Billy Wilder‘s filmography is full of all time classics, but even his more obscure work is worth a watch. Following their release of A Foreign Affair, Eureka have released Wilder’s second Hollywood film, Five Graves To Cairo, a fairly straightforward war story that is raised by a witty script and some inspired performances.
Corporal Bramble (Franchot Tone) is the sole survivor of a British tank crew in Egypt. Stranded in the desert, he finds his way to an isolated hotel, which is soon occupied by a Nazi platoon led by the imposing Field Marshal Rommel. What follows is a battle of wits as Bramble tries to locate five German fuel dumps, strategically hidden by Rommel in the desert.
Tone is a bit wooden in the lead role – he’s great in the dramatic scenes but can’t sell Wilder’s characteristically wry humour in the same way as later leading men like William Holden and Fred Macmurray. Thankfully he is surrounded by an amazing supporting cast. As the sultry waitress, Anne Baxter was never more alluring; Peter Van Eyck is a suitably nasty nazi lieutenant and Akim Tamiroff is bumbling and likeable as the hotel owner, providing the tragic ending with it’s pathos. However it’s Erich Von Stroheim who steals the film, giving a commanding performance as Rommel.
Stroheim makes Rommel a compelling antagonist – a consummate soldier, who treats his prisoners fairly and commands respect in his enemies. Even his introduction is brilliantly done – he’s shot from overhead with his back to the camera, and the shadow of the ceiling fan casting him in light and dark. All we hear is his booming voice, and all we see is the back of his neck, and he makes a vivid impression straight away.
This is often dismissed as being “just” a propaganda film, which is misleading. It’s propaganda for sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a great film in its own right – just see Alberto Cavalcanti‘s Went The Day Well for an un-apologetically propaganda film that is still incredible cinema. There is admittedly a lot of flag waving rhetoric and jingoistic language that sometimes feels at odds with the pessimistic tone, but Wilder makes nuanced character decisions that never reduce the characters to black and white archetypes. Baxter’s character sucks up to the Germans and hates the British because of the way her countrymen were abandoned at Dunkirk, and even the baddies are given proper characterisation.
Rommel is treated respectfully, and even his sleazy adjunct is shown to be heroic as well as a villain, which is something you wouldn’t expect in any Hollywood war film, let alone one made during the war. If anything, Five Graves To Cairo has dated better than Wilder’s later, more patriotic Stalag 17, which is full of dated humour, and depicts the Germans as caricatured idiots.
A criticism often levelled at the film is that it’s set entirely in the hotel. However Wilder overcomes this with beautiful Chiaroscuro cinematography and original choices of camera angles that mean it’s constantly interesting to look at, and undoubtedly served as an influence on both Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Inglourious Basterds. The film also contains stark imagery – the opening shot of a tank full of dead and dying soldiers rolling through the desert is sure to stick in the memory, as is the poignant final image of a parasol providing shade for a lonely grave.
Billy Wilder is a director who is epitomised by his witty dialogue, but a film like Five Graves To Cairo is great evidence of his versatility as a filmmaker. It might be a bit dry in places, but overall it’s a thrilling adventure, with a neat twist and strong performances from a great ensemble cast.
The transfer isn’t as impressive as other restorations from Eureka, but it still looks beautiful. The extras are all great, with an informative commentary, a radio adaptation and an interview with Wilder himself.