Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Cracker? "Five Graves to Cairo"
The movie is legendary director Billy Wilder's second movie and he was already in fine form. The film was released in 1943 and is set in 1942 North Africa with the British army on retreat after the fall of Tobruk. It begins far-fetched and seldom strays from it. The main character, a British corporal named Bramble, is the only survivor of a tank that is plowing across the desert. He ends up in a hotel in a "ghost town" which soon becomes the headquarters for Rommel. Rommel is protrayed by Erich Von Stroheim as pompous, domineering, yet charismatic. It is a jarring portrayal after seeing James Mason's iconic Rommel. The real Rommel is probably somewhere in between, but I suspect closer to Mason's. Keep in mind this movie was made when Rommel was still our enemy instead of a defeated worthy foe.
The movie revolves around Bramble masquerading as a German spy/waiter who is trying to ferret out information about Rommel's plans. In particular, he is determined to uncover (get it?) the location of Rommel's five buried supply caches (the five graves). Complicating matters is the hotel maid (Anne Baxter as a French woman named Mouche) who wants to wrangle the release of her POW brother. She ends up doing the right thing by taking responsibility for Bramble's killing of a German officer who had discovered his identity so Bramble can get the plans back to the British. Not to worry, once he's gone evidence will be provided to exonerate her. A good montage of future events has the British defeating Rommel (because he doesn't get his supplies) and counterattacking so Bramble is able to return to the town carrying a parasol as a present for his future wife Mouche.
You have to swallow a lot in this film, but it goes down easy. It is not meant as a history lesson and no one could mistake it for one. The idea that the Germans would have buried massive supply depots long before the war is ridiculous, but not laughable. Bramble taking on the identity of the German spy is unbelievable, but this is Hollywood 1943. Audiences bought stuff like that. The acting is good and Baxter is lovely. There's an Italian general who is stereotypical - the buffoonish lacky. He sings songs because this is a 1940's movie (it was required).
The movie is distinguished by two scenes. First, Rommel hosts some captured British officers and allows them to ask 20 questions. He discusses strategy, tactics, and why he is winning. It's "Dinner with Erwin" and pretty cool. Where are the caches happens to be question #21! Rats! Totally implausible scene, but neat. Second, the ending which breaks the Hollywood mold, but should not come as a surprise if you figure in the propaganda nature of a 1943 movie. Still, kudos to Billy Wilder.
Worth a viewing, but not Top 100 worthy.