For modern audiences especially, the movie’s opening crawl gives us a bit of helpful context. It’s June, 1942. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pounding the Brits back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. His notoriety as a tactician and “The Desert Fox” is already spreading. That’s enough on the historical moment.
However, as far as the film is concerned, this was Billy Wilder’s second film behind the camera. Not only is Charles Brackett producing, but he also shared script-writing duties with Wilder, deep into their lucrative, if complicated, collaboration. With the gorgeously perfected cinematography of John Seitz, it’s hard not to consider what was just around the corner. We can almost feel Double Indemnity peeking through. But we’re not quite there yet. There is still space to grow.
Wilder’s opening image is a fine vision: a phantom tank trawling across the sands driven by the dead weight of a corpse. Except, there is one survivor inside the rolling tomb; his name is Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), of the British army. He’s exhausted and terribly disoriented trying to make sense of his curious predicament just as we are.
In the end, the tank gets away without him, leaving the corporal to wander through the desert in a one-person exodus. Plagued by sunstroke, he eventually trades the vast arid emptiness for a ghost town, the former regimental headquarters for the British forces. They have long since left the premises.
One of the only people left in The Empress of Britain Hotel is Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a bumbling wreck of a man, trying to keep his neck and assuage all parties at every turn. The other is Mouche (Anne Baxter), a Frenchwoman in the middle of nowhere, serving as a maid. His cook ran out on him and his only waiter got it in the most recent blitzkrieg.
There’s no time to form a decision about the delusional Brit because just to make things more tenuous German forces roll into town, in preparation for the high command. It’s enough to make any man cave, much less a pile of perpetual nerves, wearing a fez, like Farid.
He obviously acquiesces to their every whim, except giving away their newest guest, currently stowed away behind a counter. He gets by on the skin of his teeth and through the clemency of his newfound benefactors as they vouch for him in his position as their waiter. For the time being, no one can catch them in the lie.
In full transparency, I’m not quite sure what to make of Baxter’s performance — that of an American playing a Frenchwoman, however, I’m rather hesitant to admit she does a fairly spot-on approximation of a Simone Simon or other French contemporaries speaking in English. Truthfully, the whole picture brazenly scrambles all the nationalities, somehow normalizing all the casting. Another American as a Brit. A Russian as an Egyptian, An Austrian as a German, and so on.
Italians come in as well, represented by the boisterous baritone, Fortunio Bonavova, grumbling about the state of affairs for his army. There proves to be a testy relationship even within Axis allies. As always, the Italians feel like the comical little brother in the scenario. If we take the Germans nominally serious — as a kind of threat — the Italians are all but dismissed.
Erich Von Stroheim gives a blood-chilling introduction, back turned completely toward the camera. One thing he doesn’t lack is stage presence, capturing the screen with the entirety of his entrance. While he’s not doing an imitation of the real Rommel, it seems Von Stroheim does us a greater favor by being a version of himself. After all, this is the same hallowed figure who gave us Greed, showed up in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and subsequently Sunset Blvd (1950). He is a worthy enigma in his own right.
The story twirls on a peculiar, if not altogether compelling, coincidence. Bramble takes on the persona of the crippled waiter as a pure survival tactic, only to find out he’s not what he seems. The Germans are the ones who make him realize this, by bringing him into their confidence. They seem in one sense highly rational — at any rate, not utter buffoons — and yet would they have actually been so stupid? We can only conjecture. Regardless, here we are. He’s been given an invaluable if precarious, opportunity.
With an influx of British prisoners, there’s a fear that the jig is finally up. They only need give the word, and he’s done for. Instead, they too play along, realizing their brilliant luck. 20 questions over dinner with The Desert Fox only elicits more riddles when it comes to his plans and unparalleled success.
Even more so than Stalag 17, Wilder’s picture is a small-scale war film. What’s present is a decently solid script by he and Charles Brackett. While it doesn’t always jump off the page, there are frequent lines, giving a stirring reminder of who is penning this story. These are the men behind Double Indemnity.
It also becomes obvious the battles have been left for others to reenact. At its best, Five Graves to Cairo is about character and with it, cracking the code of Rommel. It might seem like an insignificant victory but the implication for the broader war are made obvious. It’s easy to admit lives are at stake, even as Bramble teeters precariously close to being ousted. Mouche has no allegiance to him or the country that left her countrymen stranded at Dunkirk.
Instead, Wilder uses the bombers overhead as a bit of a tumultuous symphony for what is going down in the bomb cellar. Chiaroscuro is most boldly on display as our hero must flee for his life. If any character is redeemed, it is Mouche, but for the narrative to function, she is also forced to pay the consequences.
The ending is nothing to bat an eye at — certainly no extraordinarily inventive digression — but it suitable enough for its purpose. There’s a bit of satisfaction as Tone returns back to the place he once stumbled into, now victorious. There’s time for a laugh or two, even as a hint of somberness sets in. In the end, a new resolve has been instilled. We’re ready to go out there and do our part. It fits conveniently enough into the contemporary propaganda machine.
It left me thinking, what’s really missing is the trademark Wilder wit, whether trenchant or wholly subversive. Thankfully, there was still ample time for this to come to fruition. There’s certainly no illusions about war smelling like honeysuckle with enough sand, killing, and residual dead to rule that out completely.
But this early in his career, it still feels like Wilder willingly propagates an ongoing idealism about the Allies and America — the country that openly took him in when he needed a place. He would never lose his gratitude, even as he began to subvert convention soon enough. One could contend Wilder started to understand his adopted nation to its core — warts and all — and still managed to love it. This is one of the true marvels of his career.