The word “atrocity” often gets bandied about fairly liberally to describe crimes that don’t quite rise to that level of seriousness. However, it is perfectly apt to use the term in relation to the fact that the 1943 film Five Graves to Cairo, Billy Wilder’s second film as a director, is not available on DVD. Ever since its release, Five Graves to Cairo has lived in the shadow of another, similar film from the previous year–Casablanca. That film, however, does not feature the great Erich von Stroheim as Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Taking that fact into consideration, Casablanca looks like a piece of shit.
Five Graves to Cairo opens with an amazing shot: a tank rolls through the desert with a dead British soldier hanging off the turret. Inside the tank, we see more dead soldiers. Shell casings litter the floor, and smoke fills the cabin.
One man, however, is alive: Cpl. John Bramble (Franchot Tone), who, in a weakened state, falls out of the tank, which continues on without him. Bramble crawls through the desert and makes his way to a small oasis town. He walks up to an inn–The Empress of Britain–but hallucinates that it is divisional headquarters and gives his report to thin air.
The innkeeper, Farid (Akim Tamiroff), tries to get the addled and exhausted soldier to come to his senses, but Bramble passes out, and Farid, along with the French maid, Mouche (Anne Baxter), get him out of the way just in time as the Nazi infantry arrives.
The Nazis prepare the inn for the arrival of Rommel and his men. They also steal all the soap from the inn, but Nazis can be assholes in that way, so what are you going to do?
Bramble manages to evade discovery and decides to disguise himself as Paul Davos, a Morrocan waiter who was killed in a recent air raid. As Davos, Bramble can spy on the Nazis and learn something about Rommel’s plan, as the German tank commander is handily defeating the German infantry in northern Africa. However, in an interesting twist, Bramble soon finds out that Davos was already working for the Nazis, spying on British officers who came to the inn. This puts him in an invaluable position with direct access to Rommel and the other Axis officers at the inn.
Von Stroheim shows up twenty-five minutes into the movie, and we first see him delivering a message to Berlin in German. Then, he gives the message in English so that the Allies don’t have to waste time translating the intercepted message. The great director’s performance as Rommel is amazing, as one would expect from his more well-known collaboration with Wilder, Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim designed his own costume and make-up for the role–Rommel has a a kind of sunburn ring around his forehead because Von Stroheim imagined that Rommel was never out in the sun without his cap. During an odd meeting with British officers, Rommel is such a cocky, magnificent bastard that he gives his enemies twenty questions to guess his strategy in North Africa. He reveals that he plans to defeat the Allies by spreading them out too far away from their supply lines. When asked why he doesn’t have the same supply problems, Rommel reveals that he has been preparing for this battle since 1937, carefully and secretly planting fuel, water, and other supplies in hidden locations: the “five graves to Cairo” of the movie’s title.
Later in the movie, Wilder uses real combat footage from the British victory at El Alamein, which occurred toward the end of 1942, around the time that the film was made.
Despite the film’s limited sets (almost the entire film takes place in the inn) and occasional staginess, Five Graves to Cairo is a highly effective spy thriller, and one can see the seeds of other adventure thrillers in this film. Franchot Tone (whose name I can never pronounce) does an admirable job in a role that is a bit out of his depth–Wilder had originally wanted Cary Grant for the part, in which case we would probably be talking about this movie in the same breath as Casablanca. Anne Baxter, as the French maid who appeals to Rommel for the release of her captured brother, doesn’t quite have the accent down in a role intended for Ingrid Bergman (again with the Casablanca).
But early in his directorial career (Wilder was already well-established as a writer before he directed his first film, The Major and the Minor), Wilder shows considerable visual skill. In addition to the bravura opening scene, Wilder also shoots an effective nighttime fight scene using only source lighting as Bramble tries to protect his identity from Lt. Schwegler (Peter van Eyck). And, like most of Wilder’s movies, there is considerable humor despite the serious subject matter. Much of the humor comes through von Stroheim’s amazing performance as Rommel, which by itself is reason enough for this movie to be on DVD. It also occasionally shows up on Turner Classic Movies–as it did a couple of weeks ago–and it’s a great, early masterpiece by a director who would go on to have quite a few masterpieces under his belt by the end of his career.