Man on a Tightrope

Man on a Tightrope is a 1953 American film directed by Elia Kazan, starring Fredric March, Terry Moore and Gloria Grahame. It was entered into the 3rd Berlin International Film Festival.[2] The screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood was based on a 1952 novel of the same title by Neil Paterson. Paterson based his true story, which first appeared as the magazine novelette International Incident, on the escape of the Circus Brumbach from East Germany in 1950. Members of the Circus Brumbach appeared in the film version in both character roles and as extras.

Man on a Tightrope
Theatrical poster
Directed byElia Kazan
Screenplay byRobert E. Sherwood
Based onMan on a Tightrope: The Short Novel (1953)
by Neil Paterson
StarringFredric March
Terry Moore
Gloria Grahame
Paul Hartman
Richard Boone
Cameron Mitchell
Adolphe Menjou
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyGeorg Krause
Edited byDorothy Spencer
Distributed byTwentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Release date
  • June 29, 1953 (1953-06-29) (West Germany)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.2 million[1]


In 1952 Czechoslovakia, circus man Karel Cernik struggles to keep his beloved Cirkus Cernik together, which belonged to his family before being nationalized by the Communist government. The government allows Cernik to manage the circus, but he grapples with deteriorating conditions in the circus, loss of his workers to the state, and tension with his willful daughter Tereza, and his young second wife Zama, whom everyone suspects of being unfaithful. Cernik wants to end a budding romance between Tereza and roustabout Joe Vosdek, who has been with the circus for only a year.

Cernik is interrogated at the headquarters of the S.N.B. state security in Pilzen on why he is not performing the Marxist propaganda acts dictated by the government. Cernik explains that the skits were not funny, and that audiences prefer his usual act. The S.N.B. chief orders him to resume the required act, and to dismiss a longtime trouper who calls herself "The Duchess." Propaganda minister Fesker casually asks him about a radio in his trailer, alerting Cernik to a spy in his midst. Cernik is fined and released, although Fesker believes that he is a threat to the state.

Cernik, inspired by a recent spate of escapes from behind the Iron Curtain, has decided to escape over the border to Bavaria. Cernik suspects that Joe is the spy, but unknown to him, Tereza has learned that Joe is actually a deserter from the American Army who is planning an escape attempt of his own. Cernik's longtime rival Barovik visits and reveals that he knows of the escape plan. Barovik assures Cernik that because they are both circus men, that he will not betray him. Cernik agrees to leave behind most of his equipment for Barovik. Realizing that he must act swiftly, Cernik discovers that Krofta, who has worked for Cernik for twenty years, is actually the spy. Cernik ties up Krofta but is confronted by Fesker about a travel permit, which he issues to catch Cernik in the act of trying to escape. Fesker is about to pursue the circus when he is arrested by a commissar sergeant for issuing the travel permit.

Joe reveals himself to Cernik, who incorporates him into the plan. At the border crossing, Krofta escapes, but is stopped by Cernik from warning the border guards. In the fracas Krofta mortally wounds him. Using an audacious and violent dash across the only bridge, most of the circus safely escape only to be told that Cernik has paid with his life. Obeying his dying wish, Zama orders the troupe to march on to their next performance.



Shot on location in Bavaria, Germany, authentic acts were used, and the entire Brumbach Circus was employed for the production.[3] The original plot to escape in small increments across the border was the actual means used by the Circus Brumbach in their escape.


  1. Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p248
  2. "1st Berlin International Film Festival: In Competition". Archived from the original on 2010-02-02. Retrieved 2009-12-22.
  3. Elia Kazan: A Life - Page 477
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