Making fun of dictators and those in power is nothing new. It dates back centuries if you look to theater and decades if you restrict the field to just movies. Disney and Warner Brothers had no problem putting their cartoon characters to work fighting the Nazis, and live action films soon followed. Here’s a list of the best comic attacks on real life dictators.
1. The Great Dictator (1940)
Charlie Chaplin’s first feature length talkie ranks as the best, most potent, and most sublime attack on a real political figure. Chaplin parodied Hitler by presenting us with Adenoid Hynkel, a megalomaniacal dictator, and then having a Jewish barber trying desperately to avoid persecution from Hynkel’s repressive regime. Both characters were played by Chaplin. Although Hitler and Germany are not mentioned by name, there is absolutely no ambiguity that Chaplin was being highly critical of the Fuhrer. There’s a brilliant, wordless sequence in which the Hitler-esque Hynkel tosses a balloon-globe around until it pops in his face. But it’s the ending — a speech delivered with the utmost sincerity and passion by Chaplin — with its message of hope that proves most memorable, provocative, and deeply moving. The sad irony, though, was that just over a decade later, Chaplin would fall victim to the McCarthy witch hunts and his “left wing” politics would prompt the U.S. to banish the Little Tramp from its shores.
2. To Be Or Not To Be (1941)
Ernst Lubitsch was known for his light comedic touch and he put it to exquisite use in this comedy about a troupe of Polish actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw trying to put on a serious show about Hitler. Just before the play opens an official informs them that the government is closing them down because the play might “offend Hitler.” Jack Benny’s Joseph Tura scoffs that wouldn’t that be bad just listen to what Hitler’s saying about the Poles. But that doesn’t stop Lubitsch from elegantly skewering not just Hitler and his Nazi party but pretentious artists as well. The actor playing Hitler in the play improvises the line “Heil myself,” and Carole Lombard’s Maria Tura is an actress more concerned with how she looks than historical accuracy. Her producer is shocked when she appears in a stunning silk gown for her Concentration Camp scene. He objects but she replies, “I think it’s a tremendous contrast. Think of me being flogged in darkness and the lights come on and the audience sees me in this gorgeous dress.” Later the Nazis try to recruit Maria as a spy, prompting her to ask, “But what are we going to do about my conscience?” The professor presses her, suggesting that she doesn’t really know what Nazism is. He explains: “We just want to create a happy world.” To which Maria says, “And people who don’t want to be happy have no place in this happy world.” Lombard’s lovely delivery captures both the humor and the disturbing truth. This is a classic display of how subtle comedy can make a bold statement.
3. The Producers (1968)
Mel Brooks would remake To Be Or Not To Be in 1983 and with a heavier comic hand than Lubitsch. But Brooks was completely in his element in 1968 with The Producers, in which Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are looking to produce a flop so they mount a production of something called “Springtime for Hitler,” and recruit a director who wants to make it a musical romp for Adolf and Eva. A sure-fire failure, they predict.
Brooks was criticized for bad taste because Nazis were not meant to be funny. But the comedian retorted, “If you ridicule them, you bring them down with laughter. They can’t win. You show how crazy they are.” The comedy is far more broad than what Chaplin and Lubitsch employed but it certainly made a mockery of Hitler.
4. Bananas (1971)
Woody Allen’s film poked general fun at military dictatorships but his imaginary country of San Marcos definitely looked like Cuba and its leader like Fidel Castro. The film opens with a wickedly funny attack on both politics and the media by having a Wide World of Sports broadcaster bringing you “a live, on-the-spot assassination. They are going to kill the president of this lovely Latin American country and replace him with a military dictatorship and everyone is as tense and excited as can be.” Then Howard Cosell pops in to try and get a final word from the expiring president. But the rebel leader who takes over (the Castro stand in) lets power go immediately to his head and then is in need of being taken down as well.
Allen’s film is merciless in pointing out the absurdity of this cycle of political repetition with no one ever getting the wiser.
5. Team America (2004)
Before Kim Jong-Un got ridiculed in The Interview, North Korea’s previous dictator Kim Jong-Il got the comic treatment courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone in Team America. The film used puppets rather than live actors so you could say there was a little distance between the real leader and his onscreen counterpart. Parker and Stone give Kim a hilariously memorable ballad, “I’m Lonely,” in which the dictator bemoans the solitude of being a political leader while we see people being tortured and executed behind him. Parker and Stone had no trouble making fun of Kim as well as right wing American extremists and left wing Hollywood actors. No one was spared, which was part of the film’s charm.
6. South Park – Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)
Just a few years earlier, Parker and Stone would take down another political leader, Saddam Hussein. This time it was within an animated context (a photo of the real Saddam’s face is placed on an animated body) and the irony was that Satan comes out looking good at the expense of Saddam. The film puts Saddam and Satan in a sadomasochistic relationship in which Satan is Saddam’s bitch and the victim of his relentless abuse. The film not only poked fun at the Iraqi dictator but also at the way American politicians and media tried to demonize him.
7. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988)
The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy (based off the failed TV show Police Squad) took an assassination attempt against a real-life head of state (Queen Elizabeth) for its plot that begins with what may be the single largest gathering of despots at one table in a movie. The film opens with a Beirut meeting of Gorbachev, Idi Amin, Khadafy, Arafat, Castro (I think it’s Castro at the end of the table but he gets no lines), and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini insists, “If we do nothing else we must conceive at least one terrorist act.” Of course Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) is there to put the bad guys out of business. He takes care of Khomeini with some Three Stooges moves and reveals that the religious leader is sporting a punk Mohawk under his turban. Totally silly but funny.
8. FDR: American Badass (2012)
Okay this one is just wacky. Director Garrett Brawith and writer Ross Patterson give us an alternate view of FDR and history by presenting America’s enemies as werewolves. That’s right FDR faces off against werewolf versions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito. You gotta see this to believe it!
9. Hot Shots (1991) / Hot Shots Part Deux (1993)
Actor Jerry Haleva plays Saddam Hussein in both movies and gets to square off against the President played by Lloyd Bridges who finally disposes of the dictator in a comic rip off Terminator 2. So Saddam gets frozen and shattered only to melt and reassemble like T1000.
10. The Interview (2014)
None of the people involved with The Interview ever saw it as a political satire but sometimes movies are taken out of the hands of their creators. Such is the case with The Interview. A cyber attack on Sony Pictures led to reports that a North Korean group known as the Guardians of Peace wanted the film pulled from distribution. Sony acquiesced but then got flack from independent theaters that insisted on showing the film. So the film got released but later reports suggested that the hack might have been masterminded by a disgruntled Sony employee. But whatever the case, this bromance was turned into a symbol of free speech and a statement against tyranny through no fault of its own. That might be funnier than the film, which makes North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un the target of a CIA assassination plot. But Kim’s rebellious assistant suggests that it would be better to humiliate the dictator on global TV than kill him. Such is the power of the media to build and destroy political figures. Not a stunning insight but that’s the closest the film actually gets to political commentary.
Honorable mentions: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator.