Words: Jack Brindelli
In 2014, the British elite are stranded in a minefield of troublesome historical milestones. 30 years have passed since the brutal government crackdown on the Yorkshire miners’ strike – 100 since the needless slaughter of World War One, and historical injustices like these carry with them a wealth of ill-feeling directed at the status-quo, then and now. Subsequently, history threatens to tar public perception of our incumbent government. In order to justify its continued thirst for theft and warmongering then, Britain’s establishment suddenly finds itself forced into a period of reinvention.
This reinvention is no revision of policy or tact though – God forbid they should learn from the past – rather it is the reimagining of times gone by, to excuse the crimes of the present. Of particular significance currently is World War One. Since the mass mobilisation of Stop the War in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq, public sentiment has remained steadfastly opposed to further bloodshed. Subsequently the UK military’s international infamy (often mistaken for ‘influence’) has waned significantly. In the wake of the government’s failure to persuade the public to accompany America in another bombing campaign in Syria last year, and with the West seemingly eyeing up conflict with Putin’s Russia over exclusive rights to exploiting the Ukrainian economy – the reimagining of World War One has suddenly become a key strategic battleground for our nation’s elite. From culturally illiterate education minister Michael Gove’s humourless panning of comedy classic Blackadder Goes Forth, to the banal, Buzzfeed-esque ten point summary of the war by BBC historian Dan Snow (great-great-grandson of war-time Prime Minister Lloyd George) – there has been a concerted effort to reinvent the horrors of WW1’s mechanised conflict as not only necessary, but actually a bit of a lark.
Caught recently in the crossfire of this ideological conflict, having characteristically stumbled into a tricky situation not of his making, is Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp – who reached his own historical landmark last month. The beloved character, who first appeared on screens in February 1914, is no stranger to this historical process himself of course. The Tramp, once revered by the poor and reviled by the rich as a figure of rebellion, has become so shrouded in historical mystification that he can be warmly remembered by the very people he was once a statement against. Even the Daily Mail, who backed the Nazis around the time of Chaplin’s anti-fascist classic The Great Dictator (1940) now fondly remember the Tramp’s antics, in an ideological shift akin to Royalists 100 years from now warmly recalling that rascal Frankie Boyle’s jokes about the Queen’s haunted vagina!
Yet even now there is something troublesome about the man in the bowler hat, big shoes and baggy trousers – something that remains unreconciled with dominant accounts of history, which disturbs the rich and powerful. This is where Chaplin’s legacy enters the war debate. In a Guardian article by Pamela Hutchinson, it was recently implied Chaplin somewhat cynically moulded his Tramp character in a bid to re-engage with the British public, having become unpopular after failing to enlist for the war effort.
The problem is, at the time, tramps in general were hardly thought of in Hollywood as the lovable underdog that would get an angry mob onside – in fact they were more often the villains, snatching purses, drinking and fighting. This caricature of the ‘dangerous’ poor was a reflection of ideological fears of the wealthy and powerful elites, who already dominated the industry. Chaplin’s choice of the Tramp was rather like choosing a member of the Benefits Street as a likeable protagonist now – unthinkable to anyone inside the elite. Of course, when we speak of the “Tramp” as a character it is worth clarifying that he was always homeless, or even unemployed. The Tramp was a set of traits and characteristics that Chaplin transplanted into numerous situations – and whilst these incarnations weren’t exclusively vagrants, they always remained society’s underdogs. Interestingly, the Guardian article mentioned has little reference to the experiences in Chaplin’s own life that undoubtedly led him to sympathise with the systemic victims of capitalism – even as he rose to become one of Hollywood’s richest stars.
During Charlie’s childhood, a time before the safety nets of the welfare state or the NHS, the workhouse was still a regular destination for millions of unemployed, sick or elderly people as a system of “poor relief”. Inmates would labour insufferable hours in overcrowded and dangerous conditions, often for no pay, in order to keep a roof over their head and some meagre food in their bellies. Charlie and his brother Sydney were sent to London workhouses on several occasions, whilst their destitute mother spent time in and out of asylums, and their absent father drank himself to death. Yet despite such desolate origins, Charlie and his brother managed to carve out opportunities on stage, and at the age of 19, he was signed by the Fred Kano Company, which took him to America, a step that eventually led to his making a fortune. Now, at a time when our own government is trying to re-legitimise forced labour programmes like workfare as an alternative to starvation, papers like the Mail are attempting to reconcile Chaplin with the idea that enough hard work can graft anyone out of poverty. Indeed, his background means he theoretically epitomises the ‘American dream’; embodying the plucky rags to riches individual that capitalism is said to be made for. But as we can see from evolution of the Tramp character, it is the legacy of his origins that make him so terrifying to the status quo, even now.
In the early days of Hollywood, the most popular narrative line in comedies, as personified by Buster Keaton’s comedies, was for a bumbling yet determined individual to somehow rise to the top through his own gumption. The Little Tramp’s films were different – success is more or less limited to finding happiness through other people, whilst this rarely results in bettering the character’s material circumstance. In The Tramp (1915) the character finds himself in no better state than when he began, having defended a woman’s farm from bandits, only to discover she has a boyfriend – yet he is happy in the knowledge she is safe and happy as he leaves. In The Immigrant (1917), the systemic hardships facing migrants are laid bare, and we are aware they will continue for the characters after the credits roll; but the Tramp finds love.
This recurring theme is best summarised in the beautiful City Lights (1931). The film begins with the Tramp upsetting a wealthy gathering, by sleeping rough on an undoubtedly pricey statue representing “prosperity” they have just unveiled. His presence damages their image of a society that they all profit from, showing the ugly, exploitative side of their existence – and so rather than help him, they chastise him. The penniless Tramp later meets a blind flower girl, and raises money to pay for her eye surgery. After the surgery, she discovers his true identity when she touches the Tramp’s hand – having believed him to be a wealthy Duke. In that instant, not only do we see her ideological illusions shattering, but we see the meaning behind Chaplin’s Tramp crystalised. Ordinary people cannot depend on the benevolence of the wealthy and powerful – who are repelled by our very existence – and the idea we can ascend to be them is all too unlikely. If we are to survive, we must help and depend on one another to overcome our adversity.
And here is where Chaplin’s Tramp is most dangerous to dominant ideology. It is out of this realisation that the potential to challenge systemic injustice is born – where the promises of liberal capitalist ideology don’t resemble the nightmare reality they in practice provide us with. And that brings us back to the “Great” War. During the First World War, Chaplin made two propaganda films in support of the Allied Powers troops – and often used his popularity to boost the war effort. In The Bond (1918) he tried to encourage US citizens to buy ‘Liberty’ war bonds, whilst in Shoulder Arms (1918) – released a month before the war ended – Chaplin’s Tramp appears as a bumbling recruit. In-keeping with wartime propaganda, in Shoulder Arms Germans are depicted as incompetent, rapacious lunatics with bizarre facial-hair.
However, the horrific reality of the 14-18 war and its needless mechanised mass slaughter brought with it a colossal change in public perception – a growing portion of society was coming to see the powerful as the parasites they were, and to demand change from the bottom up. Reflecting this radical shift, come the Second World War, the Little Tramp took a very different stance. In his first “talkie” The Great Dictator (1940), Chaplin transplants the Tramp’s persona to a Jewish WW1 veteran, now working as a barber in a spoof-Nazi Germany. The Barber’s past demonstrates a shift in Chaplin’s – and society’s – perception of ‘enemy’ soldiers. They are now victims of their rulers’ greed, no more evil than ourselves – and with this change in perception comes a startling conclusion that would even have rocked the Ally leaders. As with Modern Times (1936) where he bumbles into the middle of a left-wing rally, the Tramp/Barber ends up entangled in a fight for justice more by chance than intent. This time, he is mistaken for the Dictator Adenoid Hynkel himself (also played by Chaplin) and is forced to make a victory speech to vast crowds present and listening on radio.
Having been introduced as the scourge of the Jews and the future ruler of the world, Chaplin’s Tramp breaks a lifetime of silence to instead speak passionately, in what many believe to be one of the most eloquent and compelling calls for international socialism ever made. In it, he calls for an end to dictatorship, and states he wants to help everyone, whatever their faith or ethnicity – before emphatically concluding, “Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers; in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”
This is an anti-fascist film then, not because it issues some red-white-and-blue call to arms for American and British citizens to join the army, or a film playing on some naive notion of patriotic duty. It is anti-fascist in the sense Chaplin acknowledges the same political, economic and social disparity that led fascism in Germany and Italy were present worldwide, and could have led to the same result in England, or anywhere else. In order to truly fight fascism then, we must fight these systemic inequalities at home – and help build a free and equal world in the process.
It is this transition of the Tramp, from pro-war propagandist to red flag-waving rebel that not only terrified the elite of the time (America refused him access to the country as a suspected communist), but also the modern elite, who presently scramble to reinvent Chaplin, and the decades of war and poverty that moulded his character. But despite the century-long effort to remove his films from their social context, the character of the Tramp still encapsulates Chaplin’s political transformation, and through him that of millions, scarred by poverty and war – while embodying the potential of future generations to make that same shift.
Recently, a video (reproduced and viewed millions of times) was posted on YouTube combining the speech from The Great Dictator with Hans Zimmer’s Time from the score of Inception (2010). Not only do the tempo and tone of music and footage fit like a glove, there is a truly precious message in their pairing. By adding a modern score, the clip says simply that this beautiful call for change remains relevant, even after so many years. The true Tramp continues to symbolise the power of love over hate – the possibility that even ordinary people who embrace the elite’s ideology can come to oppose it through experience, and our potential to change the world for our loved ones, our communities, our fellow human beings. It’s a legacy we must fight to protect, for a future we modern ‘tramps’ can still build.