridge Chaplin builds between the little guy and the bully, so that in an amazing spiral, the thugs who pursue Chaplin as victim are under the orders of Chaplin the boss. .. There is even a point in the final speech when Chaplin starts to rant like [the Dictator], reminding us that rage in a good cause is still rage.”
He quotes Chaplin’s son: “Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination. ‘Just think,’ he would say uneasily, ‘he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.’”
Michael Wood seems to be speaking to us, today, when he says, “Chaplin’s finest further touch, having made his dictator ridiculous, is to remind us of how much harm even ridiculous people can do.” You can find this essay and others on Chaplin’s radical 1940 confrontation with Hitler (before American entered the war) enclosed with the DVD in The Criterion Collection.
Today’s poem, modeled on the 13th Psalm, is a gut-level response to Chaplin’s final speech in this film, adapted masterfully to accompany a montage of contemporary films in MedeRecord’s multifandom fan video, A Decent World.
How long, hands in pockets, will strength desert me?
How long will integrity shuffle its feet?
How long must I search my soul for mere courage,
and cast down my spirit for sloth every day?
How long will impunity stand on my watch?
Am I due no respect, no answer, my heart?
Light up my eyes, before death sedates my soul,
before I am trampled in scorn and contempt,
before I trip and amuse the uneasy.
Even now, in my secret kindness I trust,
and to act on it fills me with vehemence.
Let this song be my pledge to my convictions,
for by these obligations alone, I rise.