Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

Synopsis:

During World War II, a British soldier (Franchot Tone, Dangerous) stationed in Egypt, hides in an isolated hotel. The Germans soon arrive and the soldier quickly assumes a false identity. The soldier’s situation gets more complicated when legendary German general Rommel (Erich von Stroheim, Sunset Boulevard) shows up at the hotel.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Our complaints are brief. We make them against the nearest wall.”

Billy Wilder’s WWII drama isn’t all that well known despite having high profile fans. Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) called it one of his favorite films, and Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) praised it for being a precursor of the Indiana Jones movies. While Five Graves to Cairo lacks the panache of Wilder’s best work, I think it deserves credit for at least trying to refurbish the war film formula.

Apparently, Wilder was terrified of getting typecast as a director of comedies after the financial success of his first Hollywood movie, the zany farce The Major and the Minor (1942), so he shrewdly decided that his next movie would be a heavy drama. As it happened, Five Graves to Cairo gave Wilder not only an opportunity to display his versatility, but also to create a morale-booster for wartime audiences.

The film is based on the 1917 play Hotel Imperial by Hungarian author Lajos Bíró (the play had been filmed at least twice before, first as silent in 1927, and later as a B-movie in 1939). It’s sometimes a little too obvious that the movie is based on a stage play. 90% of the story takes place in one location, a hotel in the desert, and the movie is way too talky (it’s hard to believe that filmmaker Crowe compared it to Raiders of the Lost Ark).

But you will immediately notice that Five Graves to Cairo brims with deliciously sardonic humor courtesy of Wilder and his long-time writing partner Charles Brackett (The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard). Wilder and Brackett’s biting humor provides a nice counterpoint to the propaganda aspects of the story, which tend to be at times a little too much — the overly preachy ending dates the movie badly.

You will also notice that Wilder learned a few tricks from making The Major and the Minor. The director always insisted that the best direction is the one that you don’t notice, but Five Graves to Cairo is stylish to the ninth degree. A case in point is the film’s powerful opening sequence. It’s a purely visual montage that grabs you right away. In fact, those first ten minutes are the best moments in the entire movie.

As for the cast, it’s a mismatch of styles and personalities. Wilder wanted Cary Grant (Suspicion) and Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) for the two lead characters, but he had to settle for Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter (All About Eve). While I’ve always found Tone a little bland, I thought he did a fine job here. Baxter is fine, too, as a bitter French chambermaid (FIY: Baxter’s French accent is unconvincing).

Filmmaker & actor Erich von Stroheim steals the film as famed Nazi General Rommel. Stroheim plays Rommel as a well-mannered but deadly egomaniac. It’s a bit of a caricature — little was known of the enigmatic Rommel at the time the movie was made — but Stroheim is magnetic as the grand Nazi general. Character actor Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil) provides fine comic relief as the nervy owner of the hotel.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

This isn’t one of Billy Wilder’s best offerings. However, Five Graves to Cairo mixes humor with the nitty-gritty aspects of war in an interesting way. I do think that Wilder’s 1953 comedy-war-drama Stalag 17 is a perfected version of Five Graves to Cairo. Notwithstanding its flaws, I recommend the film, especially to fans of Tarantino’s 2009 war epic Inglourious Basterds. B&W, 96 minutes, Not Rated.

11 responses to “Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

  1. This is one of those films I would come across on TCM, and since it’s free, give it a shot, because it’s always fun to see how the storytelling in films has changed over the yers – for good AND bad! Insightful review as always!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I pretty much agree with you. It’s entertaining but not without its issues, particularly the too obviously propagandist ending.

    Von Stroheim is very entertaining though, although nothing like the real Rommel. The actual reason for Rommel’s successes in the desert were more prosaic than Wilder’s explanation – intelligence failures among the Allies meant that he knew their plans in advance.

    I, too, thought it bizarre that Crowe thought this was a forerunner of Indiana Jones …

    Liked by 2 people

    • Perhaps Wilder couldn’t resist the temptation to caricaturize the enemy, hence Von Stroheim’s inaccurate interpretation of Rommel. Have you seen James Mason’s Rommel in Desert Fox? Loved Mason’s performance.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I’ve seen it a couple of times. Mason is very good, he’s definitely the best part. I was surprised to learn that the commando raid at the beginning is actually based on a true incident. As a biopic it’s disappointing though, as it tells us very little about Rommel – other than his role in the July plot, which is disputed. Other than Mason, the most remarkable fact about it is that it was made so soon after the end of the war.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Jeez, now I wish I HAD seen it, ’cause of the Keyser Soze reference, lol.
    It would be interesting to get a glimpse of the humor mixed with nitty gritty. It takes a sensitive balance to get those two right and not end up with an uneven tone. The last “war” pic we saw was Patton with George C. Scott, and I was reminded how extremely flawed that general was. Not that generals are supposed to be perfect, but I guess they knew nothing about PTSD back then.

    Liked by 2 people

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