September 29, 2016
Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
Grade: 61/100

Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: Franchot Tone, Erich von Stroheim, Anne Baxter

What it's about. Set during the North Africa campaign during World War II. Franchot Tone is a British soldier in a tank crew in the Egyptian desert. A tragedy has wiped out the crew except for Tone, who stumbles out into the desert, and somehow trudges his way to a town. The people have mostly gone, fearing a Nazi occupation, but not hotel operator Akim Tamiroff, and his beautiful maid Anne Baxter.

Tone crawls into the hotel and survives, shortly before Nazi soldiers arrive, led by the Desert Fox himself, General Rommel (Eric von Stroheim). To save his skin, Tone poses as Davos, a waiter killed during a bombing. Because it is a movie, Davos had been a spy for the Germans, and the Nazis actually believe Tone is Davos. Tone plans to murder Rommel, but instead tries to solve the mystery of the Five Graves to Cairo, Rommel's plan for conquering Egypt.

How others will see it. Five Graves to Cairo was only the second movie directed by Billy Wilder, if the obscure 1934 French film Mauvaise graine is ignored. The movie was a war drama set in an exotic country, substantially different from Wilder's first effort, the Ginger Rogers comedy The Major and The Minor. Five Graves to Cairo was not a box office hit. It did receive three Oscar nominations in less prestigious categories: cinematography, art direction, and editing. Most who see the film are interested in the career of Billy Wilder, a celebrated Hollywood hit maker for three decades (1940s through 1960s). They generally see the film favorably.

Today at, the film has a middling 3631 user votes, but the user rating is a respectable 7.4 out 10. The independent demographic of women over 45 grades it 7.7 out of 10, apparently approving of Anne Baxter's sacrifice for Tone and the Allied cause.

How I felt about it. Five Graves to Cairo is undoubtedly wartime propaganda, but so was Casablanca, and that movie is generally regarded as one of the best ever made. So, it is certainly possible for a propaganda movie to provide good cinema.

If Five Graves to Cairo doesn't quite succeed, you can't blame the cast or casting, except that Franchot Tone doesn't even try to feign a British accent. It's true that Erich von Stroheim looks older and fatter than Rommel, but he is perhaps the most entertaining presence in the film.

It is predictable that everyone speaks English, even if they are German, French, Italian, or Egyptian. Subtitles are bad for box office business. The stereotypes are more disconcerting. Poor Akim Tamiroff is as meek and servile as a puppy dog. The Italian general (Fortunio Bonanova) is a comic figure who does nothing except sing, drink, and complain about slights. The British are clever and heroic.

The two leads are the most unbelievable characters. Tone makes a sudden, miraculous recovery from near-death in the desert, without even a sunburn to show for it. None of the Germans recognize Tone as an impostor. He doesn't even know he has assumed the identity of a spy for the Germans until he is told by them.

We can accept that Baxter is so determined to help her wounded brother, held in a Nazi concentration camp, that she would remain in Cairo and wait on German officiers in the hopes that one of them would help her brother. Her motivation provides a plausible reason for a beautiful woman to be there, in an empty hotel in a deserted city about to occupied by Nazi soldiers who might sexually assault her.

Her character turn is much less believable. Rather than tell the Nazis the truth, that Tone is an impostor, a British soldier, and the murderer of German office Peter van Eyck, she shields Tone and confesses to the murder. This act will gets her tortured and/or executed, and certainly won't help her brother.

One can argue that Baxter is an allegorical figure, someone who sees the light that the Nazis are evil and must be stopped, and compared with that, the sacrifice of her life becomes unimportant. Nonetheless, this is not how people behave. Most people instinctively take the easier route, even if they are beautiful French women in occupied Egypt.

We also find it difficult to believe that Rommel would allow the British prisoners to ask him twenty questions about his war plans, and tell them critical confidential information. If so, it seems that he was killed by Hitler one year too late.