In “Circus World”, Wayne plays a character directly inspired by Buffalo Bill Cody, the real western cowboy and folk hero who spent many years of his life (from the 1870s to the 90s) performing in a traveling show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” Wayne’s character in “Circus World,” set in 1885, buys a declining circus in hopes of reviving it and cashing in on Cody’s success. Much of the film is devoted to Wayne building up a new cast of interesting artists to take on tour all over Europe.
According to Munn’s book, doing “Circus World” was a nightmare. First of all, Wayne was seen as past his prime, and one of the film’s screenwriters, James Edward Grant, was even quoted as saying that all Wayne needs to be in a picture these days was a scene or two with “a hoity-toity lady with a big t*** the Duke can throw in her lap…” The book also recounts how Wayne had a rough time with his co-star Rita Hayworth. Obviously, Hayworth and Wayne had no on-set chemistry, and the actress was reportedly often drunk on set, usually not having learned her lines. Wayne got along much better with Claudia Cardinale, who played Wayne’s adopted daughter.
Worst of all was the notorious fire sequence, which cinematographer Jack Hildyard recounted in Munn’s book. Hildyard clarified what happened in the movie’s fire scene: During a scene where the movie’s marquee is burning, Wayne’s character was supposed to get awfully close to the flames, and he maybe a little too close. Hildyard, however, dispels rumors that Wayne was in grave danger.