FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO has grown substantially in stature over the years, and is now recognized as one of the best-written of the WW2 movies made during the conflict. Though it received three Oscar nominations (Cinematography, Film Editing and Art Direction), it was only moderately welcomed by contemporary critics, mostly for the performance of Erich von Stroheim, and wasn’t a big public hit.
Audiences had their plates full in 1943, with at least two dozen war movies that desperate, crucial year, along with scads of shorts and documentaries about the fight. Most of these were rah-rah (understandable) and rabidly propagandistic about the German and Japanese enemy (not like there wasn’t more than a bit of Asking For It involved).
One of the things that separates this suspenser (with little combat) from the herd is that scenarists Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett grant bad guys von Stroheim and Peter van Eyck (his first large part) intelligence, good manners and enough human touches to not only make them seem like they actually come from Earth instead of the planet Hun but persuasive as formidable adversaries for the casts heroes.
Allies are represented by Franchot Tone (very good, his best work), Anne Baxter and Akim Tamiroff (a comic relief Egyptian here, a far cry from his dangerous Spaniard in the years biggest hit, For Whom The Bell Tolls).
Slick plot ( Wilder & Brackett borrowed and updated from an old play, Hotel Imperial) has Englishman Tone pretending to be a German double-agent at the desert hotel run by Tamiroff and Baxter, when Germany’s most feared and respected Field Marshal Rommel (von Stroheim) and his staff show up during their offensive against the Brits. Can Tone keep his cool while trying to pry loose Rommel’s secret ‘five graves’ plan?
Wit abounds, and Wilder directs his second time at the helm with skill, though there are naturally a few plot holes you could drive a tank through if you want to aid and comfort the enemy.
“Our complaints are brief. We make them against the nearest wall.”
Hitler’s half-hearted ally Italy was getting less vitriol from Hollywood, so an Italian general is played for laughs by Fortunio Bonanova (who gets to belt some opera), just as J.Carrol Naish played an Italian soldier for sympathy that same year in another desert war film favorite, Sahara. No doubt this was due to having a large segment of the US with Italian ancestry, but also for Italy’s embarrassing, thankfully lackluster duty as the proverbial third leg of the Axis (meanwhile, the Japanese, whose rampage around Asia wasn’t noted for sentiment or cheer, received about as much slack as today’s ISIS).
Legendary director (and world-class self-fable spinner) von Stroheim is terrific, his intense bearing, subtle inflections and clever bits of physical business stealing every scene he’s in. Music score is from Miklos Rozsa, an old hand in the sand (The Four Feathers, Sundown, Sahara). 96 minutes which cost $855,000, returned $1,200,000.
Wilder & Brackett restrain blood-rage in favor of practical determination, but they do end with this, so Herr Adolph can sweat a little: “Don’t worry, Mouche, we’re after ’em now. When you feel the earth shake, it’ll be our tanks and our guns and our lorries. Thousands and thousands of them. British, French and American. We’re after ’em now, coming from all sides. We’re going to blast the blazes out of ’em.” It was, after all, nineteen forty-three.