June, 1942. The British Army, retreating ahead of victorious Rommel, leaves a lone survivor on the Egyptian border--Corporal John Bramble, who finds refuge at a remote desert hotel...soon to be German HQ. To survive, Bramble assumes an identity which proves perilous. The new guest of honor is none other than Rommel, hinting of his secret strategy, code-named 'five graves.' And the fate of the British in Egypt depends on whether a humble corporal can penetrate the secret...
Franchot Tone ... Cpl. John J. Bramble / Davos
Anne Baxter ... Mouche
Akim Tamiroff ... Farid
Erich von Stroheim ... Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
Peter van Eyck ... Lt. Schwegler (as Peter Van Eyck)
Fortunio Bonanova ... Gen. Sebastiano
This 1943 World War II film is Billy Wilder's second directorial effort and it's a pretty good outing. According to a recent biography of Wilder, Cary Grant was offered the lead and turned it down, saying he didn't feel like going on location in the desert near Yuma, Arizona in August. The part then fell to Franchot Tone who gave a good account of himself as did Anne Baxter and Akim Tamiroff.
The film though really revolves around Von Stroheim and his portrayal of Erwin Rommel. In 1943 all that was known of Rommel was his military prowess in the desert. After the war we learned about his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler and the real story of his death. That's all covered in The Desert Fox and in James Mason's outstanding portrayal there.
What we get here is a portrayal of a cold, merciless, military machine Hun and no one did that better than Erich Von Stroheim. You watch this as did so many in the theaters in 1943 after the North African campaign was over and he became the man you love to hate.
Because of what later came out about Rommel this film became immediately dated. Yet it's still a curiosity and worth a look.
In 1941, in the middle of a long list of bad news items from North Africa, Prime Minister Winston Churchill did something very unusual for wartime. In addressing the House of Commons , Churchill admitted that the British were facing an enemy led by a brilliant general. It was the first time in modern history that an enemy leader gave a wave of approval (in it's way) to an enemy commander. That leader was, of course, Erwin Rommel, the Nazi German commander of the fabled Afrika Corps.
Churchill's note of admiration was one more element in the creation of the legend of "the Desert Fox" who defeated one British Army after another, until defeated finally at El Alamein by a plan created by General Auchenleck, but carried out by his replacement General Bernard Montgomery. Actually El Alamein simply stopped Rommel's drive to the Suez Canal - he and his men remained a viable opponent to the Allies in North Africa for another year, even winning a humiliating defeat of American forces at Kasserine Pass in 1943. Then Hitler ordered Rommel back to Europe, and his replacement, lacking Rommel's genius, was finally defeated. Rommel, sent to stiffen the "Western Wall" in France from invasion, eventually got involved in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and would be forced to commit suicide or find his family endangered by a vengeful Fuhrer. By the actions of 1944 Rommel, the best known German military genius the Second World War produced, gained a posthumous place as an eleventh hour member of the Allies.
Rommel would, of course, be the first Axis figure to be honored by a film biography from Hollywood - THE DESERT FOX starring James Mason. But in 1943 he represent Prussian militarism. So, when Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett made FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, they did not water down the nastiness of Rommel. Eric Von Stroheim, former silent film director, and now widely respected character actor, was chosen to play Rommel, and the character fit the brutal caricature (with some light touches fortunately) that Von Stroheim had developed a quarter century earlier when he played German soldiers in World War I films, or when he played the commandant of the prison camp, in Jean Renoir's LE GRAND ILLUSION.
The plot begins when a British tank appears that has just been in battle with the Germans. It's crew is dead, but for one man - Franchot Tone. Tone manages to stumble into a desert hotel that is run by Akim Tamiroff, where there are two members of the staff. One is Anne Baxter, a French girl, and the other is a male servant who is not around. Subsequently Tone finds that the male servant has been killed in a bombing of one of the hotel's supply buildings. He assumes the identity of the dead man. Tamiroff is doubtful about this act of duplicity, but remains silent out of a sense of pity for Tone's safety. Baxter is more openly hostile - she has lost family to Allied bombings in France, and has been reduced to working in this backwater. But she keeps a watchful quiet on the scene - leaving Tone wondering if she will betray her or not. As she soon is taking up with German Lieutenant Peter Van Eyck Tone's his concerns for her increase.
He realizes as the number of German troops coming grows that there is something big here. Soon he learns that Rommel is coming to the hotel for a brief rest before resuming his stunning sweep across North Africa. We see Rommel arrive, but do not hear anything until later - when we see Rommel dictating a letter to High Command in Germany. He is standing like a colossus with his back to us, playing with a swagger stick. He ends the letter comparing the speed of his advance through the desert with the forty years in the desert of Moses.
When Von Stroheim learns that Tone is in the hotel, he starts talking somewhat archly to him. Tone realizes that the servant was actually a gifted German spy. He keeps up the pretense to see what Von Stroheim might tell him. It's all centers on what the German calls, "the Five Graves to Cairo", and Tone tries to figure out what it all means.
I won't go into the rest of the story, but Wilder does very nicely with it. His Rommel is not the future ally that Mason created in the 1950s, but the cold, ruthless, brilliant enemy. He is a little arrogant , giving a military lecture to captured British officers (led by Miles Mander), but also capable of regretting the loss of promising German officers.
Wilder stressed that not all of the enemy were bad. Fortunio Bonanova plays an Italian general who is a liaison to Rommel's army - and is extremely friendly and likable. Actually he is totally ignored and despised by the Germans, who had sent the Afrika Corps to North Africa in 1941 after Italy was smashed by General Archibald Wavell's men in Libya. Bonanova's appearance and personality resemble the then famous Italian Fascist Minister of Aviation, General Italo Balbo, who had wanted Italy to remain friendly to the Allies or neutral (as opposed to the views of Mussolini).
For a film meant to beef up America's war effort and will to fight, even while looking somewhat awe-struck at a remarkable enemy figure, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO is a surprisingly sturdy film sixty three years later. I recommend catching it when it appears on television.
This picture was a popular hit in the time, concerning about historical deeds, as well as intrigue, action and comedy. In June 1942 things looked black indeed for British Eight Army. It was beaten, scattered and in flight Tobruck had fallen and the rats of desert were besieged . The victorious General Rommel(Erich Von Stroheim) and his Africa Korps were pounding the British back and back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. On July first 1942, Rommel and his Afica Korps reached El Alamein, as far east as they ever got. The film is set on an Arab Hotel called Hotel Imperial, where its proprietary Farid(Akim Tamiroff) accords to let a British soldier named Bramble(Franchot Tone) assume the identity of a deceased barman. There finds a French chambermaid named Moush(Anne Baxter) whose interest is in obtaining her brother out of a Nazi POW camp . Then, she asks to German lieutenant(Peter Van Eich) to win her brother's release. But the dead waiter results to have been a German spy , so Bramble tries to know where the Nazi supply depots have been stashed. Later Bramble is assigned one mission in Cairo, and on September seventh 1942, a new made Lieutenant bought a parasol at a little shop in Cairo. On October twenty fourth to the skirt of a bagpipe General Montgomery's Eight Army launched its counter offensive .
The film displays suspense, intrigue, action as well as lots of humor and wartime feats. Excellent performances, special mention Erich Von Stroheim as one of his prestigious roles as Nazi general and Fortunio Bonanova as an Italian singer official. Interesting script by Charles Brackett; Billy Wilder also collaborated on the screenplay and is based on the play 'Hotel Imperial' by Lajos Biro. In 1938, started the famed friendship between Charles Brackett and Austrian born Billy Wilder, following his initial hit there the former year with very funny 'The major and the minor' and prospered on such movies as 'Hold back the dawn, Ball of fire and Ninotchka', before they became a director-writer-producer tandem with Billy Wilder doing the film-making . The movie packs an evocative cinematography in black and white by magnificent cameraman John B. Seitz. Atmospheric musical and appropriate musical score by the master Miklos Rozsa. This highly successful motion picture is perfectly directed by the classic Billy Wilder. Rating : Better than average, well worth watching.
Probably one of the best US propaganda movies made during the war, this film boasts director Wilder's superlative talents in every scene, from the eerily effective opening sequence (a tank manned by the dead rumbles aimlessly through the desert, the sole survivor talks to imaginary people in the foyer of the Empress of Britain hotel but cannot see the real people there) to even the final chest-beating postscript, tacked on to ram home the obligatory propaganda message.
FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO is a compelling movie that grabs the attention from that opening scene and never lets go. The tightly plotted screenplay is packed with often cynical dialogue, and is complemented by spot-on performances by most of the cast (only Akim Tamiroff as the hotel owner is, perhaps, a little too overwrought). Erich von Stroheim gives an outstanding performance as Field-Marshal Rommel which, while it probably isn't very accurate, is a joy to watch. In fact, Stroheim dominates whenever he is on screen. While some of the depictions of the various nationalities involved are somewhat stereotypical (Fortunio Bonanova's Italian general is an opera-singing coward; all the German's are arrogant, although, it has to be said, are never portrayed as downright evil), this fortunately never diminishes the quality of the storytelling. Perhaps the only real fault in this movie is the occasional use of humour which is very hit-and-miss, and not really necessary.