It should be remembered that when this film was made in 1967, Czechoslovakia was firmly behind the Iron Curtain. It was a country not easily visited, and lived more or less in isolation from Western Europe.
Milos Forman's classic comedy reached Britain in the following year, not long after Russian tanks had devastatingly crushed the brief uprising that had given Prague a flutter of hope that the long night of Communism might come to an end.
Forman's film is a simply observed, broadly comical account of a gala held by a small town's fire brigade to honour the 86th birthday of their past leader. In spite of the festive trimmings it is a pretty tacky affair - the committee is bumbling and indecisive, the prizes for the evening keep disappearing and even those delegated to guarding them are in on the thefts.
At the same time, an ad hoc beauty contest draws a bevy of extraordinarily unattractive competitors... And when the time comes to make the presentation to the guest of honour, the ceremonial axe is found to have been stolen from its velvet case, a calamity that is glossed over with stoical resignation by the intended recipient.
It is not hard to recognise that the sideswipes at bureaucracy, time-serving officials, ludicrous protocol, and misplaced priorities (when an actual fire takes place the firemen are completely off guard) are masked criticisms of the political regime. However, at the time, it was seen as a gently ironic social comedy, and together with the earlier "A Blonde in Love", were the calling cards that enabled Forman to embark on a successful American film-making career.