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Claude Jarman Jr.
Sleeper classics are rare. Esthetics do not change, but politics do. This movie has a political message -- that communism is horrible, and that life under communism is bare existence. That was not enough for the McCarthy Era, and this movie falls short of the standard anti-communist diatribe of its kind. The view of someone like Vaclav Havel that communism was mere degradation of people and the imposition of an absurd order was not "hard-line" enough for the McCarthy Era.
This movie shows a more subtle critique of communism than the usual apocalyptic view of saber-rattling generals and madman tyrants. Czechoslovakia could have been the shopfront for communism because it wasn't as ravaged by World War II as were some other countries, and the Soviets didn't treat it as a conquered province grafted onto its empire. The country was prosperous before World War II and had a democratic government for twenty years after World War I. Even in Czechoslovakia, the communists imposed one degradation after another upon the people while promoting itself with demagogic rhetoric that communism was the desire of the working man -- except that nobody had the right to say "no" anymore. The communists nationalized Cernik's circus, only to pay him a very generous salary as compensation as a manager of a state enterprise; then they made the money worthless through currency "reforms" that pauperized all but the communists and enriched the communists. Sudden horror and slow degradation lead to the same misery, only at different rates.
Politics aside, this is a good adventure film with some comic elements as the circus crew fights among itself to seek escape from the madhouse (note that Milos Forman said that his image of an asylum for the insane was much like his native Czechoslovakia in comments on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
Too subtle for the 1950's, it got lost. In the cable-TV era "movie archive" channels try out some lost movies and occasionally find a gem. This one is a gem.
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