This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Milos Forman's "The Firemen's Ball" was banned "permanently and forever" by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968, as Soviet troops marched in to suppress a popular uprising. It was said to be a veiled attack on the Soviet system and its bureaucracy, a charge Forman prudently denied at the time but now happily agrees with. Telling a seductively mild and humorous story about a retirement fete for an elderly fireman, the movie pokes fun at citizens' committees, the culture of thievery, and solutions that surrender to problems.
Foreman and his writer, Ivan Passer, found the inspiration for their film while writing another one. They'd just had an international success with "Loves of a Blonde" (a 1966 Oscar nominee). That one told the story of a young woman in a factory town where the women vastly outnumber the men; she unwisely falls in love with a musician who is not serious about her. Working on a new idea, they moved to a small town to get away from the pressures of Prague, attended the local fireman's ball, and realized they had the premise for their next picture.
The film follows a pattern common enough in Eastern Europe, where small human stories seem to be a slice of life, but might actually be subtle parables about the restrictive Soviet system. Screenplays had to be approved by censors, but many a change took place between approval and premiere, and in the case of "The Firemen's Ball" that was almost fatal. The movie was co-financed by the Italian producer Carlo Ponti, but after Czech authorities withdrew their approval, Ponti pulled out, and only the intervention of French director Francois Truffaut saved the film and found it international distribution.
The movie takes place during about 24 hours, as the firemen prepare for their event, attend it, and survive it. They're planning a tribute to their former chief, although it may be coming too late: "We should have given it to him last year, when he was 85," one observes, "instead of now when he's about to die." The ancient fireman, diagnosed with cancer, will be presented with a handsome miniature fire ax in a velvet-lined box.