Five Graves To Cairo
US (1943) Dir. Billy Wilder
The Germans got everywhere during World War II, despite most films on this subject concentrating on their European occupation, for instance, the desert campaigns that took in Africa. Fear not, British were on hand to thwart this global takeover bid, first taking out the German’s allies the Italians, only to fall the wrath of the vengeful Nazis. Could anybody stop them?
In Tobruk 1942, the British army suffers a major defeat at the hands of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, leaving one tank crew with lone survivor, Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone). Tired and suffering from heat stroke, Bramble manages to stagger to an empty town where he finds a hotel, run by Egyptian Farid (Akim Tamiroff) and French chambermaid Mouche (Anne Baxter).
Bramble is taken in and allowed to rest up but shortly after he arrives, the Germans turn up to commandeer the hotel as their new base, headed by Rommel himself (Erich von Stroheim). To avoid suspicion, Bramble takes on the identity of Paul Davos, a waiter killed the night before, unaware that the real Davos was a German spy. Under this guise, Bramble is told he will be sent to Cairo to continue Rommel’s mission.
Watching Five Graves To Cairo, Billy Wilder’s second film as director, the seeds of what was to come are being sown before our eyes, even if this may be considered a “lesser “ Wilder film. The cheeky spark of his debut The Major And the Minor may not be present but the subversive snark of later films like Stalag 17 or A Foreign Affair can found in some of the dialogue.
More importantly, the groundwork for Wilder’s seminal dramas like Double Indemnity, which came a year later, is laid in the fictional wartime outing. Based on the 1917 play Hotel imperial by Hungarian Lajos Bíróplay, Wilder and co-writer Chares Brackett moved the setting from Austria-Hungary to Egypt, and supplanted the Russian army for the Germans.
Remarkably, the Second Battle of Tobruk was still in progress when the script was being written, meaning some creative licence was taken with much of the details concerning the events that took place, although the outcome was in the record books by the time filming began. If it hadn’t, the denouement would have been a fairy tale ending at worst and amazingly prescient at best.
Opening with a tank rolling aimlessly over desert dunes with a dead pilot at the helm, Wilder not only sets the scene for a grim wartime drama but also frames the desert as an oppressive location for someone like Bramble to be stuck in. The hotel – named the Empress of Britain – might offer water, food, and a bed but with Rommel soon to arrive, his safety may not be guaranteed.
At first, the tone appears almost anti-British, especially with the tirade from the caustic mouth of Mouche against Bramble for the people left behind at Dunkirk when he insists the British will be back. Both Mouche and the nervy Farid have learned to play the game as far as the Germans are concerned, except Mouche is a fiery one whilst Farid keeps his head down to keep it on his shoulders, his witty under the breath comments providing the light humour.
Having to wear a surgical boot because Davos had a lame leg, Bramble goes all out in assuming this identity, finding fortune in the fact neither Rommel nor his number two, Lieutenant Schwegler (Peter van Eyck) had met Davos, making his ruse easier. However, when some British officers are captured, one of them did know Davos, but Bramble is able to get him onside to explain and they hatch a plan together to take advantage of Bramble’s deceit.
Elsewhere, Mouche has a younger brother in a concentration camp and hopes to use her womanly charms on Rommel to secure his freedom, since every male at the hotel is hoping to end their drought of no female company. With Rommel not biting, Mouche instead tries her luck with Schwegler who has been hitting on her since he arrived, and of course complies. But don’t read this as Mouche being a loose woman, this is about her exploiting a male weakness, not Mouche defiling her own integrity.
Something that is fascinating about films of this period, even in Hollywood, is the way the Nazis are portrayed as more human than we knew them to be. Rommel isn’t shown as a heartless monster but a proud albeit indoctrinated general. When the British officers are captured, Rommel treats them to lunch and even allows them 20 questions to learn about his victories – a hubristic act for sure, but Rommel is in control of his answers, or so he thought.
Limiting the locations to the hotel for the bulk of the film, Wilder is able to create plenty of tension and suspense within this relatively small space, although some suspension of disbelief is required in how Bramble can operate and not be caught. As a reminder this is wartime, an air raid late in the film provide some visceral excitement by way of setting up a brief foray into espionage-esque action.
Putting aside the fact the whole cast speak English, Wilder’s knack for getting the right performance out of his actors is already place here. Franchot Tone is a strong lead but contends with the incendiary presence of Anne Baxter, the pathos of Akim Tamiroff, and the inimitable Eric von Stroheim, this impressive collective making the sum greater than its parts.
Just as we find with music acts who break through with their third album only to retro actively find the genesis of this success in the first two overlooked albums, the same can be said for Billy Wilder. Double Indemnity might have put him on the map as a director but much of its DNA is found in Five Graves To Cairo, in another case of a “lesser “Wilder film proving more valuable than it first appears.