June 1942, and in North Africa the previously strong British position has been beaten back by the schemes of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) who threatens to take the entire territory with his Nazi war machine. One man who knows this all too well is Corporal John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone), who has suffered a defeat of his own, the lone survivor of this British tank crew whose vehicle is travelling across the sand dunes out of control, for Bramble is unconscious and the others are dead. He wakens when the exhaust starts filling the interior with fumes, then tumbles out to the ground below, lost in the desert...
In 1943, of course, the Second World War was still going on, and when this was released it had another couple of years to go, but director Billy Wilder and his frequent co-writer Charles Brackett wanted to contribute to the propaganda emerging from Hollywood and this was the result, a sizeable hit for them both. That was largely down to the gimmick casting of famed silent movie director von Stroheim as Rommel; the German military man had attained a curious celebrity around this era - he would be murdered by his fellow Nazis the year after this film was out, apparently because he was leading a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
For that reason and others, Rommel's legend has grown over the decades since his death, which renders the depiction here all the more intriguing. Von Stroheim did not look entirely like the man he was playing, but he had cultivated a "man you love to hate" persona in his acting roles (as the publicity had it) which made him ideal to essay the role of a feared Nazi, even though von Stroheim knew better than to support the fascist regime in Europe himself. He insisted on exacting costumes and props to better immerse himself in the role, much as he had for the casts of his silent epics: securing silk underwear for his actors was one motive for nobody funding his movies anymore.
Wilder put up with this because he had been a fan of the veteran director and was entranced at the thought of him in one of his movies; it was fair to say the renown this generated was worth all the hassle von Stroheim would have caused (though he could have been worse) and Wilder went on to work with him again on a genuine classic, Sunset Boulevard, at the start of the next decade. All this is very entertaining to read about in a behind the scenes kind of way, but how did Five Graves to Cairo unfold as a film? Did it survive its very specific time and place to endure among Wilder's best efforts? Well, it did and it didn't: it can assuredly be recommended to those intrigued by the wartime propaganda of Hollywood, for it was more complex than it might appear on the surface. That said, it was a little hobbled by its message-making.
The actual process that Tone, who despite playing British made no attempt at the accent so sounded American throughout, undertakes to scupper Rommel's plans for ultimate victory at El Alamein was based partly in reality, though the business with the map code was hard to believe no matter how crucial it was to the outcome. Therefore you had to take the film with a pinch of salt, as it may have been a prestige production but that did not mean it avoided being hokey and even obvious. Rounding out the cast were Anne Baxter, who did a decent French accent as the waitress at the bombed hotel the characters congregate in, Akim Tamiroff in one of his Arab roles who may hold the key to the problem, but spent most of the story cowering and servile as the owner of the establishment, and Peter van Eyck as the German officer who may suspect that Bramble has a different agenda than the one where he poses as a waiter to keep himself undercover as he schemes. As a hothouse tale of derring-do against the evildoers of war, it was fine, and the final reminder this was not fun in real life held power, but Wilder was to do better once the war ended. Music by Miklos Rosza.
[Eureka release this on Blu-ray with the following features:
1080p presentation on Blu-ray for the first time ever in the UK from a brand new 4K restoration
Uncompressed LPCM audio (original mono presentation)
Audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
Billy Wilder on Five Graves to Cairo
"Five Graves to Cairo" episode of Lux Radio Theatre, originally aired in 1943, starring Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter
A collector's booklet featuring new writing by critic Richard Combs; and an archival article from 1944 about Wilder and Charles Brackett.]