Return of The Great Dictator

It's time for a remake of Charlie Chaplin's wonderful political satire, The Great Dictator. The famous parody of Hitler and his fascist government was released in the US in 1940, while newsreel images of German Panzer tanks rolling into Paris were fresh in American minds, and the subjugation of Poland was only a year old. The movie was an immediate success, even becoming the top money-maker of 1941, and solidified the American image of Hitler as a scary but ridiculous buffoon.

In the movie, Chaplin cast himself as Hynkel, the strutting and vain emperor of Tomania, as well as his double, a shlubby little Jewish barber. Of course, they end up trading places so we can enjoy the double irony of the meek Jew stepping into the shoes of the ranting racist tyrant.

Naturally, our remake would replace Hitler with "Dubya" Bush, blustering belligerently about the enemy of the month as he plans his next invasion, and cruelly mocking reporters or anyone who questions his vaunted powers and awesome responsibly. Perhaps the remake's title should be changed slightly, to The Boy Emperor (with apologies and maybe some small remuneration to Maureen Dowd). We'll include footage of precision-guided, bunker-buster bombs destroying Baghdad or Tehran or Riyadh, and Israeli tanks laying waste to the cities and towns of the West Bank or Lebanon, overlain with the emperor's harsh countenance. By editing time, such images shouldn't be hard to come by.

Bush's double might be a Latino farm worker who suddenly finds himself impersonating the Emperor, a scion of plentitude, privilege, and power. As in the original, the look-alike is a moral man, furthering the contrast between them.

Tim Burton, are you listening? It was Burton who made Mars Attacks, another effective political satire among its many charms. In this movie the Martian invaders broadcast their pre-recorded message, "Do not run, we are your friends," as they march through our cities, destroying everything and everyone; while the real-world Boy Emperor blurts, "America is a friend to the people of Iraq" as his staff plan their "shock and awe" blitzkrieg attack on Baghdad. In the movie, the resourceful Earthlings used Slim Whitman's Indian Love Call as their Weapon of Mass Destruction, exploding the Martians' brains into great globs of green slime. In the real world, everyone's wondering if Saddam has any WMDs ready and waiting for the invading imperial storm troopers.

Burton's cowardly president, played unctuously by Jack Nicholson, tries to reason with the Martians after they've cornered him in the White House. "Why can't we just get along," oozes politician Jack just before his gruesome death at the tentacles of the cackling alien generalissimo, while the real Boy Emperor makes nice to the armed and dangerous North Koreans while waging war on defenseless Iraq.

Personally I'd like to see Johnny Depp in the Boy Emperor dual roll. He played Edward Scissorhands under Burton's direction in 1990, and could have the eccentric talent to pull off this wacky part. Of course, Martin Sheen from West Wing has a current lock on playing the president, but he's just too uptight. And don't forget Kevin Kline, who has experience playing the bad guy president and good guy stand-in from Dave (1993).

Yes, the timing is about right for a remake, but the project will have to get underway pretty soon, so viewers of CNN and Fox News can easily recall the prurient thrill of watching precision-guided weapons destroy what's left of Baghdad's infrastructure when the movie is released. On the other hand, this "war without end" might last quite some time.

Now that I actually think about it, and take a whiff of the political winds, maybe it would be best for the Germans to make this movie. Turnabout is fair play, don't you think? I guess I'll just have to enjoy it with subtitles.

February 3, 2003