I've been wracking my brain, but I can't ever remember going to an actual, honest-to-God circus. I vaguely recall a circus coming to the fairgrounds at my hometown, sometime back in my grade school days in the 1970s, with flyers and perhaps even tickets being passed out to students. For whatever reason, I never pestered my parents to take me, and so never got a chance to see a real live circus, which in a way, makes me just a teensy bit sad. The traditional circus, with its big tent, popcorn and peanuts, sawdust rings, elephants, barely-tamed big cats, clowns and high-wire acts and prancing ponies, seems a dying art now. (There is still the Cirque de Soliel, of course, but as physically amazing as those performers are, it just ain't the same thing.) Luckily there are movies out there like Circus World to remind us of the heyday of this venerable form of entertainment, when kids and their parents packed the stands when the circus came to town. Circus World is far from the best movie John Wayne ever made, but despite its many flaws, it does deliver some excellent big-top thrills.
Like El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and 55 Days at Peking, Circus World is another of those massive roadshow epics produced by Samuel Bronston, financed by Hollywood studios but filmed primarily in Europe. Circus World is arguably the least of the above movies in quality, but ironically is the one with by far the best-preserved film elements (King of Kings, another earlier Bronston release, also looks gorgeous in hi-def.) Circus World is out on a Region B Blu-Ray in Europe and looks amazing sharp and colorful, as does the HD presentation frequently shown on NHK in Japan.
Long a big John Wayne fan, I remember catching this one on VHS many years ago, where its 2:20 : 1 aspect ratio was hacked and slashed almost beyond recognition. (Circus World was filmed in an ultra widescreen process called "Super Technirama 70" and then advertized and shown at numerous Cinerama engagements, though it wasn't actually filmed with Cinerama cameras). I don't remember thinking much of the movie back then, but seeing it now, in its proper widescreen glory, all spic and span and looking its best, helps bring a little of the luster back. I don't think it numbers among Wayne's worst films, as some commenters on IMDB do, rating it alongside Jet Pilot and The Conqueror - unduly harsh, in my opinion. It does fall far short of its potential, however, and is overlong, often slow, with perfunctory characterization and rather flat melodrama bogging down the second half. But as a physical production it's still pretty impressive, and the restored transfer finally gives audiences the chance to really see the large scale of everything, including shots incorporating all three rings of the circus, the enormous circus tent like a cavern above the action, often filmed in long shot to give the audience a sense of depth and distance.
Like the previous year's Wayne film, Hatari!, there isn't much of a plot to speak of here, just a thin clothesline upon which to hang various circus acts and romantic shenanigans. Unlike Hatari!, though, Circus World is distinctly lacking in the action department, as well as missing the core, lovable group of professionals for Wayne to bounce off of, that helps make the former film such entertaining company. Wayne has proven himself time and again to be a top-notch reactor, but he's not given a lot to work with here. He's still the best thing about the picture, along with the nifty circus acts interspersed throughout.
Wayne stars as Matt Masters, head of a successful circus in America (the time period is unstated, but going by the fashions, likely sometime in the early 1900s). He decides to take his troupe on a tour of Europe, against the better judgment of his right-hand man, Cap Carlson (Lloyd Nolan, who stepped in when David Niven backed out over rewrites of the script reduced the size of the role). Cap remembers all too well the disaster that befell Matt's company the last time they went to Europe, some 14 years earlier, when one member of the high-wire act, the Alfredo Brothers, fell to his death. Lili (Rita Hayworth), the wife of the dead man, ran off in despair, leaving her young daughter, Toni, alone. Since then, Matt's raised Toni as his own, and now she's grown up into the gorgeous, va-va-voom form of Claudia Cardinale. Matt, who was in love with Lili, thinks it's about time to head back to Europe to try to track her down, for both Toni's sake and his own.
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