Sometimes it's all too easy to listen to the general critical consensus and avoid a movie that has a reputation of being bad or a bit of a misfire. Often times, where there's smoke, there's fire, and the movie lives down to its bad reviews. But occasionally I watch a film and am surprised by the negative reaction. Case in point is Legend of the Lost, a visually sumptuous adventure film that kept me captivated throughout. Despite my lifelong love of John Wayne movies, I had relegated this one, sight unseen, to the Duke's small pile of "duds," along with things like The Conqueror and Jet Pilot. I should have known better.
It was only after recently acquiring the DVD from friend and film scholar, Stuart Galbraith IV, that I decided to give it a "what the hell" spin, and I'm very glad I did. Contrary to what seems to be the generally-held opinion, it's actually quite a good film, and gives Wayne an edgier than usual role, while still allowing him to stay true to the sort of rugged, manly character type he did so well.
It's a simple story, straightforwardly told: wealthy Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi) comes to Timbuktu in West Africa, following the trail of his father, who wrote of a wonderful treasure and a fabled lost city in the Sahara. Bonnard has pluck, determination and blind faith on his side, but he needs an experienced guide. Enter rough-and-ready American, Joe January (Wayne), who has serious doubts about Bonnard's enterprise but cheerfully agrees to guide him when Bonnard ponies up enough cash to get Joe out of hock to the corrupt local prefect (Kurt Kazner). Joe is a carouser and frequenter of the seedier side of Timbuktu, and has spent some time in the company of a gorgeous gypsy prostitute, Dita (Sophia Loren). Dita despises Joe and other men like him but, after spending a chaste night talking to the gentlemanly, spiritual Bonnard, is moved enough to change her life to the straight and narrow. Here is a man who seemingly wants nothing from her, someone more interested in her soul than her body.
Fascinated by the righteous Bonnard, she follows the two men into the desert. Joe wants to send her back to Timbuktu, reckoning she's nothing but trouble and having no wish to drag her along, but Bonnard agrees to take Dita with them, and since he's paying the bills, Joe reluctantly acquiesces. He's skeptical of Bonnard's piety and do-gooder ways (he plans to use the treasure to open a hospital for the poor and needy), but Joe grows to grudgingly respect the man's courage and tenacity. Similarly, he begins to look at Dita in a new light. The rest of the film is taken up with pure desert survival adventure, intermingled with the drama of a burgeoning romantic triangle. The trio eventually do make it to an ancient Roman city, find the promised treasure, and learn the fate of Bonnard's missing father...but will they manage to make it back to civilization alive?
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.
The final collaboration between director John Ford and John Wayne, Donovan's Reef doesn't show any of its participants at the top of their game, but there's always been something about the film's easygoing, loose tropical island vibe that I find eternally charming. I've probably seen the movie at least a dozen times over the years, and it never fails to please in its own shaggy dog way, despite its undeniable faults. It's a film that is content to just amble along, with only the barest wisp of a plot, recycling some of Ford's common preoccupations: knockabout, brawling "Oirish" humor, the poetry found in shared, communal ritual and ceremony, the battle for dominance in male/female relations, an affectionate ribbing - yet absolute acceptance - of the Catholic faith, and pride in brave service during WWII. How much you enjoy it will depend on how much you like the people involved. It's reminiscent of (if nowhere near as good as) Howard Hawks' Hatari, another film which creates a world out of an exotic setting and a group of characters that are just plain good company to spend time with.
The film takes place on the South Seas island of Haleakaloha (presumably somewhere in French Polynesia, but actually filmed in Hawaii), the kind of island paradise that only truly exists in Hollywood fable. The story follows the antics of three former American navy men, Mike "Guns" Donovan (Wayne), Thomas "Boats" Gilhooly (Lee Marvin) and Dr. William Dedham (Jack Warden), who back in the war were the only survivors of a torpedoed destroyer, who landed on the island and fought a vigorous cat-and-mouse game against the occupying Japanese forces there. After the war, both Donovan and Dedham decided to stay on, the doctor starting up a much-needed hospital (and marrying the beautiful island princess who aided them in the war) and Donovan a bar and shipping line. Donovan and Gilhooly share a birthday (on December 7th, no less) and every year Gilhooly visits the island for an annual birthday brawl with his old sailor pal.
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