The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Song for Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington (lyrics), while Rita Hayworth was nominated for the Best Actress award.
Matt Masters (John Wayne), a Wild West circus star in the mold of Buffalo Bill Cody, bought a bankrupt circus in 1885 and successfully rebuilt it into a combination three ring and Wild West extravaganza, mixing Wild West Show acts with conventional circus acts in a winning combination. He has successfully toured the United States for more than a decade. Now that the century is about to turn, he wants to take his show to Europe.
His Circus Boss, Cap Carson (Lloyd Nolan), is against taking the show across the Atlantic. He maintains that Europe is bad luck for American circuses. He also calls Matt on his reason for making a European tour: Masters wants to find the lost great love of his life, Lili Alfredo (Rita Hayworth), and figures that this tour will smoke her out if for no other reason than to see her child, Toni Alfredo (Claudia Cardinale), Masters' adopted daughter. One of his Western stars and wannabe-partner, Steve McCabe (John Smith), also attempts to dissuade Masters, but to no avail. Masters buys a freighter, renames her the Circus Maximus, and the show sails for Europe.
At Barcelona, the first port of call, the Circus Maximus capsizes at the pier and puts the show in the toilet. Masters has to release most of his performers, board out his animals, and go back to performing an act for the Ed Purdy Wild West Show, a staple on the European circus circuit. Down but not out, Masters doesn't waste the disaster. "While touring Europe at Ed Purdy's expense," as Masters puts it, he, Cap, Steve and Toni scout acts that will enable Masters to relaunch the Matt Masters Circus bigger and better than ever.
His first new hire is Tojo the Clown and the Wire-Dancing Ballerina (Richard Conte and Katharyna respectively). They have a unique act; Tojo is dressed as a clown but walks the high wire over a cage full of lions while coaching the Ballerina (his niece Giovanna) as she dances on a wire on the ground. Backstage, Masters discovers that Tojo is an old acquaintance — Aldo Alfredo, brother-in-law of his lost love Lili Alfredo. Despite his reservations at hiring a possible enemy Masters takes the act on and neither he nor Aldo admit to Toni, who is Aldo's niece, that they have met before; or that Tojo the Clown is her uncle. Aldo assures Matt that the vendetta is over, and Giovanna begins training for the ballerina act she will perform on the high wire.
His second new act is Emile, a French animal trainer who has a spectacular act involving lions who lie down on him in the ring. Masters offers to take him on if he will switch from lions to tigers (Masters has many tigers but few lions). The trainer is adamant that he does not want to change to working with tigers; his wife persuades him to do so. By the time the circus is ready to re-launch, Emile has so adapted to working with a different variety of big cat that when a couple become ill, he demands that Masters hire a doctor for "HIS tigers."
The third addition to the performers' roster is Margo Angeli, an artist of the high trapeze, coincidentally where Toni wants to work instead of in the Wild West show or as part of Clown Alley, where Matt has her working. In reality, Margo is the vanished Lili Alfredo, haunted by the guilt of having been caught up in a love triangle, blaming herself for the death of her flyer husband who had fallen — or did he miss Aldo's catch on purpose after learning he was part of a love triangle? She had run away from the world of the circus and kept on running, finding solace first in the Church and then in the bottle.
As Masters had hoped, the lure of her daughter brought Lili out of hiding. She speaks to her daughter during a performance of Ed Purdy's Wild West Show without identifying herself, and Masters spots her. The two have an intense confrontation in a bar, ending with Masters slamming a full bottle of brandy down in front of Lili and telling her that she needs to decide whether the booze or her child is more important to her; but that if she doesn't pull herself together, as far as he's concerned she is dead to him. Lili quits drinking and goes into training to seek a position in the new Matt Masters Circus, then in winter quarters near Madrid.
Meanwhile, Toni has fallen for Steve and he for her, despite a difference in their ages of at least a decade. Matt has to come to terms with the fact that his adopted little girl is a woman grown, with a mind of her own. "Margo's" reappearance helps, and she is secretly amused by Toni's attempts to pair her off with Matt. Matt's doing pretty well on his own, as Toni observes with pleasure. She loves her adopted father and wants him to be happy.
Inevitably, the truth comes out. The afternoon of the rehearsal for the first show of the circus season in Vienna, with Masters demanding of his performers the same show they will put on that evening, Toni finds a poster of The Flying Alfredos in her wagon living quarters with "Suicide" daubed on it in red. She also finds a newspaper clipping of the Flying Alfredos that allows her to identify "Margo" as her mother. There is a stormy confrontation with many passionate, hateful words on Toni's part between her, Lili and Matt; and Matt has to tell her that he was the second man in the love triangle. Toni curses both of them and runs out, just before a bugle call summons the show to Dress Rehearsal.
The rehearsal opens to empty seats with Grand Parade, with the performers marching in behind the flags of the nations whose citizens are in the show: the United States, Great Britain, France, Imperial Germany, Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden, Italy, and many more. Partway through Grand Parade, a fire breaks out in Wardrobe and spreads to the Big Top. Fast action by Lili, Matt, Steve, Toni, Cap and Aldo prevents injury to the circus performers and manages to save about half of the tent from the flames. The one positive thing to come out of the fire is a rapprochement between Toni and Lili.
Matt somehow obtains permission from the Emperor to set up the circus in the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The show is a smash success, with a new act headlining: Lili and Toni Alfredo performing a swing-over routine fifty feet in the air. Ultimately Matt, Lili, Toni, and Matt's new partner and Toni's new fiancé, Steve, are shown taking bows to the applause of the people and the Crown.John Wayne as Matt Masters
Rita Hayworth as Lili Alfredo
Claudia Cardinale as Toni Alfredo
Lloyd Nolan as Cap Carson
Richard Conte as Aldo Alfredo
John Smith as Steve McCabe
Katharyna as Giovana
Katherine Kath as Hilda
Wanda Rotha as Mrs. Schuman
Kay Walsh as Flo Hunt
Francois Calepides as Ringmaster
Margaret MacGrath as Anna
Miles Malleson as Billy Hennigan
José María Caffarel as Barcelona's Mayor
Robert Cunningham as Ringmaster
Hans Dantes as Emile Schuman
Katherine Ellison as Molly (uncredited)
Margaret Fuller as Woman with Binoculars (uncredited)
Moustache as Bartender (uncredited)
Sydna Scott as Undetermined Role (uncredited)
George Tyne as Madrid Bartender (uncredited)
Víctor Israel as unknown (uncredited)
It has never been released in the U.S.A., but has been released on an all Region DVD, which works on most all DVD players.
Anchor Bay released a Blu-ray edition in the U.K. in 2014.
The film's production was the setting for a novel by the Spanish author Juan Miñana which was originally published in 1999 with the Spanish title Noticias del mundo real (News from the Real World). It is about two young Spanish law students in 1964 who search the city of Barcelona for actor John Wayne, who has not returned to the hotel for another day of the film's shooting.
While filming a scene where the main tent catches fire, John Wayne was almost killed when the set collapsed. As he was "fighting" the fire, Wayne was to be cued by the assistant director when to leave before the set was to collapse in flames. Either Wayne didn't hear the assistant director, or the a.d. mistimed it (it was never determined which), but the flaming set began to collapse before Wayne got out. He escaped with just seconds to spare before the entire set fell down.
In the scene beginning at 1:17:00 where John Wayne and John Smith are discussing Toni, and the next scene where Wayne and Claudia Cardinale are in Matt Masters' wagon discussing that Toni is a woman grown, Wayne is wearing his "Red River D" belt buckle, the brand of the Dunsen Ranch in the movie Red River. He wore this buckle in a number of his movies.Dell Movie Classic: Circus World (September-November 1964)