Five Graves to Cairo

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FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO: Propaganda Depends on Point of View.

Jun 22, 2006 (Updated Nov 29, 2006)
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  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Entertaining performances by Actors von Stroheim, Baxter, Tamiroff, Bonanova. Bracket/Wilder screenplay. Billy Wilder's direction. Propaganda

Cons:National, racial stereotypes. Entirely fictionalizes one of two crucial battles in World War II. Propaganda.

The Bottom Line: FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO: propaganda in a good cause may be entertaining, witty, shrewd, and absolute nonsense. Has fine performance by young Anne Baxter; a great one by von Stroheim.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.


Want Entertainment?

Want REAL Propaganda?

The above tagline for Billy Wilder and Charlie Bracket's entertaining FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, about the British 1942 defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps at El Alamein, fits the bill.

Propaganda is simply information with a point of view, devoted to a purpose.

[By that definition, the first line of my review is both advertising and propaganda. Advertising in all its forms, infiltrating all our senses, is now the most insidious propaganda we experience, nearly every moment of our waking day.]

The information in propaganda may be true or false, entertaining or
not, and in films, it can come in the form of theatrical fiction or a
documentary, or as in the case of Michael Winterbottom's new THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO, a combination of the two. The best Propaganda, as invented by the Catholic Church (which coined the term), is absolute truth (or a reasonable facsimile of same), but on film, even when the propaganda is in a documentary mode, not everything can be true. Almost always certain events are staged (perhaps, re-staged), or if not, all of what the camera catches misses some of the truth, adds factors open for interpretation; or in the editing process alters that truth.

"Ve've been killing zee English like flies. Later, ve'll kill the flies like the English." -- cryptic remark by Lieutenant Schwegler in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO.

Amazingly, the facts are often forgotten, and in people's minds, the
manipulations, the distortions, no matter how cynical, illogical, or
outlandish, become the truth. It is an easy slide for a people from greed, envy, discomfort, or fear . . . to paranoia, sometimes national paranoia.

[Remember: the purpose of what we now have been led to call "the
long war" was "to bring in Osama bin Laden, Dead or Alive"; that we
attacked Iraq, waging "the war on terror" so that Saddam Hussein could not drop Weapons of Mass Destruction on American cities. Then, suddenly, Osama bin Laden was not so important anymore, but al-Zaraqawi was. Just as suddenly, Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction didn't exist [though on this day Republican Congressmen struggling for re-election were trying again to restore them, from rusty old canisters], but, no, we were fighting "the long war" to bring freedom, democracy and peace to the Iraqi people. Thus, Propaganda: costly business plans need expensive advertising campaigns to make them fly.]

Now Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, played in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO by
bullet-headed Erich von Strohem, did attempt to capture the Middle East for Nazi Germany.

"Our complaints are brief. Ve make zem against zee nearest vall." Lieutenant Schwegler, again, in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO.

AND . . .

A mutiny did occur, too, in the Russian Black Sea Fleet in 1905 as Sergei Eisenstein recreated it in his great BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), but the events did not resemble what he depicts them to be, and he does not show the ignominious end to the romantic enterprise. Leni Riefenstahl's magnificently twisted TRIUMPH OF THE WILL is a textbook for Propaganda, but Adolph Hitler, this God in Riefenstahl's lenses flown down from Valhalla to Nuremburg to enflame the bug-eyed Nazi Party Members and the German populace against encompassing enemies of Germany, is usually shown in profile, so as not to emphasize his rather broad posterior. You say you saw the Attack on Pearl Harbor in newsreels on TV? You probably didn't. Most of that footage was re-shot by Cinematographer Greg Toland (CITIZEN KANE, 1941) for Naval Commander/Director John Ford (THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY, 1942), to make the Japanese Air Force look at its most merciless.


FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, an outrageous piece of World War II propaganda, on the other hand, is complete nonsense, made up from beginning to end, and completely entertaining after over 60 years because the film still appeals to the kind of prejudices which has gotten us into "the long war," and will probably keep us in that "war" long after the most of bellicose of Armchair Generals reluctantly beg for us to get out.

[Can't you hear them now crying: "What fool ever invented the phrase, 'Don't cut and run'? It wasn't me!"]

FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO opens with a masterful sequence by Veteran
Cinematographer John F. Seitz, set to one of newly arrived Composer Miklos Rosza's wonderfully bombastic scores. It is late 1942. For more than two years, the Italians, British and Germans have panted back and forth along this stretch of North Africa, and Field Marshal Rommel's crack panzers, if their fuel holds out, are poised to take Suez, gateway to . . . dear me . . . the oil of the Middle East and Central Asia, when over the crest of a sand dune in the trackless Sahara comes, uncertainly, a tank.

A German tank?

No, it's supposed to be a British tank, but it's hard to tell what it is -- looks more like an American tank. Anyway, some "poor blighter" is hanging from the turret, dead. Inside, the driver is slumped against the throttle, and only stolid, laconic Corporal John J. Brambles (Franchot Tone), though unconscious, is still alive. He rouses himself, and as if in a dream, sees a structure identified by its sign as "The Empress of Britain Hotel," way out there in the Libyan desert. He leaps off into the sand, as the tank careens onward, and out sight.

Inside the hotel, which proves real, he discovers the manager, Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a thoroughly seedy Egyptian, who is ready to accommodate whoever comes along. He has two servants. One, Davos, a European, is missing after the last battle over this ground. The other is the sulky, beautiful Mouche (Anne Baxter), a French maid who has never forgiven the British Army for abandoning so many of her countrymen during the evacuation at Dunkirk, in 1940.

Corporal Brambles comes to realize that Farid and Mouche are preparing to receive the Command Staff of yet another army, that of Field Marshal Rommel's Afrika Corps. They are coming to plan the taking of Cairo, and a triumphant conclusion of the Fuhrer's campaign to reach unlimited supplies of oil. Brambles is in a tough spot, and he knows it.

Fortunately, the other servant, Davos, is found dead in the rubble, and Farid needs another servant to care for his guests. Brambles dons the dead man's clothes and assumes his identity. Farid and Mouche reluctantly take pity on him, and Brambles goes a little sweet on Mouche, despite her contempt for Englishmen

Then, near the end of Act One, in strides Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
(von Stroheim) to nearly steal the movie, superbly tailored in a desert
great coat, sun goggles on the visor of his cap, swinging his swagger
stick. He looks down on the Empress of Britain, for several reasons, if
for no other than its name. But it belongs to the "the first grave" on
the line of the Afrika Çorps' advance, a fuel dump where his tankers
may gas up.

And besides, Farid always assures everybody that there are no fleas in the hotel, "well, maybe in the cheaper rooms."

Rommel is soon holding conferences with his staff, such as his adjutant, Major von Buelow (Konstantin Shayne, uncredited but in his first of a number of pleasantly dry performances), and his Italian counterpart, General Sebastiano (Fortunato Bonanova), a figure of fun, who wins our sympathy. It develops that the dead and departed Davos was "a plant," an Axis spy who was supposed to keep track of the movements of British forces in their retreat. Brambles must come up with some "intelligence" for Field Marshal Rommel, and thereby turns the plot.

British prisoners are interrogated, and Brambles must play a slim game. Colonel Fitzhume (Miles Mander), for instance, is humiliated when Rommel boasts, "Ve'll take zat big fat cigar out of Mr. Churchill's mouth, und make him zay, "Heil!"

Brambles' deception requires him to applaud with the rest.

A love triangle is thrown in by Co-Writers Bracket and Wilder when
Mouche develops a yen for handsome Lieutenant Schwegler (Peter Van
Eyck). In 1942, we must understand, not all French citizens belonged to the Resistance. From her standpoint, "It's not the Generals I have to worry about. It's the Lieutenants." Brambles is jealous, but what can he do?

And so, the romantic and military action rolls on through FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO.


Charlie Bracket and Billy Wilder draw on a number of sources. The plot is very similar to Robert Sherwood's 1935 hit play, THE PETRIFIED FOREST. In that one, Rommel was escaped American Gangster "Duke" Mantee (Humphrey Bogart), Bette Davis was a slatternly version of Mouche, and Leslie Howard played a purposeless British intellectual, all of them gathered by chance in a lonely desert inn.

But under FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO's original play title, Hotel Imperial, there were at least four versions, most of them attached to the Hungarian Scenarist, Lajos Biro, two of them Eastern European and lost. In the first Hollywood adaptation, HOTEL IMPERIAL (1927), Director Maurice Stiller (discoverer of Greta Garbo) directed the great Silent Film femme fatale, Pola Negri, as a Slovak chambermaid who hides an Austrian officer when Russian General Juschkiewitsch (George Siegmann) takes over the hotel in World War I.

The film was remade by Director Robert Florey (THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, 1946) in 1939, with Italian bombshell Isa Miranda playing a Polish maid, Anna Warschawska, helping Ray Milland as Austrian Lieutenant Nemassy hide from Russian General Videnko (the burbling British actor, Reginald Owen).

You can see that the plot and setting makes room, if not strange bed fellows, for a variety of satirical characters, and Billy Wilder does not neglect to ring the changes. Though he could not persuade Gary Grant go out in the desert, he has Franchot Tone, newly divorced from Joan Crawford, at the height of his strengths as a leading man. And he has gloriously fresh and talented 19 year-old Anne Baxter, newly debuted by Orson Welles in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, to perfectly catch the rueful French charm of Mouche. Most of all, he has Erich von Stroheim, finished as a Great Director (GREED, 1925), but ready to give the first of two great character performances for Wilder. [The other: Max von Mayerling, Gloria Swanson's former director husband and now chauffeur, in SUNSET BOULEVARD.] He commands the stage like no other actor. The fact that he does not resemble Field Marshal Erwin Rommel matters little, in either physicality, manner, or attitude.

But that leads us back to why Billy Wilder's FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO was such good propaganda.

For one thing the British had won the Battle of El-Alamein the year before FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO was made, and Americans troops were now in North Africa. Americans, not quite as happily ignorant then as they are now about geography, were learning where Libya was (as they would about CASABLANCA).

For another, Wilder -- and here he is very shrewd and typically mocking -- knew that Americans were substantially of Germanic or Central European stock. Large numbers did not TRUST the British or the French, any more than they do today. But the Allies, paradoxically, had a grudging respect for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the modest, quiet tactician. [Prime Minister Churchill gave him a salute in Parliament.] By allowing the prideful von Stroheim permission to go "over the top" in his performance, Wilder made the now defeated Rommel an object of parody, but insured the film of a powerful center, which could serve his melodramatic propaganda ends.

[The following legendary exchange took place between Wilder and von Stroheim on the set of FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO: Wilder greeted the older director: "Imagine little me directing you; you were ten years ahead of your time." Von Stroheim thrust his chin out: "Twenty!"]

In addition to Rommel and the other German officers, by putting the British hero (Tone) down, by combining attractive and untrustworthy French qualities in Mouche (Baxter), by presenting the Italian General (Bonanova) as a likable, incompetent stoic, and in having Russian Akim Tamiroff give one of his gruffly humorous portraits in Farid the Egyptian, Wilder created a refreshing salad of allied and enemy stereotypes, very different from the rote characterizations of so many war propaganda films of the day. Audiences might like these highly theatrical creatures or snicker at them, as they pleased, but in their identifying with them, viewers became involved in Wilder's melodrama.

Wilder also had the talents of two extraordinary groups actors and technicians. Alexander Korda, sheltering in Hollywood to complete THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, had brought over from Britain Miklos Rosza (THE FOUR FEATHERS, 1939) along with Biro. Then, Anne Baxter, Franchot Tone, Akim Tamiroff, Fortunato Bonanova, and Konstantin Shayne were new faces or actors in new situations, who had either worked for or would work in future for Orson Welles.

[Interestingly, the other great Desert War propaganda film of 1943, SAHARA (Zoltan Korda, with Humphrey Bogart -- a film about that other great necessity, Water) utilized the talents of some of the same people.]


How must we judge Propaganda?

To my way of thinking:

As a result of our advertising, for instance, there must be an awful lot of middle-aged men and women sitting around, waiting to die of heart disease, emphysema, lung, throat or bladder cancer, who may wish they had not believed the commercials that said "Kent -- With the Micronite Filter," "Old Golds -- Give your throat a TREAT instead of a treatment," or "Virginia Slims -- You've come a long way, Baby."

How will the terrible load of misinformation we have swallowed in the last five years affect our body politic?

[Significantly, for all the inaccuracies and outright lies perpetrated by the Media concerning America's growing World hegemony, only a handful of actual war propaganda pictures have been made "in war time" by Hollywood since 1945.]

Did the Bolshevik Revolution work out for the Russian people? Are the offspring of 1930's Germans glad Muter und Vater joined the Nazi Party? Was it necessary for Americans to fight and win World War II?

We must answer for ourselves to the last question: Of course, it was.


Possibly, a good judgment on Propaganda can be made only after the
fact. In other words, not just did people buy it, but to what end did the propaganda lend itself? And were the people misled?

FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, obvious fantasy to even many of those who saw it at the time, was highly successful at the box office. The film remains entertaining today. The propaganda was justified?

In that final sense, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO is a pretty good movie. The propaganda was for a respectable cause, and the picture was witty and unpredictable. Sly Billy Wilder deserves the credit . . . on this day, June 22nd, which would have been his One Hundredth Birthday!

Wilder never lost his cynicism until his last great film (THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES), but he also never lent himself to this FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO kind of propaganda again (which means he was not a hack, like so many we have around us today.)


This review is part of weirdo87's Billy Wilder Centenary Write-Off. Please read other reviews of Billy's work at:


You might want to look at reviews of these related films:

THE FOUR FEATHERS -- This 1939 British Adventure film (much better than its recent re-make) is rather like FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, played straight in an earlier century. Filmed on location in Egypt by Zoltan Korda. One of the best adventure films ever made.


GREED -- Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece was mutilated in half in 1925 by greedy producers. A study of how materialism corrupts American marriages, it remains one of the greatest films ever made. Never again would von Stroheim have complete Rommel-like control over a production, hence the irony of his performance in Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD.


THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES -- Billy Wilder's witty but poignant 1972 homage to his life in film was not only his last great film but his least cynical, most personal one.


THE THIEF OF BAGDAD -- Co-Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan for Alexander Korda, this film is one of the most entrancing of Technicolor fantasies. The film was finished in America because of the coming of World War II, which brought here people like composer Miklos Rozsa, who worked on FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, and went on to be one of the most compelling of sound track creators for Hollywood's Golden Age. Generally attributed now to Michael Powell.

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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