The Greatest Show on Earth Plot Summary (Spoilers):
The Greatest Show on Earth begins with a voice over and various scenes from a circus. A man named Brad Bradon, played by Charlton Heston, checks in with various circus employees, several of which question him about rumors that the circus will be running a short season that year. Brad assures them that the circus will be running a full season.
The scene shifts to a group of suits discussing the merits of only playing the big cities. One of them breaks the news to Brad that they only plan to run for 10 weeks. Brad objects, saying they can’t put 1400 people out of work. The suits counter that they can’t risk $25k a day on a “sentimental journey.” Brad tells them that playing only the big cities would cut the heart out of the show and destroy it within 2 seasons. One of the suits suggests that he might consider more dates if only they had a bigger headliner. Brad tells them they have “The Great Sebastian.” The suits point out that he has wrecked every show he’s been with, but Brad insists that the patrons he will draw is worth the risk. He wins the suits over to the merits of signing The Great Sebastian, but points out that the only way to sign him was to promise him a full season. One of the suits is pissed about that, but Brad counters that you can’t get good acts for a 10 week show. The suits agree to go with Brad’s plan, as long as they are making money.
After Brad leaves the meeting, one of the suits points out that The Great Sebastian only works in the center ring. Brad acknowledges this and the suit says he’d rather crawl in the cage with the lions than have to tell Holly she’s out of the center ring. Brad agrees, but declines the suit’s offer to take the blame.
Brad goes to find Holly, who is rehearsing her trapeze act. He orders her to get down and she dismounts the trapeze and lands in Brad’s arms. She enthusastically kisses Brad and says that’s for getting the circus a full season. Holly annouces that Brad got them a full season to the rest of the performers and they all celebrate. Brad tries to temper their enthusiasm by telling them they only get the full season if they make money. News that The Great Sebastian will be joining the show gets out and Holly seems upset, though the rest of the cast seems happy about it.
Brad tries to console Holly, saying he didn’t want to sign Sebastian, but it was the only way to get a full season, but she doesn’t want to hear it. Eventually, Holly gives in and Brad tells her she’ll be performing in ring 1. Holly tells Brad that she’d do anything for him. Brad tells her that “out under the sky” she knows how he feels about her, but under the big top, she’s just another performer that he has to treat like any other. Holly is pissed and storms off after accusing Brad of having sawdust in his veins.
The scene shifts to a couple of men discussing their plans for the show. One of them warns the other that Brad is a tougher customer than he’s used to dealing with, but the man insists he’ll roll right over Brad if he has to. The man in charge, named Mr. Henderson, advises the other man, named Harry, not to tangle with Brad or try to bribe him. Mr. Henderson hands Harry a bag of peanuts and walks off. Harry discovers a roll of cash in the bag, that is meant to bankroll his operations.
Holly commiserates with the clown Buttons, played by James Stewart, about her troubles with Brad. Buttons tricks Holly into seeing the situation from Brad’s point of view and she decides she’s been acting like a big idiot. However, she’s still unhappy that she feels Brad loves the circus more than her. She questions Buttons about why he never tries to romance any of the girls in the show and he tells her that he already has a love, though he won’t say who. Holly compliments Buttons on how well he wraps the gauze around her trapeze bar and Buttons looks concerned.
The circus is ready to move out, but Sebastian has not arrived. Just as Brad barks orders for someone to find him, he pulls up, trailed by a pack of police officers. The Police have been pursuing Sebastian thanks to a number of traffic infractions and one of them tells him he’ll need to pay $100 in fines or spend 60 days in jail. Sebastian shows them his empty wallet and then tells Brad he’d hate to miss the first two months of the show. Brad agrees to pay Sebastian’s fines.
A few of the ladies are already aquainted with Sebastian from past jobs. Angel tells a jealous elephant trainer named Klaus that she wouldn’t want Sebastian if he were dipped in gold, but Phyllis seems much more enthusiastic about him. Sebastian takes a shine to Holly, but Phyllis warns him that he just put Holly out of the center ring and she’s not real keen on him because of it.
Sebastian ignores Phyllis’ advise to avoid Holly and runs up to introduce himself. He apologizes for putting her out of the center ring and then goes into flirt mode. Sebastian tells Holly to come with him to speak to the boss and he will have Holly put back in the center ring. She excitedly agrees.
The pair go to speak to Brad and Holly tells him that Sebastian wants to give her the center ring. Brad tells Holly that Sebastian is the star of the show and the star plays the center ring. Holly angrily tells Brad that if he won’t give her the center ring, she’ll take it by making herself the star of the show. Sebastian tells her there’s no way she’s going to take the center ring from him. Holly promises Sebastian that whatever he does, she’s going to do it better and the auidiences are going to be watching her.
The press latches on the story of Holy and Sebastian’s competition for the center ring, as word of their death defying duel spreads. The auidiences go crazy over their one-upmanship, but Buttons expresses concern to Brad that this can’t go on much longer before one of them gets hurt or killed. Brad blows him off, saying this is the circus. Holly nearly falls, while doing a chair balancing trick, but catches herself on the bar. After they come down, Brad tells them to cut out the “dogfights” and stick to their acts. Holly tells Brad that he just doesn’t understand and that only another flyer like Sebastian could truly understand what it’s like to be her. Angel tries to warn Holly off pursuing Sebastian, telling her that she already has a good man in Brad, but Holly insists that Brad only cares about the circus.
During the parade, an older lady signals to Buttons and he hops off his float and puts on a show for the kids around the lady’s section. He then offers her a fake bunch of flowers and she whispers in his ear that they’ve been asking about him again. He assures her that they’ll never find him behind this nose. He asks the lady for a smile he can remember until next year and then leaves, saying “it’s alright mother.”
The circus moves on to another city. In spite of being told not to, Holly is doing a dangerous act, that a previous performer was killed during, and her rigging is not set up for. When Brad learns of it, he orders some workers to bring her down. When they do, the crowd laughs and Holly is furious at Brad. She accuses him of being jealous. Sebastian and Angel both critsize Brad for turning Holly into a laughing stock. Brad shows Angel the frayed rope Holly had been swinging on and Angel urges him to show Holly how his actions saved her, or else she’ll never forgive him.
Sebastian attempts to romance Holly, but Angel interrupts by having her elephant pick Holly up and carry her off. Angel escorts Holly over to Brad and leaves her there. Holly tells Angel to keep her nose out of her business. Brad shows Holly the frayed rope she had been swinging on and it finally dawns on her that Brad probably saved her life. Brad tells Holly to knock off her duel with Sebastian before she gets hurt. Holly is pleased that Brad says he cares about her and not just the circus. Brad tells her that if she doesn’t tone down her act, he’s putting a net under her and the same goes for Sebastian.
Sebastian continues his pursuit of Holly, which prompts her to advise Brad to marry her quick or lose her forever. Meanwhile, Harry is stirring up trouble on the mid-way by ripping off customers in his rigged games of chance. Brad busts in on one of Harry’s scams and forces him to refund the money he swindled his customers out of. Harry threatens Brad for getting involved, but Brad insists that he runs a clean show. Brad kicks Harry’s ass and throws him in a mud puddle and then tells him to get lost.
Mr. Henderson confronts Brad about throwing Harry out of the show. Brad refuses to take Harry back, saying wherever Henderson operates, the midway is full of pickpockets and shady gambling. Henderson tells Brad he won’t stand a chance fighting against his outfit, but Brad refuses to back down.
When Holly antagonizes Sebastian about working with a net, while she does not, Sebastian annouces he is about to do a new, dangerous trick and then dramatically cuts one of the ropes holding his net up, before going on for his act. Holly screams at Sebastian not to attempt the trick without a net, but he does it anyway. Sebastian misses the bar and falls to the ground, as the audience screams. Brad rushes to help Sebastian, but commands the other employees to keep the show rolling. An obviously injured Sebastian commands Brad to walk him off, rather than have him carried off in a stretcher. Brad and Buttons help Sebastian leave the show ring, to the applause of the crowd. The MC tells the crowd to stay in their seats and that The Great Sebastian is shaken, but not badly hurt.
Contrary to the MC’s annoucement, Sebastian is pretty busted up and after receiving treatment from the circus doctor and Buttons at the first aid tent, he is transported by ambulance to the hospital. The circus doctor is impressed by Buttons’ medical skills and Buttons claims to have been a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy. Holly praises Sebastian for attempting such a “wonderful” trick and he assures her that he’ll do it next time and she’ll be the one falling….for him. Holly sobs in Brad’s arms and he assures her that Sebastian will live. He also tells her that she will be playing center ring tomorrow. Holly protests that she didn’t want it like this.
The show goes on and eventually Sebastian returns from his hospital stay. Most of the performers are excited to see him again, though Klaus is still jealous. Brad seems initially happy to have Sebastian back, but when Sebastian refuses to shake his hand and Holly is over the top enthusiastic about his return, Brad seems to sour on him a bit. Sebastian annouces that he doesn’t want the center ring back from Holly and Brad questions why. Sebastian says that he only returned to collect his things. Sebastian tells them that he ran into some girl he hadn’t seen since Paris at a rival show and he plans to work there. Brad doesn’t buy it and snatches Sebastian’s coat away to reveal his severely damaged right hand and arm. Holly blames herself for Sebastian’s injury, but he tells her that it isn’t her fault. Brad offers Sebastian a job with the show, but he refuses. After Sebastian leaves, Holly begins to blame herself again for pushing him into taking the net down. Brad tries to console her. Holly insists that she’s at fault and she thinks that Sebastian’s attempt to hide his injury from her is proof that he loves her and that she should leave with him and try to make things up to him. Brad tries to stop her, saying Sebastian doesn’t need her pity, but Holly leaves.
Holly finds Sebastian packing his things and tells him that she wants to be with him, but he doesn’t believe her. Sebastian tells her that she just feels guilty for goading him into cutting down the net. Holly tells Sebastian that he came back because he loves her, but he denies it. He also tells Holly that no one is to blame for his injury, but him. Eventually, Holly manages to convince Sebastian that he should stay, because she loves him.
Tensions escalate between Angel and Holly. Angel thinks Holly is just playing noble by staying with Sebastian and that eventually her lies will be exposed. Holly wants to know why Angel cares so much about what she does with Sebastian and Angel responds that she doesn’t care what happens to Sebastian, but that Brad doesn’t deserve to be treated the way Holly treats him. Angel declares that if Holly doesn’t want Brad, she does.
Angel makes her move on Brad and Klaus is not happy about it. Harry goads Klaus about it and tells him that he’ll never manage to get Angel away from Brad, unless he has the money to buy her stuff like Brad does. Harry tells Klaus he can help him get the money and revenge.
During the next show, Holly rushes to Brad and tells him that he better watch Angel, because word on the street is that she’s headed for trouble. During the act where Angel puts her head under the foot of one of the elephants, Klaus asks her if she thinks Brad would be as interested in her if the elephant were to lean a bit too hard on her face. Angel panics and tries to get up, but Klaus stops her. Klaus tells Angel she will never go to any other man, but before he can do anything else, Brad interrupts and gets the elephant to lift its foot so Angel can get up. Brad orders Klaus to get his things and get off the lot.
That night, an investigator shows up looking for a doctor. He shows Brad a picture of the man they are looking for, but Brad says he doesn’t recognize him. He asks the investigator what the man is wanted for. He replies that the man is wanted for murdering his young wife, who was dying anyway. He tells Brad that he is looking for him at the circus, because the doctor used to chase circuses as a kid. He wants to ride along and fingerprint some of Brad’s employees at the next town. Brad agrees.
Brad has a conversation with Buttons on the train. He tells him that there is a cop riding with them who is looking for a former doctor who murdered his wife. Buttons tells Brad that he has learned that Sebastian still has feeling in his injured hand and that means that a complete recovery might still be possible for him. Brad asks Buttons if that’s a professional opinion and Buttons responds that it’s a “clown’s opinion.” He then suggests that if Brad riles Sebastian up a bit, he might get his flyer back. Brad tells Buttons that the cop is planning on taking some fingerprints when they get to the next town.
Brad accuses Sebastian of faking his injury in order to get Holly, in order to rile him into trying to move the arm, which Sebastian does. They are all excited when Sebastian is able to successfully move his arm, when he tries to punch Brad. The circus doctor thinks with additional treatment that it’s possible Sebastian may regain use of his arm and Sebastian thanks Brad for doing this for him.
Meanwhile, Klaus and Harry stop the train by placing a flare on the tracks and then board the car where the money is kept. Harry orders the occupant of the car out at gunpoint and when he exits the car, Klaus knocks him out with his elephant goad. Klaus and Harry grab the money and flee in their car.
Klaus stops the car when he sees the second circus train approaching the first, which is stopped on the tracks. Sebastian enters the women’s sleeping car and proposes to Holly. Meanwhile, Klaus is dismayed that Angel is on the train that appears ready to crash into the first train. Harry urges Klaus to take the money and run, but Klaus is determined to turn the lights back on to prevent the trains from crashing. Klaus whacks Harry with his goad and then begins yelling for them to stop the train. He then drives his car up the tracks, still yelling for the other train to stop. They hit the brakes when they see Klaus’ car on the tracks, but they are unable to stop in time and plow into the rear of the first train, after hitting Klaus’ car and sending it flying off the tracks. The second train derails, sending people and animals everywhere.
Angel gets pinned in the debris of her wrecked car, but Holly and Sebastian rescue her. Brad is also pinned under some wreckage. Many of the workers are injured and a number of dangerous animals are freed from their cages. The circus doctor is knocked out cold. When the men are unable to free Brad from the wreckage, Angel grabs one of the elephants and uses her to pull the wreckage off him. Even while he is still trapped under the wreckage, Brad is insisting the show will carry on, in spite of the men’s insistence that there’s been too much damage.
Brad is seriously injured and possibly bleeding to death. Holly goes in search of Buttons, remembering how he patched up Sebastian after his accident. Holly finds Buttons trying to leave the scene of the wreck. She stops him and tells him that Brad is hurt and the doctor is knocked out. She reveals that she suspects Buttons is the man from the newspaper article she saw about a doctor who killed his wife. Holly begs Buttons to help Brad, because she loves him and Buttons agrees.
Brad warns Buttons that if that detective sees him helping Brad, he won’t need fingerprints to indentify him, but Buttons refuses to leave. Buttons determines that Brad needs a blood transfusion, but is dismayed to learn that Brad has AB negative blood, which is a rare type. Fortunately for Brad, Sebastian also has AB negative blood. Brad protests that he doesn’t want Sebastian’s blood, but Buttons ignores him. Brad continues to be determined to put on a show, in spite of everything that has happened. When he passes out, Holly takes up the charge, insisting that they will put on a show, no matter what they have to do. Holly frantically urges the men to round up anyone who is still able to perform and get them ready. Angel eventually joins the cause, saying she’ll gather all the elephants who can still walk. Holly charges Buttons with keeping Brad alive and says the rest of them will roll the show. Meanwhile, one of the baby gorillas flings money about as we see a shot of what appears to be Klaus’ dead body, crushed in the wreckage.
The performers put on a parade for the town, urging the townspeople to come out to the site of the wreck to see the show.
Buttons manages to save Brad’s life. Henderson shows up to gloat over the wreckage, telling Brad that he’s all washed up. The parade returns, with a hoard of townspeople, come to see the show, in tow. Henderson admits that Brad runs a good circus and tells him that he’ll wait for him to get back on his feet again, before he knocks him off them for good. The police officer shakes Buttons’ hand, before putting him in cuffs and hauling him off to jail.
Brad calls Holly over, who is still frantically trying to get the circus running. Brad tries to tell Holly that he loves her, but she is too busy barking orders to listen to him. As she rushes off to attend to the show, Brad declares that she has nothing but sawdust in her veins. Assuming Holly and Brad have reunited, Sebastian proposes to Angel and she accepts. Brad smiles as the show goes on. The film ends with a closing shot of the narrator urging the crowds to come again to see The Greatest Show on Earth.
The Greatest Show on Earth Commentary (Spoilers):
I’ve never been that big a fan of the circus and The Greatest Show on Earth has oft been cited as one of the worst films ever to win an Academy award, so I didn’t have high hopes going into it.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. Sure, the whole romance plot was kind of silly and soap operaish. Some of the acting was a bit suspect and at times, the movie didn’t seem to have much plot at all.
However, I still found myself enjoying it. The creators’ love of the circus shines through all the overwrought drama. Some of the special effects are a bit ragged around the edges, but the train crash sequence is truly impressive and emotionally devastating.
I’m not sure if the whole uber “the show must go on” mentality was more inspiring than foolhardy, but I did enjoy Brad getting a taste of his own medicine at the end, when suddenly Holly was too concerned about keeping the show going to be bothered with Brad and his professions of undying love.
I’m not going to say this movie was necessairly a great example of filmmaking, but it was an entertaining watch and at the end of the day, that’s still worth something.