Cast & Crew
Peter Van Eyck
In June, 1942, in Egypt, the British Eighth Army is severely beaten by General Rommel's Afrika Korps. John J. Bramble, the sole survivor of his British tank crew, struggles out of the tank, which is roving aimlessly across the desert, and crawls across the sand dunes until he reaches the desolate town of Sidi Halfaya. The town has been nearly destroyed by bomb blasts, but the Empress of Britain Hotel is still standing. John, now suffering from hallucinations, believes he is at Divisional Headquarters and "reports" to the Egyptian hotel owner, Farid, and the French chambermaid, Mouche, that the Royal Tank Regiment has been destroyed. Farid is unable to bring John to his senses, and when John collapses, he hides the unconscious soldier behind the desk, as German troops are overtaking the town. German lieutenant Schwegler informs Farid that his officers will use the hotel as their headquarters, and installs Field Marshal General Erwin Rommel in the best room in the hotel, and an Italian general named Sebastiano, in the worst. John revives and, with his wits fully restored, dons the clothing of a clubfooted hotel waiter who was killed in the cellar during an air raid. John successfully impersonates the waiter, and manages to hides his surprise when he is given a personal audience with Rommel because the waiter was actually a Nazi spy. Mouche hates John on principle because she feels that the British forces abandoned the French army at the battle at Dunkirk, where her brother was captured. She goes along with his impersonation until she hears his plans to kill Rommel, because she wants to approach Rommel and plead for the life of her sole surviving brother, an amputee who has been interred in a concentration camp. Rommel has no interest in helping Mouche, however, so she turns to Schwegler, who promises to help her in exchange for sexual favors. When high ranking British prisoners of war are then brought in, John makes contact with the British colonel, who advises him not to kill Rommel. Rommel grants the officers a lunch and solicitously answers their questions about his battle strategies. Rommel's key strategy is preparation, and he reveals that in the 1930s, the Germans buried supplies all over Egypt in anticipation of the war. As the British officers leave, the colonel subtly relays to John that his mission is to determine the locations of the supply depots and send word to the British command. John already knows that the term "Five Graves" is the code word for the supply depots, and is led directly to the information when Rommel, still believing that John is a Nazi spy, shows him a map of Egypt, stating that the locations are so basic, he does not even need invisible ink. When Farid uncovers a 1930s newspaper article about German archaeological excavations, John recognizes a photograph of Rommel, and realizes that instead of excavating ancient sites, the Germans were burying supplies. John sneaks into Rommel's office and redraws his map on a piece of cheesecloth, identifying the locations of the depots as coinciding with the letters E-G-Y-P-T as printed on the map. An air raid ensues and Schwegler finds John in the room. Schwegler believes John's explanation that he was trying to save the maps until they are in the cellar and a blast uncovers the body of the real waiter. John escapes and, while everyone else takes cover during the air raid, kills Schwegler. Farid helps him hide the body and, knowing that Rommel plans to send John ahead to Cairo that night, arranges with Farid for the body to be discovered the next morning. Mouche refuses to cooperate further with John's deception, however, as Rommel has confronted her with telegrams apparently sent by Schwegler, which indicate that he was arranging for her brother's release. Mouche soon learns that the telegrams were fakes and that Schwegler had been deluding her. Later, Schwegler's body is found in Mouche's bed and Rommel accuses her of his murder. Experiencing a change of heart, Mouche accepts the blame, thereby freeing John to carry out his mission to Cairo. Before he leaves, John tells Farid to reveal that he was Schwegler's killer before the Nazis put Mouche on trial. John successfully reaches the British command, and on 1 July 1942, British forces destroy the German supply depots in El Alamein, and Rommel's troops never reach Cairo. In September, John purchases a parasol in Cairo that Mouche had longed for, and carries it with him in his tank when British General Montgomery's Eighth Army makes its counter-offensive. The British troops return to Sidi Halfaya in November, and take German and Italian troops prisoner. John learns from Farid that although Mouche was found innocent of Schwegler's murder, the Germans found her guilty of deception, and beat her to death as she cried, "The British will be back." With a broken heart, John places the parasol by her grave and, after paying tribute, rejoins his troops.
Peter Van Eyck
Erich Von Stroheim
C. C. Coleman
B. G. Desylva
Arthur A. Lane
Major David P. J. Lloyd
John F. Seitz
Major Melville Stack
Best Art Direction
Five Graves to Cairo
Wilder had done so well with his first directing assignment, The Major and the Minor (1942), that he and writing partner Charles Brackett were given the chance to produce their own films for Paramount Studios. Searching through properties the studio already owned, he spotted powerful possibilities in Hotel Imperial, a play by Hungarian playwright Lajos Biro, who had written some of the most successful films of Wilder's idol, Ernst Lubitsch. The 1917 play was set in a border town between Poland and the Ukraine during World War I, and told of an Austrian officer trapped behind Russian lines who takes the place of a dead waiter only to discover the man is a spy. Paramount had originally filmed the play as a silent in 1927, with Swedish legend Mauritz Stiller at the helm and Pola Negri as the chambermaid who helps hide the Austrian officer. The studio had attempted to remake it twice in the '30s, first with Marlene Dietrich, who walked off the production after a few days, then with Margaret Sullavan, who was sidelined by a broken arm. They finally released a remake in 1939 with Isa Miranda and Ray Milland. Both of those versions bore the play's original title and kept its World War I setting.
Seeing that the play would work with a more contemporary setting, Wilder moved the action to Egypt, which gave him the idea of casting von Stroheim as Rommel. The young director had been a fan of the Austrian director since the '20s, when Wilder was a struggling journalist and screenwriter in Berlin and von Stroheim an acclaimed director whose career was already being jeopardized by the visionary nature of his work. At the time, Wilder had written him an adoring fan letter begging for an autographed picture, which he would frame as soon as it arrived.
Von Stroheim was happy to accept the role, with its echoes of the villainous Germans he had played on screen during World War I. His directing career had long since faded and he had not received a directing credit since being fired from Hello, Sister! . Instead he had found work as a character actor, with his greatest success coming as the morose German POW commander in Jean Renoir's classic La Grande Illusion (1937), the performance that had convinced Wilder he was perfect for Five Graves to Cairo. At the time Paramount offered him the role, he was touring as Jonathan Brewster, the murderous brother in Arsenic and Old Lace. He gave notice with great relief and began sending Wilder script suggestions.
Wilder was all too happy to entertain ideas from his idol. On the day von Stroheim arrived on location, the director raced to the wardrobe department to greet him. Wilder said, "This is a very big moment in my life...that I should now be directing the great Stroheim. Your problem, I guess, was that you were ten years ahead of your time." To which von Stroheim said, "Twenty."
Von Stroheim had gotten permission from Paramount to design his own costume and makeup for the film. Whereas the real Rommel always dressed casually in loose-fitting uniforms, von Stroheim insisted on wearing "a uniform as it is supposed to be worn." Reasoning that the Field Marshal never removed his cap outside, he insisted that makeup give him a sunburn only from the eyes down. And after studying pictures of Rommel, he insisted that he carry authentic German field glasses and a Leica camera loaded with 35 mm film. When Wilder questioned his wanting film in the camera when it would never be seen, he shot back, "An audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false."
Wilder responded to von Stroheim's presence by showcasing his performance throughout the film. For the actor's first appearance, Wilder had him shot from the back of the neck until the scene was established, later arguing that "Standing with his stiff fat neck in the foreground he could express more than almost any actor with his face." He also allowed the actor to use a scene-stealing prop, a whisk with which to brush off flies, turn aside objects and, at one point, threaten leading lady Anne Baxter.
Although von Stroheim clearly dominates Five Graves to Cairo and got the best reviews, the other stars got their share of applause. Franchot Tone, who had studied with the Stanislavsky-influenced Group Theatre, was focusing primarily on stage work at the time, having completed a frustrating contract at MGM. Wilder would later say that he could not stand the actor, possibly because of the drinking problem Tone had begun to develop at that point. Baxter had also trained in the Stanislavsky system, working with his former student Maria Ouspenskaya in New York. Although Ingrid Bergman had been first choice for the role, Wilder was delighted with Baxter's performance, which helped the newcomer's visibility in Hollywood. But it was von Stroheim who got the most out of Five Graves to Cairo. His performance renewed interest in his work, at least as a character actor, and led to another villainous Nazi role in producer Sam Goldwyn's The North Star (1943). When Wilder needed someone to play Max, the one-time directing genius in Sunset Boulevard (1950), von Stroheim was the only possible actor for the role.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Brackett, Wilder
Based on the play Hotel Imperial by Lajos Biros
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegte
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Franchot Tone (John J. Bramble), Anne Baxter (Mouche), Akim Tamiroff (Farid), Erich von Stroheim (Field Marshal Rommel), Peter Van Eyck (Lt. Schwegler), Fortunio Bonanova (Gen. Sebastiano), Konstantin Shayne (Maj. Von Buelow), Miles Mander (British Colonel), Ian Keith (British Captain), Philip Ahlm (2nd Soldier).
by Frank Miller
Stroheim by Arthur Lennig
Billy Wilder in Hollywood by Maurice Zolotow
Five Graves to Cairo
TCM Remembers - Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder had the most deliciously dirty mind in Hollywood. The director dug into racy, controversial subjects with cynical wit and rare candor; he set new standards for film noir, sex comedies and the buddy film and his movies continue to inspire new generations of filmmakers.
Cameron Crowe, screenwriter and director of contemporary hit films such as Jerry Maguire(1996), was one of those moved by Wilder's film sense. The struggling filmmaker struck up a friendship with the 93-year old veteran and found a friend and a mentor. Their conversations were recently chronicled in a book by Cameron Crowe entitled Conversations with Wilder(published by Knoft).
Billy Wilder might have been born in Vienna, but American culture influenced him from the earliest days. Given the name Samuel, Wilder's mother called her son 'Billy' in honor of Buffalo Bill Cody. The name stuck.
Billy was as restless as his namesake and left law school to become a journalist. While grinding out articles for a Berlin newspaper, Wilder joined with future film directors Fred Zinnemann, Robert Sidomak and Edgar G. Ulmer to make a short film, Menschen Am Sonntag (1929). By the mid-1930s, he had written seven scenarios and even tried his hand at directing. After Hitler's rise to power in 1934, Wilder fled his homeland. Once in Hollywood, Wilder and roommate Peter Lorre had to learn English quickly if they wanted to join the American film industry. Together the German expatriates learned the language and began staking their territory in the Dream Factory.
As a writer, Wilder could craft realistic relationships with sharp dialogue; he proved this in his scripts for Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo and Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire(1941). As a filmmaker, Wilder was well acquainted with the shadowy, brooding style of German Expressionism. He brought these two gifts together to create a landmark film noir - DOUBLE INDEMNITY(1944). He followed this cinematic triumph with a risky project, the story of an alcoholic on a three-day binge. Not the usual subject matter for a Hollywood studio, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945) nevertheless claimed the Academy Award for Best Picture. By the end of the decade, Wilder dared even to paint a portrait of Hollywood stardom gone awry in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Each of these films is an undisputed classic today, but even at the time, his films were lauded. Six of his screenplays were nominated for Oscars between 1941-1950. Three of his eight Best Director nominations also came during this period. Billy Wilder claimed the American Dream; he was successfully playing by his own rules.
By the end of the '50s, as censorship guidelines were easing, Wilder's projects became even more daring. Sex was central to Wilder's world and Hollywood celebrated his candor. He directed Marilyn Monroe in two of her most sensuous roles, The Seven Year Itch (1955) and SOME LIKE IT HOT(1959). More often than not, Wilder liked pointing his finger at the hyprocrisy of people's sexual mores. In THE APARTMENT(1960), Wilder took an incisive look at corrupt businessmen exploiting their employees for sexual favors. In IRMA LA DOUCE (1963), the world of a Parisian prostitute was lovingly painted in Technicolor tones. In Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Wilder finally stepped over the line with the story of a struggling composer willing to offer his wife to sell a song.The film, which seems so innocent today, was scandalous in its own day. Critics called Kiss Me, Stupid pornographic smut and buried the picture. Audiences ignored it. Today, the film is a risque farce with great performances by Dean Martin and Kim Novak. The critical lambast deeply affected Wilder; this would be his last sex comedy.
In 1966 Wilder brought together the dynamic combination of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau with THE FORTUNE COOKIE. Director and stars teamed again for The Front Page (1974), a remake of the newspaper classic; and Buddy, Buddy (1981), the story of an assassin and a sad sack ready to commit suicide.
Wilder's many years in Hollywood produced an amazing string of hits. From sarcastic and cynical social commentary to outrageous sex farce, Wilder pushed his audiences to look at their own values and morals. He was an outsider who wasn't afraid to point out the follies of his fellow man or the worst aspects of American culture. He will be sorely missed.
By Jeremy Geltzer
TCM Remembers - Billy Wilder
We've been killing the English like flies! Later, we'll kill the flies like the English.- Lieutenant Schwegler
I'm not afraid of generals...- Mouche
You're not?- Lieutenant Schwegler
...it's lieutenants I'm afraid of.- Mouche
We shall take that big fat cigar out of Mr. Churchill's mouth and make him say Heil.- Field Marshal Rommel
The following written foreword opens the film: "In June 1942 things looked black indeed for the British Eighth Army. It was beaten, scattered, and in flight. Tobruk had fallen. The victorious Rommel and his Afrika Korps were pounding the British back and back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal." Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most widely known German general of World War II, was popularly known as the "Desert Fox" after he took command of the Afrika Korps in 1941 and led his troops to decisive victories in North Africa. Rommel has been the subject of numerous books and been a character in many films, the most famous of which was the 1951 Twentieth Century-Fox film The Desert Fox, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring James Mason as Rommel.
The Paramount Collection contained at the AMPAS Library reveals the following information about the production: Simone Simon was tested for the role of "Mouche;" the filmmakers originally intended to set the story in the Egyptian town of Sidi Barani, which was the site of actual fighting during World War II, and was captured by Rommel in 1941 and recaptured by the British in 1942; some scenes were shot on location at the Salton Sea and at Camp Young in Indio CA, where, with the cooperation of the Army Ground Forces, a battle sequence was staged, and in Yuma, AZ; the British Embassy assigned Major David P. J. Lloyd of the British Army Staff to act as the picture's technical advisor, due to his "firsthand experience and knowledge of desert tank warfare in Libya."
A Hollywood Reporter news item reported that in November 1942, David O. Selznick had agreed to lend Ingrid Bergman for this film. Paramount borrowed Anne Baxter from Twentieth Century-Fox. This film was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Cinematography (black & white), John Seitz; Art Direction/Interior Decoration (black & white), Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté/Bertram Granger; and Film Editing, Doane Harrison. Lajos Biro's play was first filmed by Paramount in 1927 and 1939 under the title Hotel Imperial. The 1927 version was directed by Mauritz Stiller and starred Pola Negri (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.2597); and the 1939 version was directed by Robert Florey, and starred Isa Miranda and Ray Milland (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2007). Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on December 13, 1943. In 1951, United Artists released Hotel Sahara, which also was based on the Biro play and was directed by Ken Annakin and starring Yvonne DeCarlo.
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States 1999
Released in United States May 1991
Released in United States 1943
Released in United States May 1991 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) in the series "Billy Wilder: 85 Years an Enfant Terrible" May 14-15, 1991.)
Released in United States 1999 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Von Stroheim" June 25 - July 8, 1999.)