Bookended by disaster – a ship turning turtle, fire raging in the big tent – and kept aloft by giddy circus turns this long-ignored movie in the John Wayne canon is ripe for reassessment. In more down-to-earth mold, with no villains to rein in, no gun-toting required, this calls upon something more basic from the actor, the dramatic skill required to make the audience fix on a strong character within a spectacular screen event.
Presented in stunning Super Technirama, the swansong of maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), and mistakenly viewed as little more than a travelog or a compendium of circus acts, this dwells instead on transition and loss as Matt Masters (John Wayne) struggles to allow adopted daughter Toni (Claudia Cardinale) to grow up and to come to terms with the part he played in the romantic calamity – father a high-wire suicide, acrobatic mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) fleeing to Europe – that left her parentless.
It’s no coincidence that sending his three-ring circus cum Wild West Show on a lucrative tour of Europe in the early part of the 20th century provides an opportunity to hunt for Lili, the love of his life. But the circus ship capsizes in Barcelona, leaving Masters penniless, forced to work for a rival European promoter until he can scrape together enough dough to start again. Masters uses the opportunity of traveling through European capitals to scout new acts, including clown Aldo (Richard Conte), a lion-tamer turned tiger-tamer Emile (Hans Dante), and ballerina Katharyna (Giovana) who performs on the high wire while Toni wants to chance her arm against Matt’s objections as an acrobat and flex her romantic muscles in romantic dalliance with Matt’s new partner Steve (John Smith).
The subplots add dramatic heft, the lion-tamer is frightened of tigers, Aldo has vengeance in mind, so in between the scintillating circus acts the storyline is compressed around the drink- and guilt-sodden Lili and conflict on several fronts with Toni while old retainer Cap (Lloyd Nolan) is on hand to pep up or challenge Matt.
You wouldn’t be allowed to make this kind of film these days so it’s worth glorying in the glory days of the circus – dancing horses, lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats and genuinely hilarious clown sequences. It being a three-ring circus there’s always something going on, plus the Wild West element which comprises a stagecoach being attacked.
John Wayne is as befuddled as ever in romance, restricting his trademark double take to astonishment at Tony’s transition to womanhood. There’s an occasional reversal but mostly it’s a battle against the odds, potential triumph leavened by gritty loss.
A modern producer would have switched the disasters – it didn’t really matter how Matt got into a fix. But the capsizing, appearing so early the effect is stunning, is brilliantly handled, not just the rescue of people and animals but Matt in lion-taming mode and ending with a clever coda. In every photograph Lili’s face has been scratched out but in among the saturated notes of Matt’s vital cash box is a picture of her.
Some critics have suggested John Wayne (In Harm’s Way, 1965), recovering from his own financial debacle caused by over-investment in The Alamo (1960), took the role for financial expediency. But I can see the attraction, as I’m sure the actor did. This is a far more rounded character than anything since The Searchers (1956) and he can’t even find redemption from a six-shooter. He’s more protective than aggressive, paternal instinct triggering character reaction, and it’s more of a James Stewart type of role, coming back from adversity, and nothing straightforward about a man whose love affair caused marital disaster.
Critics have also taken pot-shots at Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 1963) as if she was not already an accomplished actress (a favorite of Visconti, for example) in a compelling role and competing on even terms with a star of John Wayne’s charisma without being able to fall back on the old saw of the romantic interest. Although playing a character nearly a decade younger, Cardinale brings an earthy feistiness to a character with a bucket of decisions to make, turning on its head her relationship with Matt and going through the dramatic hoops with Lili.
Rita Hayworth (The Happy Thieves, 1961) has shucked off the glamor, a worn-down relic of her former self, turning to drink and religion in equal measure in vain hope of finding peace. Veteran Lloyd Nolan (The Double Man, 1967) and Richard Conte (Assault on a Queen, 1966) hold their own, but John Smith (Waco, 1966) does not. Look out for former British star Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965).
Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud, 1968) does a terrific job marshalling all the elements, containing the core family drama within the wider action-oriented structure. While there’s never a dull moment, in among all the spectacular scenes are some exhibiting a particularly sensitive directorial touch such as when Matt discovers Lili’s hotel room and reflects on his own misdemeanors.
There were almost as many writers as circus performers – James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961), Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945), Julian Zimet (A Place for Lovers, 1968), Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963), Nicholas Ray (The Savage Innocents, 1960) and Philip Yordan (El Cid).
Come at it from the fun perspective and you won’t go wrong. John Wayne completists will adore it.
I was lucky enough to see this is full glorious widescreen at the cinema where it was the Closing Film at this year’s Widescreen Weekend in Bradford. What a way to end a show!