Thought of the day

A moment on the tube: ‘I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business.’

When I’m in need of inspiration, or motivation, or just that feeling that I’m part of an inherently good human race, I do something that may or may not be construed by many as weird. I listen to speeches. Sometimes they’ll be famous speeches by politicians or activists or actors or writers, but more often, they’ll come from films. From The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, to American Beauty, and The Great Dictator, I’ve always found the combination of an incredible script and heartfelt delivery utterly mesmerising.

I was touched, therefore, to glance over a man’s shoulder on the tube the other day and notice that he was watching Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Great Dictator’ speech. This man clearly had a physically demanding, dirty, strenuous job; he wore industrial boots and had smears of cement on his trousers. And I wondered  how a man like that first came across this speech, and why he liked it so much that he’d be playing it on his commute. But then I  checked myself, because in the end, Chaplin’s speech says something to all of us, no matter what our profession or how we spend the majority of our day or where we’re from.

The speech handles the greed, corruption and tyranny of an autocratic state, at a time when Europe was living in fear amongst the terror of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. It calls for understanding, compassion and equality. It calls for peace – for soldiers to put down their weapons and really think about what and who their violence is for, and whether there is a better way if we ‘all unite’.

great dictator
Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator’, 1940

In a world where people are still suffering under dictatorships, and where there is still so much injustice and inequality amongst certain peoples, 76 years on it seems that Chaplin’s speech is still painfully, yet wonderfully relevant. And if a few more people like the man on the tube took the time to listen to its message, I have an idealistic, rose-tinted, perhaps naive belief (because that’s what literature and films do to people, after all) that we could live in a more tolerant, compassionate and safer world.


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