The book is a slight one. Dubbed a short novel it's a very quick read at only 135 pages and large type. It was an expansion of a magazine article by Neil Paterson titled "International Incident" and was inspired in part by the escape of Circus Brumbach from East Germany to West Germany in 1950. Paterson has changed his circus to one in Czechoslovakia that happens to be travelling in the vicinity of the Austrian border and dedicates his book to all Czech people who has managed a cernik. I tried to find out if this is a slang term in Czech, but came up with nothing. Perhaps some linguist who stumbles across this article might be able to clue me in if Paterson chose Cernik as the name because it means something else. Please drop a line if you know.
In contrast, the screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood who adapted Paterson's brief book skillfully adds numerous scenes filled with intriguing ideas and also shows us the escape. It is after all cinema - pictures and action should tell the story. Sherwood fleshes out the relationship between Cernik (commandingly portrayed by Fredric March) and his seemingly idle and trampy wife (sultry Gloria Grahame exuding sex appeal as she always does); adds an idyllic romance between Foster (renamed Vosek in the film and energetically played by Cameron Mitchell) and Cernik's daughter (a rebellious and feisty Terry Moore); and adds the much needed tension between the circus performers and the Communist government - especially a brilliant scene in which the Ministry of Propaganda reprimands Cernik for not adding their disinformation into his clown acts instructing the audience on the evils of capitalism.
|Terry Moore as Tereza defies her stern father Cernik (Fredric March)|
Cernik must contend not only with the oppressive government but dissension among his own employees. Zabek, the leader of tent men (somber and forboding Richard Boone) reminds Cernik that their are the labor force of the circus, the ones who are doing real work; the rest of the circus is made up of libertines and performers who do little to benefit the people's government. He also points out that the circus is no longer owned by Cernik in this new world, it is the property of everyone. More obstacles arise as the escape plan is overheard by an embittered employee who informs Cernik's rival Heinrich Cheb (in the movie renamed Barovic and played with showman-like gusto by Robert Beatty). Cheb then bargains with Cernik allowing the escape to take place without informing the police if only he can have tents, seating and a few animals.
The climax of the film is the escape itself and all members of the circus must do their best to distract both Czech and Austrian military personnel when they get to the border. It's a interesting blend of surreal circus entertainment and chaotic gunfire when the entire troupe makes a break for the border. There are acts of surprising heroism and sacrifices that must be made. After reading the book and having been robbed of the thrilling escape sequences it was rewarding to see Kazan, Sherwood and the remarkable cast pull off with skillful suspense what any book about an escape should never omit. I highly recommend finding the movie and watching it rather than reading the book. The film is more intelligent, more dramatic, and more suspenseful than Paterson's slight cheat of an escape adventure.
For other adventures in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic please visit Mysteries in Paradise, our host blog for this Grand Tour of crime fiction throughout Europe.