The Magnificent Showman

As part of our Second Chance Cinema strand we look at the 1964 film The Magnificent Showman.

There came a period in John Wayne’s career where he stopped playing the part as presented in the script and started playing the version of John Wayne that the public wanted to see. In the Sixties after an incredible run of top westerns and war films, under the direction of some of Hollywood’s directors, The Duke started appearing in more comedy themed roles and much less of the drama roles he made his name with. As the star he held enormous sway in the product his name was attached to. This did not always lead to the best of decisions and some times the end product was wanting. Right in the middle of this period came the circus drama The Magnificent Showman(also known as Circus World).

John Wayne plays Matt Masters, the owner of a wild west themed Circus set at the start of the twentieth century. The season has come to a succesful conclusion and Matt decides to take the circus on a tour of Europe against the advice of those closest to him. These tours never come off well and are fraught with difficulty for all involved. Frequently it ‘s the graveyard of US circuses. This is not a deterrent for Matt in the slightest. Matt has other reasons to head to Europe though. He has heard that Lili (Rita Hayworth), a woman from his past is somewhere in Europe. Lili walked out on Matt’s circus fourteen years earlier after the tragic death of her husband and trapeze artist partner. Lili disappeared leaving behind her four-year old daughter, Toni (Claudia Cardinale). Ever since the incident, Matt has raised Toni as if she were his own. While she was small this was fine. Now she is turning into a beautiful woman with opinions and aspirations of her own. Her dream is to follow her parents example and pursue a career on the trapeze much to Matt’s disgust. So far so soap opera. The circus arrives, by sea, in Barcelona to start the tour. Unfortunately there is an accident and the ship sinks at the quay side before it can be fully unloaded. The circus is in ruins before it can even give a performance. Matt, Toni and Co are forced to take up a job with a rival wild west show working in Europe and try to raise the funds to get his own circus back on track. While on the road he looks for Lili. At the same time Lili is looking for Matt and the chance to get to know her daughter.  How will it all work out?

Originally Frank Capra was attached to the project but quit after script conflicts with John Wayne. It would have been interesting to see what the final product would have been. The director chair was then passed on to Henry Hathaway who had worked with Wayne in the past and would direct him in his oscar winning performance in True Grit.The premise of the film is hardly revolutionary. It is obviously a star vehicle for the ageing Wayne. More and more he was the father figure and not the main romantic lead. It is interesting to see how he handles the lead role. In a neat move you get to see John Wayne doing his best cowboy work but only as part of the wild west show. The back drop to all the proceedings is a real circus with actual performers and animals. This lends to the authentic air but actually reveals nothing about the life of a performer. As well as the main storyline there is a sub plot involving Matt and Lili’s past and what actually happened to cause her husband death. Someone is carrying out a vendetta against them. This rolls on throughout the first two hours then suddenly it is no longer mentioned. Other plot inconsistencies become apparent but all are either ignored or unresolved. With this and the general lack of pace, the film is not anywhere near a classic John Wayne film.

Worth a couple of hours of your time if you are not looking to be stretched. Don’t expect too much, enjoy the spectacle and a nice scene with the lion tamer.

John McArthur
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