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Billy Wilder’s early, unconventional WWII drama shows the master at the top of his game

Updated: Mar 27, 2021


British Cpl. J.J. Bramble (Franchot Tone), the sole survivor of his tank crew, hides behind the front desk of the Empress of Britain Hotel when the Nazis roll into the fictional Egyptian town of Sidi Halfaya.

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Blu-ray, 1943, unrated, wartime violence

Best extra: The insightful, enlightening commentary by film historian/author Joseph McBride

THERE ARE any number of reasons to put “Five Graves to Cairo” on your must-see list.

Chief among them, it was the second American feature directed by Billy Wilder. He’d served notice the year before with the frothy comedy “The Major and the Minor,” but as film historian/author Joseph McBride points out in an excellent commentary that’s included on this Kino Lorber release, he didn’t want to repeat himself the next time.

He didn’t. His World War II thriller was topical, unconventional and instrumental in his career. Wilder followed it the next year with the classic film noir “Double Indemnity,” which collected seven Oscar nominations, then switched gears again with the stark drama “The Lost Weekend” (1945), an Oscar-winner for best picture, director, leading actor (Ray Milland) and screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett, who also won for 1950’s “Sunset Blvd.”)

(1-4) Filmed partly in Arizona’s Mojave Desert, “Five Graves to Cairo” sets the tone in the nightmarish opening sequence as the camera pans the aftermath of a German attack on a British tank.

Bramble is stranded in the desert after falling out of the tank.


But Wilder was already at the top of his game when he and Brackett updated the 1917 play “Hotel Imperial” by Hungarian playwright Lajos Biro.

“Five Graves” was his first collaboration with Oscar-nominated cinematographer John F. Seitz (the others were “Double Indemnity,” “The Lost Weekend” and “Sunset Blvd.”), and it grabs you from the grim opening sequence as a British tank carrying the lone survivor of a German attack rambles across the desert near the Egyptian/Syrian border – in this case, the Mojave desert in Arizona and California’s Salton Sea.

The movie was also nominated for editing and art direction-interior decoration, but it isn’t just noteworthy for Wilder’s eye for detail and narrative chops. A native of Austria, he fled the coming Nazi storm and made his way across the Continent before arriving in Hollywood in 1934. He survived through disguise and deception, McBride says, a skill that motivates the characters here and a theme that fascinated him throughout his career. Case in point: “Some Like It Hot” (1959).

McBride also points out that “Five Graves” couldn’t have been more topical. It was filmed in early 1943, when Germany’s North Africa campaign, spearheaded by Gen. Erwin Rommel, was still in flux and released just weeks after the Desert Fox was turned back.

(1) Suffering from heatstroke, Bramble is delusional when he staggers into the hotel. (2) The Empress of Britain Hotel was built near California’s Salton Sea. (3) Akim Tamiroff plays Farid, the sympathetic hotel owner, and Anne Baxter is the French chambermaid Mouche, who harbors a grudge against the British.


But, except for a few minutes of speechifying at the end, it’s not your typical flag-waver. Wilder didn’t believe in simple sloganeering; these characters aren’t great heroes, they’re ordinary people trying to improvise solutions. Your sympathies for them will change. Even though there is some wartime action, the movie is a character study.

And, McBride says, Wilder’s emotional involvement in WWII was genuine: He lost his mother, father and grandmother in the Holocaust.

Delusional from heatstroke, Cpl. J.J. Bramble (Franchot Tone, “Advise & Consent”) staggers into a once-grand hotel and is taken in by its sympathetic owner Farid (Akim Tamiroff, “Touch of Evil”). Mouche (Anne Baxter, “All About Eve”), the French chambermaid, isn’t so welcoming: Her two brothers were among those abandoned by the British at Dunkirk.

When Rommel (a fantastic Erich von Stroheim, “Sunset Blvd.”) sets up his command at the hotel, Bramble masquerades as Davos, a waiter who died in a bombing, and spies on the Germans. He soon learns, though, that Davos was working for the Nazis, making him a double agent. He also learns that the Nazis have hidden supplies and ammunition on their march to Cairo and maneuvers to get the information to the British. Desperate to save her surviving brother, a POW, Mouche prepares to sleep with German Lt. Schwegler (Peter van Eyck, “The Wages of Fear”).

(1) Lt. Schwegler (Peter van Eyck), a rising star in Rommel’s Afrika Korps, has designs on Mouche. (2) Bramble masquerades as the waiter Davos, who was killed when the hotel was bombed, to spy on the Germans. (3) Erich von Stroheim, the director of “Greed” and an Oscar nominee for director Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.,” inhabits the role of Gen. Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.



Mastered from a new 4K restoration, “Five Graves” (1.37:1 aspect ratio) sports a solid grain, rich black levels and a broad gray scale that do justice to Seitz’s camerawork. Detail gets soft occasionally, but it is exceptional in the nightmarish opening sequence and especially in Rommel’s unform. Von Stroheim, who Wilder idolized, was a stickler for authenticity.

The audio – a 16-bit DTS-HD Master dual-mono track – isn’t as deep or nuanced, but it does the job – and doesn’t shortchange Miklos Rozsa’s (“Ben-Hur,” “Spellbound”) stirring soundtrack.

Other than trailers for “Five Graves” and other Kino Lorber titles, McBride’s commentary is the lone extra. That’s fine, because it’s one of the best.

Drawing from a wealth of experience – he’s written about Wilder, interviewed him and spent a day on the set of “The Front Page” (1974) – he traces the great screenwriter/director’s personal and professional history and explains how both fit into the context of this film. McBride also shares some wonderful anecdotes that give you a real feel for what made the master tick.

Long story short? “Five Graves to Cairo” is the total package.

- Craig Shapiro

(1&2) Bramble and Mouche reflect at the end of the day. (3) The chambermaid appeals to Rommel to save her surviving brother, who’s being held in a German POW camp. (4) Fortunio Bonanova provides some light-hearted relief as the opera-loving Italian Gen. Sebastiano. (5) Schwegler goes gunning for Bramble.


(1) Under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Britain’s Eighth Army rallies and turns back Rommel. (2) Bramble pays his respects to Mouche.



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