“Did a woman start the rout of Rommel?” yells the poster tagline of Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo. Probably not is the answer. However, it’s a tagline that draws a person in, much like Godard’s often-quoted line “All you need is a girl and a gun”. Enough is going on in the sentence to make someone want to know the story.
The story of Billy Wilder’s 1943 war feature is more than entertaining enough for its fleeting runtime. Based on Lajos Biro’s play Hotel Imperial, Five Graves lands us in the North African desert, in which a delirious Corporal John Bramble is the sole survivor of a British tank crew battered by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Suffering from heatstroke, Bramble stumbles into an isolated Egyptian Hotel named the Empress of Britain, where he is greeted rather coldly by its owner Farid and the housemaid Mouche. There was a waiter, Davos, but he was killed by a German raid.
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The German’s haven’t finished with the area yet and decide to take over the hotel briefly for Rommel to scheme his plans. Bramble quickly assumes the identity of the decreased Davos, unaware that Davos was a spy for the German Army. Discovering that he may be at an advantage, Bramble decides to prepare himself to give word to the allies and gain an advantage in the territory. However, Mouche, distorted by bitterness due to the war begins to question whether her personal feelings are worth placing aside to assist the Allies.
Filmed and released while the war was still being fought, Billy Wilder’s second directorial feature is an impressive espionage thriller full of suspense, and a fair amount of the director’s cynicism, despite clearly being a propaganda piece for the Allies. Five Graves isn’t afraid to highlight the complicated bitterness held by people caught in the middle of the fighting, nor the brutality soldiers were facing at the time. The film may enjoy having hapless hotel owner Farid as a comic foil, or Eric Von Stroheim chomping down scenery as the calculating Field Marshall Rommel. However, its opening sequence involving a rudderless tank crossing the Sahara Desert with its passengers inside seemingly all dead is a scene that holds its fair share of savageness.
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Wilder’s film is one with a lot of moving parts. Characters hiding identities, making bargains which may go awry, and of course the meaning of the film’s title, which becomes a crafty plot point. To watch Wilder manage each sequence the way he does, highlights his talent as a storyteller from before the well-known titles with Lemmon, MacLaine, and Monroe. We get a lot of characters packed into the film’s 9 minutes, and yet never feel short-changed by their time spent on screen. A lot of this may also be placed down to the sharp screenplay by Wilder and his long-time collaborator Charles Brackett. Character developments and motivations are balanced carefully with tension and wry humour, but the film treads carefully to never fall into the kind of twee heroism that could easily befall such a feature. The good guys are smart, yet the bad guys are interesting, to say the least.
It’s all in the execution. Through simple visuals such as the Nazi flag pitched outside of a hotel named the Empress of Britain, to the strangely courteous yet smug manner that Rommel addresses some British prisoners of war over dinner. For a filmmaker who it was claimed to have a non discernible political tone, Five Graves to Cairo as well as A Foreign Affair still hold a fair amount of shrewdness about themselves. Five Graves may not tubthump, yet it holds a bittersweetness throughout its running time about the act of war and to whom it may damage which allows the film to be so noteworthy even to this day. If that’s not enough, Wilder is skilful enough of a director that he can coax drama out of a darkened room, a floored flashlight, and two gunshots. All in all, an enjoyable watch.
Blu-ray extras include a radio adaptation of the story and another segment from Billy, How Did You Do it? (the full documentary can be found on The Lost Weekend Blu-ray disc). A trailer rounds off the rather slim pickings found on a film that Quentin Tarantino considered to be one of his top five Second World War films. Such a ranking can be either a blessing or a curse dependant on one’s feelings on the man. However, with many of these vintage films now being released on Blu-ray for new audiences, one cannot hide the secret desire to see more bonus from contemporary filmmakers illustrating how the likes of Wilder shaped their craft. We cannot leave it all to Martin Scorsese.
Five Graves to Cairo is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.