Five Graves to Cairo was only Billy Wilder’s second Hollywood picture as a director, although he had already written tons of films in Hollywood after he moved there from Germany to escape the Nazis. This film is very much a kind of Casablanca knock-off, obviously set (given the title) in Cairo but also with a WW2 setting (although the source play is about WW1), a romance and memorable Nazi villains. Initially it seemed like Wilder was going to get Ingrid Bergman on loan from David O. Selznick, which would make the Casablanca similarities even more pronounced.
Franchot Tone who plays Corporal John Bramble, who gets lost in North Africa. He staggers through the desert after his unit is destroyed in battle, and finds himself at the Empress of Britain Hotel. He’s hallucinating at this point from the desert, and thinks it’s a military place, but it’s actually just a small hotel run by a guy called Farid. The Germans arrive and take it over, so naturally Bramble has to figure out a way to escape. He becomes a waiter, filling in for someone who has just been killed.
It’s a fairly simple sort of spy/survival story, spiced up with a romance between Bramble and French staff member Mouche (Anne Baxter). Eric von Stroheim is on hand to play the evil Nazi in charge. It’s certainly well-made, though not one of Wilder’s very best, with solid performances and a good plot. It may not be as good as some people like Quentin Tarantino think—he’s put it in his top 10 before. Wilder’s next film was Double Indemnity, which was quite a change
The film is based on a play, so may be a bit too stagy at times, with most scenes set in the hotel. But out of all the Casablanca knockoffs—of which there were many—it’s one of the better ones. It moves along well in its 96 minutes and never really drags. The script was written by Charles Brackett, one of Wilder’s most frequent collaborators in the 1930s; he also wrote The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard, amongst other films.
Initially Wilder wanted Cary Grant for the lead, which might have put it up a notch. Wilder and Grant were friends, but Grant constantly turned down roles from him.
The disc incudes a commentary by Adrian Martin, an excerpt from a documentary by director Volker Schlöndorff on Billy Wilder, a radio version of it from Lux Radio Theatre, and a booklet with an essay by Richard Combes and a contemporary archival article. Incidentally, the full Schlöndorff documentary is on Masters of Cinema’s The Lost Weekend release.