I suppose it goes without saying that war movies made while WWII was still in progress are inevitably going to be propaganda pieces. The more routine ones can lay the flag waving and speech making on so thick as to appear more than a little stodgy when viewed from a distance of over sixty years. The more memorable examples, at least from a present day perspective, are those that manage to tell a story that goes beyond merely depicting heroic resistance, a story that remains absorbing and exciting in its own right. Such is the case with Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Naturally, the film was conceived and produced with the aim of assisting the war effort, but it avoids beating the viewer over the head with its message – at least until the final minutes. What we get instead is a tight, suspenseful yarn where the propaganda is served up sparingly and, for the most part, with subtlety.
Corporal Bramble (Franchot Tone), the sole survivor of a tank crew after the fall of Tobruk, stumbles out of the desert and into a battered, run down hotel. With the British in full retreat the only occupants are the owner (Akim Tamiroff) and a French maid by the name of Mouche (Anne Baxter). While the owner panics, Mouche is openly hostile to the new guest due to her bitterness over what she regards as Britain’s desertion of France at Dunkirk. However, the arrival of the Afrika Korps, and their illustrious chief Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), signals a softening of her attitude; not by much mind, but she can’t bring herself to betray Bramble. Therefore, Bramble assumes the identity of the recently deceased waiter Davos who, it turns out, was actually a Nazi agent sent on in advance. As such, Bramble finds himself in the dangerous yet privileged position of having Rommel’s confidence as the Field Marshal prepares for his assault on Cairo. That task would seem an impossible one given the demands made on his lines of supply. Yet Rommel’s ebullient self-assurance suggests he holds a trump card, which is hinted at via references to five graves and a mysterious professor. Bramble/Davos now faces the challenge of discovering the identity of the professor and the significance of the five graves before his cover is blown. None of this is made any easier by the continued ambivalence of Mouche, who is determined to “do business” with either Rommel or his aide (Peter van Eyck) in order to secure the release of her brother from a Nazi concentration camp.
Directing only his second feature in Hollywood, Billy Wilder was already showing signs of his trademark style. Bleak is a word that has been used to characterize Wilder’s world view, and that’s certainly in evidence in the opening shots which show a tank trundling remorselessly across the vast desert, manned by its crew of dead men. There are lots of inventive little touches throughout the movie, such as the point of view shot seen through the intricate lattice work of the hotel desk, or the zoom cut to the transom as it snaps shut and knocks a concealed weapon into plain view. Alongside this is the sharp dialogue and strong characterization one typically associates with a Wilder picture. There’s a nice contrast of acting styles on show from both von Stroheim and Tone; von Stroheim is all swaggering Germanic confidence while Tone underplays his role as the ingratiating and obsequious waiter/spy. Anne Baxter does well enough as the conflicted maid, but it’s a tough slog with all the showmanship going on around her, not to mention the scene stealing comedic turn of Akim Tamiroff. The other supporting roles are well filled out by a young Peter van Eyck, Fortunio Bonanova, and Miles Mander’s British colonel, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Field Marshal Montgomery.
Five Graves to Cairo was a Paramount picture so the rights now reside with Universal who, in association with Madman, have released this on DVD in R4, at least both of their logos appear on the cover and on the disc itself. The transfer is a particularly fine one and is crisp and sharp throughout. There are some occasional damage marks but I can’t say I found them to be very distracting. The disc also has a 25 minute documentary on Anne Baxter, and there’s a nice 15 page booklet on the movie by Adrian Danks inside the case. This was one of the few Billy Wilder films I hadn’t seen before and I enjoyed it immensely. There’s so much going on that the 90 minutes seemed to fly by yet the pace never feels forced, save the ending which is a bit rushed. If you count yourself a fan of Wilder, or you just like war/spy movies, then Five Graves to Cairo is well worth seeking out.