The Little Train That Couldn't

In 1936, Charlie Chaplin made one of the very last silent films, Modern Times. It is perhaps most famous for the sequence in which Chaplin's Little Tramp, employed as an assembly-line factory worker, is driven to work at a frantic pace as the assembly line keeps speeding up, up, up.

Modern Times was Chaplin's vision of industrial capitalism as a social order in which human beings had become cogs in the machine. It also carried a vision of fascism - which was then on its triumphalist rise - as a political order in which the citizen is a cog of the state, just as the industrial worker is a cog of the machine.

Chaplin saw the technological, political, and cultural trends of his age coalescing into a unified totalitarian expression. In most of his work, and especially in Modern Times, he tried to raise an alarm on behalf of human dignity.

But that's not the whole story. Modern Times can also be read as a neo-Luddite, anti-technology, and anti-progress diatribe sparked by the new and near-total dominance of talking pictures in the cinema of the 1930s. Chaplin had made his fortune performing physical comedy in silent films. Talkies meant the end of his franchise. He was headed straight for the dustbin of box-office history. Of course he saw technological progress as fascistic and dehumanizing; he had an enormous vested interest in the old ways of doing things.

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Sojourners Magazine February-March 1994
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