[The Great Dictator], which is neither more or less episodic and shapeless than Modern Times, is at times unwontedly serious in its direction, weighted down, as it were, by its suspended advance towards Chaplin's final apologia. At such moments his failure fully to master the sound medium becomes painfully noticeable. The scenes are long; the composition stilted; the dialogue banal. Their object—for the most part—is to emphasise the misery of the Jews under the Nazi régime; but they are too dully sentimental to do more than bore.
It is only with Chaplin himself that we can feel and understand the cruelties and stupidities. As the little Ghetto barber, plunged after many years of amnesia into a vile world of stormtroopers and spies, his audacious application of pails of whitewash to the thugs says all, for the time being, that we need. The barber, indeed, is the old Charlie—though a little alarming at first because he talks, and we are not used to that….
There remains for consideration the finale. This will no doubt be a matter of considerable controversy, for in it Chaplin directly takes up the position of spokesman for humanity…. Those who are embarrassed and possibly enraged by being asked to consider the New Testament in relation to the realities of life will be embarrassed and possibly enraged by being asked to do so by Chaplin. They will at any rate have the excuse that the speech is not well written and that Chaplin clearly has difficulty in expressing himself. But nevertheless he speaks with such sincerity that the speech is true and moving; and perhaps his difficulities of expression are of special effectiveness, for they are difficulties which also pertain to the "little men and women" all over the world of whom Chaplin is the most visible living champion.
The Great Dictator may be an uneven film both in mood and construction, and it is certainly too long. But it has an undeniable greatness….
Basil Wright, "The Cinema: 'The Great Dictator'," in The Spectator (© 1940 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 165, No. 5868, December 13, 1940, p. 636.