What's Buried in the "Five Graves to Cairo"?
The Three Key Players
Five Graves to Cairo
1 hr. 36 mins War 1943 7.4 stars
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Franchot Tone - Cpl. John J. Bramble / Paul Davos
Anne Baxter - Mouche
Akim Tamiroff - Farid
Erich von Stroheim - Field Marshall Erwin Rommel
Peter van Eyck - Lieutenant Schwegler
Fortunio Bonanova - General Sebastiano
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
Mouche Asks a Favor
Bramble as 'Davos' the agent meets Rommel
The outset of this movie paints a bizarre picture, a lone tank ambling across the Sahara. As it moves relentlessly up and down sand dunes its cargo shifts forward, then backward as it ascends and descends each dune. That shifting cargo is the tank’s dead crew. But on one particular jostle one of the bodies stirs. The crewman is Corporal Bramble (played by Franchot Tone). He desperately tries to awaken his fellow crew members, but they are gone. He himself is in danger of being asphyxiated by exhaust fumes and he scrambles out of the hatch only to pass out draped over the top of the tank. Another shift in the terrain of dunes and he falls off and awakens to see his tank with his dead crewmates roll on over the hills. It departs with the departed.
Bramble is left in a trackless and inhospitable land, a weird landscape of shifting sand and interminable dunes. He stumbles onward in the blazing sun wandering aimlessly in the direction his tank was going, following the remaining outline of its tracks. The sun plays with him; he is in a desperate way, but as he stumbles for the umpteenth time he lands on a road. In the distance he sees a village and summoning more strength then he could safely spend he jogs in to see a hotel named “The Empress of Britain.” There isn’t a soul on the street, but Bramble, in his delirium addresses a sentry who is not there and states his business. He goes in and talks to others who are not there complaining of feeling cold, asking for blankets. One man really is there, however, Farid the owner of the hotel and he realizes that Bramble is suffering from sun stroke and the delirium that accompanies it. Secondly, he recognizes that Bramble, an Englishman, is standing in his hotel lobby which will within minutes be occupied by the German army. Farid mixes salt into water and forces Bramble to drink it, which he does then faints. Then Farid drags the unconscious Bramble behind the front desk. No sooner had he done that than the Germans came marching in. Lieutenant Schwegler (played by Peter van Eyck) leads the first group to come into the hotel. He is prepared with many questions for Farid. One question in particular is regarding the whereabouts of their waiter, Davos. Farid informs him that Davos died last night in a German bombing raid which damaged portions of the hotel; his body was buried under the rubble in the basement.
In the meantime Bramble comes to and realizes that the Germans are there. He escapes through a curtain and finds his way to the servant’s quarters where he discovers Davos’ shoes and he puts them on. Davos had one leg shorter than the other and wore special shoes. He had walked with a limp and so now Bramble would walk with a limp. When the Germans searched the hotel and found Bramble they asked him who he was and he answered that he was Davos. What Bramble hadn’t realized was that Davos was a German spy, and these soldiers knew who he was and that he walked with a limp, but they had never seen him before, so Bramble’s ruse worked well.
Soon Field Marshall Rommel arrived and took the nicest available room. He knew the importance of Davos to their campaign and he began to pass along information thinking he was their spy. Bramble alone waited on Rommel, but the maid, named Mouche (played by Anne Baxter) wanted to serve him because she had a favor to ask. Mouche asks his help in freeing her brother who is in a concentration camp, but Rommel simply refered her to the Red Cross.
Rommel entertains a group of captured British officers and brags to them at dinner that the Germans with forethought had buried five huge caches, supply depots, in the Egyptian desert from which they were drawing and were thus not plagued with issues of maintaining resupply lines. Because they were all buried he referred to them as the five graves. Bramble overhears this while serving as waiter. He had previously identified himself to the head British officer there who tasked him with learning what he could of these depots.
Rommel, in the meantime arranged for “Davos” to be reassigned to a nicer post in Cairo. He would be transferred that evening. With little time left Bramble began searching for clues as to where the depots or “graves” were located. He had learned that they were designated by certain letters and he had gathered information about three of those letters. He looked for towns that began with those letters, but could find none starting with the letter “y” which signified one of the locations. In desperation he said out loud to Mouche, “there is no ‘y’ in Egypt”, and then it was as if a light bulb had gone off in his head. The letters he had obtained were not of towns in the country, rather they spelled the name ‘Egypt’ and the ‘y’ was in the middle of that name. Rommel had shown him a map of Egypt and Bramble then realized that the five graves corresponded to the five letters for the country written on the map. Bramble snuck into Rommel’s room during a British bombing attack when everyone else was seeking shelter in the basement. He traced the basics of the map on a piece of mosquito netting including of course the location of the ‘graves’ and folded that up and put it into his pocket.
Meanwhile, in the basement, Lieutenant Schwegler noticed two club feet sticking out from under the rubble which had shifted during this round of bombing. He immediately suspected that those feet belonged to Davos and the waiter they had been calling Davos was an imposter. He confronted Bramble who was in possession of a pistol. Bramble killed him, unbeknownst to Rommel who sent him off to Cairo that evening along with his information about the five graves, again, unbeknownst to Rommel.
Rommel Shows the Grave Locations
Bramble has discovered the secret
The imagery filmed in the opening scene tells its own story well. The tank roaming up and down Saharan sand dunes with dead soldiers evokes legends of a ghost ship sailing the seas, unmanned, for years and years. It is an eerie reminder of the stark reality of the emptiness of death. World War II had come to the bleak, harsh and lifeless wilderness of the great desert where the only animated thing is a vehicle carrying the dead to no one knows where. It seems it will go on forever. Out of this crew of the dead revives but one man nearly asphyxiated by exhaust fumes. Will he fare any better set adrift alone in the sea of sand?
The movie takes us there, takes us to the surreal environment of empty deadly heat. It is so effective that we feel hope when that man falls onto pavement, a scene in which he had moved from nowhere to somewhere. It is a somewhere where he will begin to fight for his life. Yet he arrives to this somewhere without clarity in his mind. He sees what is not there, talks but to no one and shivers in the chill of the blazing Sahara Sun. Yes, the open scene tells its own story.
J. J. Bramble begins this adventure with tremendous disadvantages, but when his mind returns to him we see that he thinks quickly on his feet and is not afraid to survive. His interactions with Mouche are tense at times and often counter purposed. Each wants something from the German army. He wants to help the allied cause. She wants to help her brother and while both goals are good and noble the one is much bigger than the other. Mouche is French and she has not forgiven the English for deserting her country’s soldiers at Dunkerque (Dunkirk). Yet she is conflicted because she has no forgiveness for the invading German army who decimated her countrymen at Dunkerque. She is reduced to viewing the conflict on a personal level; she wants her brother released from the prison camp. That is all; apart from that she doesn’t care which side wins the war. In arguing about what they want from Rommel Bramble convinces her to expand her perspective on the whole situation, “It’s not one brother that matters; it’s a million brothers. It’s not just one prison gate that they might sneak open for you. It’s all their gates that must go.”
Bramble, on the other hand wants to defeat Germany and he is very loyal to the allied cause. He becomes the sort of person on whom fortune shines. He not only is fortunate to have escaped the desert, but he is also fortunate that a man he had never heard of, Davos, had died the night before. And he is fortunate that this Davos had one leg longer than the other. And he is fortunate that he found a pair of Davos’ special made shoes. And he is fortunate that those shoes fit him. And, most of all, he is fortunate that this Davos fellow was a spy for the Germans yet, these Germans who came to the hotel had never met him and only knew of his impairment. These several factors allowed Bramble to be Davos for as long as he needed to be. It is an unlikely set of coincidences, but often it is fact that the truth is stranger than fiction, perhaps even more so during war when people look more diligently than ever for the remotest of opportunities and find them because their lives are at stake.
Mouche’s approach to Rommel is not as successful as Bramble’s upon whom as I have said opportunity had shined. Both want something from this powerful man. Mouche asks; Bramble takes.
Mouche’s request is dismissed by directing her to seek her answers the way anyone could, through the Red Cross or through the Quakers. He sent her to the quagmire of bureaucracy, into the hopeless jungle of paper work and red tape. She then sought what she wanted through Lieutenant Schwegler. In response to Rommel’s rebuff Schwegler told her, “Never ask a very big man for a very small favor.” Her feminine charms had not worked on Rommel, but they did work on Schwegler. However, in the end he promised help yet delivered nothing.
Bramble approached Rommel and wanted information, but he used deceit. He was assisted in his ruse by the unwitting Germans who mistook him for someone else. He merely helped it along a little. He played into their assumptions; they played into his scheme. Looking at these two approaches I am reminded of the cliché, “all is fair in love and war”.
The conflict between Bramble and Mouche seemed to resolve towards the time of Bramble’s departure. It was Mouche who made excuses for Bramble to insure that he could leave (with his findings) to go to Cairo, and at the risk of her own safety too.
The only non-fictional character in this movie is Erwin Rommel. So, what did he think of this portrayal? It is probable that he never saw this movie. It came out in the summer of 1944, but Rommel would die in October of that year. He had been implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Due to his stature as a national hero he was given a choice between a highly public trial or a quiet suicide with the assurances that he would be buried with high honors and no shame would come to his family. Hitler made him an offer he couldn’t refuse so on October 14th he swallowed a cyanide pill. No suspicions were raised as he had recently suffered injuries in an allied attack.