Circus World actor John Wayne famously accomplished many of his own stunts. It became a part of his brand to deliver authentic action scenes in his Western and war movies. However, they would occasionally get him into trouble. Wayne almost died in a dangerous stunt while filming Circus World. He ultimately walked away in one piece but had a “vicious” cough that he simply couldn’t shake.
Circus World follows Matt Masters (Wayne) as he takes his failing circus show on a tour of Europe. However, the trip isn’t simply to recover his finances. Rather, he’s there to pursue a romantic relationship with a previous lover, Lili Alfredo (Rita Hayworth), whose daughter (Claudia Cardinale) he raised.
The circus show and his romantic pursuits are put into jeopardy when the ship carrying his livelihood sinks in the ocean. However, he doesn’t plan on letting that stop him from accomplishing his missions. Matt is about to pull out all of the stops to ensure that his tour will still go on and reunite with Lili.
Aissa Wayne’s John Wayne: My Father gave a behind-the-scenes look at Circus World. The script had a spectacular, pyrotechnic climax that shows the protagonist caught in a big tent as it catches fire. Wayne’s character must rescue all of the caged animals and spectators by chopping down seats and poles with an ax. However, he refused to let a stunt actor take his place for this particular sequence.
“For five straight days, my father ate smoke from artificial fires and real fires, set and put out and set again.,” Aissa wrote. “‘I’ll be fine,’ he promised my mother each night. ‘Once the fire scene is finished, I’ll be fine. This is what they pay me for.’”
Wayne took the necessary precautions on the Circus World set, which included wearing fireproof underwear and a fireman’s helmet underneath his hat.
“An unexpected breeze fanned the blaze even closer to his turned back,” Aissa wrote. “Fragments of glowing wood swirling around him, he kept swinging his ax through the black smoke rather than do the dangerous take again. He could not see that everyone else had fled, including Henry Hathaway, his director, as the fire exceeded their control.”
Aissa continued: “Assuming John Wayne would run, too, no one screamed ‘Cut!’ and my father stayed where he was, he and the fire until he could not withstand the smoke and heat. Seeing that he was alone, he angrily hucked down his ax and raced from the blistering tent.”
Wayne would ultimately survive the dangerous Circus World fire stunt, but it was a close call. Additionally, John Wayne: My Father confirmed that the actor still went through some other uncomfortable health difficulties.
“That night, my father stormed in with the red-streaked eyes of a drunkard, but he hadn’t been drinking,” Aissa wrote. “He barely spoke, and until I fell asleep, I heard him viciously coughing.”
Circus World would later hit theaters in 1964 to a disappointing box office performance and mixed reviews. The movie holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 50% from critics and 30% from audiences.