Wilder: Five Graves to Cairo (1943) - Can't Stop the Movies

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Can't Stop the Movies
26Aug/120

Wilder: Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

NOTE: Just a few days ago it was revealed that Five Graves to Cairo is finally being released on DVD in October. When we talk about its unavailability... well, that ends soon!

In June 1942, the 8th British Army Corporal John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) is retreating from Rommel's Afrika Korps and has sunstroke, reaching a remote hotel in Sidi Halfaya. He is helped by the Egyptian owner, Farid (Akim Tamiroff), under the protest of the French chambermaid, Mouche (Anne Baxter, pronounced 'Moo-sh'). However, soon the hotel is home to a new guest: none other than Rommel (Erich Von Stroheim). In disguise, Bramble must sneak his way through a contingent of Nazis and discover the truth behind Rommer's strategy, codenamed 'the five graves.' The fate of the British in Egypt depends on whether a humble corporal can penetrate that secret...

Let me start this review with a quick thank you, Danny. You really championed this movie many times while we were discussing films I made it my goal to find this movie. Even though it was hard to find (and it's total bullshit that this isn’t on DVD/Blu-ray), it was worth it in the end, and everything you said about the film was true, so thank you again for promoting this movie so much.

Now what is Five Graves to Cairo all about? It is the first movie in my opinion that showcases what Wilder really could do with a film. The Major and the Minor was a fun film and is highly enjoyable but at the end of the day it is still a very well made romantic comedy and Mauvise Graine, was a dull film that feels much longer than its 76 minutes run time. Five Graves to Cairo shows that it is something special from the first shot.

While rewatching these films again I am trying to focus more on the director Billy Wilder and less on the writer Billy Wilder and what I saw in this movie is a man mastering the visual medium by his second film. The opening shot is of the total devastation of the British army by Germany. Wilder does not have to show much actually destruction but he follows one single bombed out tank rolling through the desert of Egypt with the hero of the story on board. This shot conveys the horrors of war, the absolute defeat that the Allied armies were being handed in the African theater, and it immediately ratchets up the tension that the film sustains throughout the movie. This shot is also very bold because the movie was made released in 1943 when the war was not going well for the Allies, and the opening was probably not a good way of boosting morale.

There is so much more I want to cover in this film but I will let you speak before unleashing all of them. The one thing I really want to ask you right away is your thoughts on the way that Wilder uses shadows and light/darkness in this film. I thought many shots really played up these contrasts and shadows in a way that was very reminiscent of noirs from this time. While this is a war picture and a damn good thriller, it does share some traits with noir in the fact that most of the characters operate in a shade of grey where both the villains (mostly Rommel) and heroes cross lines they normally wouldn’t in order to help win the battle/war. Do I have something here or am I crazy?

Five Graves is a film that I'm convinced will be held up as a Wilder masterpiece if it ever gets decent distribution-- Wilder's Ace in the Hole was practically forgotten until the Criterion Collection picked it up a half a decade ago. Graves is a hell of a mood piece, and radiates wartime drama with a ferocity few other films of the time managed.

This is Wilder's first collaboration with cinematographer John F. Seitz, who he'd go on to work with Wilder on Double Indemnity (thus why this probably reminded you of noir), The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard. All four of the films rely heavily on shadows to cloud their ways, though Five Graves also has a decent portion take place in the harsh light of day. The desert in this film is pretty harrowing, and matched in its creepiness by the bombed out catacombs of the Britannia Hotel and the ruins of the surrounding (fictional) town of Sidi Halfaya.

Perhaps my favorite visual flourish of the film doesn't come from the cinematographer, but from an actor: Erich Von Stroheim's take on Rommel dominates most of the film, and his face and presence looms over every character. He's generous but petty, cruel but humorous, ingenious but vain. His plans that he's been carefully laying before the first frame of the film are brilliant-- but his overconfidence is what undoes him and ends his rampage across Northern Africa. Stroheim's ability to play the combination of cold but amused so masterfully makes him a larger than life figure-- much like the real Rommel most certainly was at the time this film was shot.

Which it must be mentioned, since we currently aren't in 1943, that this film is about as 'ripped from the headlines' as movies got back then. The rout of Rommel in Egypt happened in the autumn of 1942, and the Allies were still enthused by their sudden ability to conquer a commander considered so dangerous. The Northern African theater was done and finished by the time this film premiered, but the infamy of Rommel would still inform how he was portrayed here.

The way the various nationalities are at play here-- the heroic Brit, the compromising but sympathetic French, the domineering German, the silly Italian, and the hapless Egyptian-- all speak to the broad scope of the war, and play carefully with the American point of view, which, of course, was who this film was made for. Mind you our lead, Franchot Tone, is about as British as I am, which clears up even moreso whose side we're supposed to be on.

But considering the time this was made, it's not surprising by how the film ends on sentiment and a drive towards victory. Co-writer and producer Charles Brackett said, a few years after its release, that Five Graves to Cairo "reeks with the stink of propaganda". What do you think Ryan-- is this a good film, or a good film in spite of when it was made?

I think the film is just a good movie and the tacked on monologue at the end was a product of it's time. Would the film been a little better if it ended more on a bittersweet note with Mouche's sacrifice without the rah--rah lets go speech? I think it would have been, but, thankfully, 60 years of history gives us a perspective that Brackett did not have when he made that statement. I have seen movies made from WWII and later that were much more of a propaganda film than this one.

I love how this movie had a bit of alternative history built into the movie. Like you mentioned, this film was being released at the same time that the Allies were finally taking control of the war, and when it was written/shot, Wilder and Brackett had no idea how Rommel had been successful in the past and what would happen next. Instead of waiting a few years to find out, they came up with their own plot about the "graves" and that makes it immensely watchable to a history nerd like me. To see what the thoughts were like of historical figures when they were at the height of their popularity from the other side is also quite compelling. Harry Turtledove novels have nothing on Five Graves to Cairo.

I agree with you about Erich Von Stroheim stealing this film. He was the most interesting character in the film thanks in part to the director's performance (he is also great in another Wilder classic we will talk about soon), but also due to the fact of how interested many people were of Rommel at that time. Von Stroheim dominates this film and leaves very little for the rest of the actors.

I remember I liked Anne Baxter in this and Franchot Tone was a decent hero, but I don't think anyone could argue against this being Von Stroheim's film. The one other character I wanted to talk about was the Egyptian hotel owner, Farid. Up to this time, and way afterwards Hollywood did not have a great track record of portraying Middle Eastern characters in the best of light, but Farid is a really good man. He helps Bramble for no monetary gain but because it is the right thing to do. Farid is probably the most honorable person in the film, and Wilder/Brackett didn't write him this way to get a pat on the back but because it worked for the story, no matter his nationality. More creators could learn a thing from this.

Finally the last thing I wanted to mention was this is the only true thriller that I can think that Wilder had made. Double Indemnity was a thriller but fell more into the noir genre, and there could be a argument Witness for the Prosecution fits the bill, but I think it is safe to say that Five Graves is not the type of film that many people associate with the director.

It's too bad because he really had a knack for it. Many scenes in this film I watched really intently because I was curious on how the scene was going to play out. The movie had mistaken identities, lies building on lies, double crosses and more, and it was actually thrilling, something that many "thrillers" forget to do. Five Graves to Cairo is a movie that not only Wilder fans but people who like classic films should see. I just hope that someday Criterion or some other company will wisen up and make this easily watchable for film fans, it is a movie that deserves to be appreciated as the gem it is.

Yeah. The only thing I can imagine holding back the release is some complicated rights issue, or the fact that none of the film's stars are well remembered. Franchot Tone comes across as a younger, cockier Bogart, and, hell, half the time watching this movie, I kept mentally calling Baxter 'Eve Arden' without even thinking about it.

That being said, I really do love all the effort they put into Baxter's character here. Within the first few seconds of meeting her you can read her deal: when the dehydrated British corporal stumbles in, talking to mirages, she makes no move to help. When the Nazis enter town, she puts on her lipstick with a half cocked grin on her face; she's been waiting for this.

Mouche is also the most dynamic character, as everyone else is too busy to be engaged with the manly war to do much introspection. Bramble's heartfelt desire to return home and his unwavering belief that he's doing what's right eventually melt her, and set up for the best shot in the movie: Mouche descending the stairs, at the top prepared to turn Bramble in for the murder of the man who may have helped free her brother, at the bottom convinced that doing so may doom the Allies and put the fate of millions on her soul.

Any time you can watch an actress make a transformation like that and buy it, it's an impressive feat. I know you said that you'd wished Ginger Rogers had reappeared in Wilder's filmography, but I think Baxter is much more attune to this period of his films. Slap a bad blonde wig on her and she may as well be Stanwyck in the next Wilder movie we hit.

I know you're trying to wrap it up, but I've got two more things I want to bug you about, Ryan: first is how do you take the comedic bits in the film? The Italian general in the film, played by the great character actor Fortunio Bonanova is pretty much a buffoon. Reading up on the film, it sounds like this is based on a screenplay called Hotel Imperial, which was the same plot set in World War I and originally written by Lajos Bíró-- who also wrote screenplays in the 20's for who else but Ernest Lubitsch. Doesn't surprise me a bit.

Second, what's your favorite line in here? Mine has to be: "We're swatting the English like flies. Soon we'll be swatting flies like the English." There's something so brilliantly malicious in that thought process, in the way it shows the Nazi Lieutenant Schwegler (Peter van Eyck) dehumanizing his enemy and already gloating about their conquests. There's some other good corkers in there too, so don't let me stop you.

This probably isn't the answer you want about the humor in this film but I can't actually think of anything worthwhile or smart to say. Wilder can find the levity in even the bleakest of situations and this movie is no different. Much like Mel Brooks would do for most of his career and the Nazis, Wilder is taking away some of the power of the bad guys by making them a buffoon and the butt of everyone's joke.I have heard that it was loosely based on Hotel Imperial but I didn't know it was from a fellow Lubitsch associate, this bumps it up a few spots in my must watch list.

Getting back to the female lead in this film, I have seen a few films with Anne Baxter but other than her defining role in All About Eve, this is my favorite performance by her. She was in a shade of grey through most of the movie and a lot of the thriller aspect I was talking about earlier came from not knowing what she was going to do, she is the true definition of a wild card. You say you could see her in Double Indemnity but I think she could have been great in the role from Ace in the Hole that Ann Sterling played. I would have loved to see what she could do with the famous line "I don't go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons."

Speaking of favorite lines, I have to go with probably the most famous passage from the movie.

Lt. Schwegler: You have a native cook by the name of Berek.
Farid: Terek, sir. Terek. Yes, sir. But he ran away this morning. With the British to Alexandria.
Lt. Schwegler: You have a wife.
Farid: Oh, yes, sir. Yes. But *she* ran away. Yes, sir.
Lt. Schwegler: With the British to Alexandria?
Farid: No, sir. With a Greek to Casablanca.

Is is pure Wilder and goes back to him finding humor in any situation and I also have a soft spot for Farid. But speaking of Casablanca, I think you have something more to say about a movie named after the city?

Well, 1943 is pretty much remembered as the year of Casablanca, as it swept the awards that year and firmly won its place in the pop culture consciousness. But there are a lot of interesting comparisons you can draw between the two pictures, and how they reflect wartime ideals.

Casablanca has the reluctant hero realizing there were more important things in the world than his petty jealousy, while Five Graves does the same thing with Mouche. But where Rick sacrifices his love, business, and possibly freedom to make a difference, Mouche's sacrifice is more harrowing. Giving her life and, most likely, the lives of her brothers for a country that isn't even her own-- it's incredibly downbeat and touching. It's also cynical in a very Wilder way, in that sacrifice must be made to overcome human selfishness and arrogance in pursuit of a greater good.

I enjoy Five Graves more because its story seems to have real stakes, moreso than just who ends up with who. Casablanca is a romance movie set during wartime, Five Graves is a wartime movie with a small bit of romance on the side. It says that the Allies' success will come not because of superiority, but because of empathy and kindness, two traits the Nazis were not especially well known for. Our nations did eventually succeed, but the price, as shown here, was not a cheap one.

But, hey, we can't dwell on this film (great as it is) forever, and Wilder's next movie also juggles empathy and kindness, though they're both twisted almost beyond recognition. While Five Graves to Cairo is a great film, it's not hard to argue that Wilder's next remains one of the greatest films ever put together, and remains to this day the definitive statement of both his worldview and the seedy underbelly of the so-called 'American Dream'.

Next Week: Double Indemnity (1944)

 

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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