The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO | The Movie Waffler


five graves to cairo review
A British soldier finds himself holed up in a small Egyptian hotel with General Rommel.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Billy Wilder

Starring: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff, Peter van Eyck, Fortunio Bonanova

five graves to cairo bluray

With his first movie as director in Hollywood, 1942's screwball comedy The Major and the Minor, the plot of which is set in motion when Ginger Rogers poses as a schoolgirl to avoid paying an adult train fare, Billy Wilder began a career long fascination with the idea of protagonists forced to assume false identities. It's a trope that would reappear in films like Some Like it Hot, Irma La Deuce and Fedora. A year after his American directorial debut, Wilder returned to the theme of false identity for WWII thriller Five Graves to Cairo.

five graves to cairo review

A remake of sorts of 1927's Hotel Imperial, Five Graves to Cairo takes place during the Nazi Afrika Korps' conquest of Egypt. Surviving an attack on his tank, British Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone) staggers deliriously through the desert until he comes across a crumbling hotel in the middle of nowhere - The Empress of Britain. There he is taken in by the establishment's sympathetic owner, Farid (Akim Tamiroff), but viewed with disdain by the hotel's sole employee, French maid Mouche (Anne Baxter), who holds the British in contempt for what she views as an abandonment of her country at Dunkirk, which led to the capture and imprisonment of her two brothers.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Away ]

Unluckily for Bramble, he finds himself sharing the hotel with some unwanted guests - a German battalion led by none other than Field Marshall Rommel (Erich von Stroheim). Bramble poses as Paul Davos, a waiter conveniently killed in an air raid, only to discover that Davos was actually a double agent working for the Nazis. Thus Bramble finds himself in the awkward position of pretending to be a Nazi agent who is simultaneously posing as a waiter. Using his new guise, Bramble hatches a plan to kill Rommel, but things are complicated by the arrival of a group of British officers taken prisoner, who insist that Bramble instead milk Rommel for as much info as he can glean about a secret Nazi plot involving weapons and supplies buried in five locations across Egypt, the "Five Graves" of the title.

five graves to cairo review

What a setup! Wilder's film has everything in place for a classic piece of claustrophobic, suspenseful storytelling. Unfortunately it's hampered by its propagandistic nature. The best wartime propaganda movies (Mrs Miniver, Millions Like Us, even the recent Dunkirk) combine optimism and courage with vulnerability and uncertainty. The worst are those which assume a stiff upper lip and present us with one-dimensional heroes who behave as though they somehow know their side is destined to come out on top. Five Graves to Cairo falls largely into the latter category. Tone's Bramble is so cocky and nonchalant about the terrifying scenario he finds himself embroiled in that his character may as well have been written for a wisecracking Bob Hope. As such, the great potential for suspense offered by this premise is eroded, as if he isn't bothered by sharing a hotel with dozens of enemy soldiers, why should be worried about his fate?

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Tesla ]

Far more interesting and nuanced is the secondary character of Baxter's Mouche. With two brothers held in concentration camps, she has a personal stake, and attempts to cosy up initially to Rommel, who brushes off her advances ("there will be no duet"), and then to his more receptive underling, Lieutenant Schwegler (Peter van Eyck). But until a late redemption, Mouche is viewed by the film with nothing other than contempt, promoting the idea of the French as snivelling cowards who will sell out their allies for their own self interest. In a scene that plays particularly condescending to modern eyes, Bramble mansplains to Mouche how she's being selfish while he's being noble in thinking of the greater good rather than his immediate family. What a much more psychologically interesting and nuanced film this might have been if Mouche were the protagonist, if she were allowed her own arc rather than simply being lectured by Bramble's pompous prat at every turn.

five graves to cairo review

If Five Graves to Cairo fails as a thriller due to its obnoxious hero and lack of relatable human stakes, it entertains as a hangout movie. Von Stroheim's Rommel steals the show, a larger than life character that holds his audience - both those on screen and watching at home - in thrall. So convinced of himself is he that he even teases the British officers with details of his secret plans, convinced that they will never be in a position to do anything with such knowledge. It's an objective failing of the film that its Nazi antagonist is easier to warm to than its British protagonist, but subjectively, Von Stroheim's general is a force of nature that enlivens this otherwise confused film with his magnetic star presence.

Feature commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; archival Billy Wilder interview; Five Graves to Cairo episode of Lux Radio Theatre, originally aired in 1943, starring Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter; trailer; collector's booklet featuring new writing by critic Richard Combs and an archival article from 1944 about Wilder and Charles Brackett.

Five Graves to Cairo is on blu-ray now from Eureka Entertainment.