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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Billy Wilder's Take On The War

Five Graves To Cairo played TCM last week. It seems incredible that Billy Wilder's second directorial effort is not available on DVD. Five Graves has been overlooked ... dismissed really ... as mere wartime propaganda. Even co-writer Charles Brackett identified it as such in a late 50s interview. Wilder subverts wartime movie convention throughout Five Graves, it being a riff on combat dramatics taken seriously by others (WWII films were closely monitored by the Office Of War Information). He'd not be the first or only director to break rank with conflict protocol. Ernst Lubitsch had made mischief with To Be Or Not To Be, a comedy seasoned with menace that played straight the enemy threat even as it ridiculed same. Being a Lubitsch acolyte, Wilder had to have been inspired and influenced by To Be Or Not To Be, utilizing no small part of its unique approach when writing Five Graves To Cairo. The films have a lot in common, with more wit between them than combined effort of war-themed filmmaking otherwise. Wilder, like Lubitsch, saw humor in the grimmest situations. Five Graves' concept is a fanciful one that could easily have tipped into comedy. Had Wilder done it mere months past declaration of peace, I've no doubt he'd have aimed direct to patron funny bones --- the thing's rib-tickling enough as it stands. What a relief for audiences in 1943 to encounter a war movie so brimming with cheek and the unexpected.

Brackett and Wilder wrote (fast) just in front of daily dispatches. News out of the North African campaign anticipated Allied victory, but it could've finished the other way, a contingency that would neatly have scuttled Five Graves To Cairo. German Gen. Erwin Rommel's defeat propelled completion of B&W's spin on the topic, giving Paramount a release timed perfectly to breaking news. Casting might have gone differently amidst less hurried effort. Cary Grant was initially sought for the male lead. He fortunately turned that down. Ingrid Bergman had been set as of November 1942 in the role played eventually by Anne Baxter, the former's participation okayed by David Selznick, who held her contract, but nonstop work on Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls made necessary a rest period. Grant and Bergman would have made of Five Graves a very different show, Grant being at the least on-set fussy/image protective by this time, and sufficiently empowered to have his way vis-à-vis directors who disagreed. Bergman's participation would bring as baggage Selznick's interference, something Wilder could not necessarily have overcome at such an early stage of his directing career.

Had these been Bergman and Grant, we might not have so good a picture as Five Graves To Cairo to look at.

Having Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter as below the title leads enabled Wilder to put more of his own vision across. Besides, this director's idea of Five Graves' star was supporting player in name only Erich von Stroheim,  tabbed to play real-life arch-nemesis Field Marshal Rommel, focal point and loving object of Wilder's fascination throughout filming. Stroheim arrives a couple of reels in and dominates from there. The camera, as though hypnotized, places him center. Von was something of an idol, if not role model, for his director (Wilder had gotten an autographed EvS photo while still in Germany and kept it throughout his life).  Stroheim was indulged as to character embellishment and even dialogue additions to keep Rommel dominant. Bigger names than Tone and Baxter would have sidelined EvS, certainly he'd have ceded, if reluctantly, before Grant and Bergman. As it is, The Man We Loved To Hate rolls over a not-so-imposing cast like Rommel's tanks, Wilder his complicit all the while of doing so.

Writers Brackett and Wilder came up with a brilliant back story for Stroheim's Rommel. You'd think it was all true for conviction they brought to such an audacious set-up. Seems Rommel had set conquest plans in motion by entering Egypt years before in the guise of an archaeologist, at which time he and a team of like-minded Germans planted caches of weaponry over hundreds of desert miles in anticipation of a later siege. I don't doubt a lot of viewers in 1943 took Brackett and Wilder's imagining for fact. I almost did, or at least wanted to. The real Rommel had been put to rout some months before Five Graves to Cairo opened, his African campaign scuttled by the Allies. Wilder and Stroheim's interpretation of the Desert Fox may not have been accurate, but it was great showmanship, Rommel having assumed a near mythic status among great enemy tacticians of the war. In fact, a still living Rommel was the key to selling Five Graves To Cairo, a genuine star name off front pages as opposed to mere movie actors plying all too familiar trade. Did it matter if Stroheim resembled him? Not much, especially now that Rommel was  sidelined and no longer a threat. Besides, how could the real thing be so entertaining as Von?

Paramount's topic, being hot as desert sands Wilder photographed, needed to be got out quickly as possible to trade on the public's awareness of recent North Africa victories. Part of excitement surrounding Five Graves To Cairo was said rush into theatres. This one was handled more like a newsreel than a feature, timeliness of the subject making urgent its earliest possible availability. General release had been set for July 1943, however, Paramount sales staff jumped the gun, in Variety's words, by going for May pre-release dates in New York and other Eastern/Southern areas. Rushed From Lab To You For Earliest Possible Bookings To Catch The Flood Tide Of World Attention, said trade ads published at the beginning of May just prior to Five Graves' opening.

Judging from posters for Five Graves To Cairo, you'd think Von Stroheim was the whole show ... and he very nearly was.
Paramount is negotiating with Erich von Stroheim to make a series of personal appearances with the film, said Variety in advance of the pre-release. Von had not enjoyed such notoriety in years, but did it go to his bullet head? He'd initially agreed to help kick-off five or six key spots for the film, but saw the deal collapse in the wake of demands he made for what Variety termed too much coin, adding Von Stroheim some time ago agreed to make personals at nominal cost, but since then he has upped his figure, and Paramount finally killed the idea. Trades did not report specifics of the actor's price tag, but it was known that Stroheim received $5000 weekly while working on Five Graves To Cairo. Whatever were circumstances, the Stroheim tour was canceled and publicity went on without his further participation. Von could take solace in knowing his face loomed largest in all advertising. Never again would he be so prominently featured in selling of a film in which he appeared. You'd have thought Stroheim's career would get a major uptick from Five Graves, but his Rommel was after all just a more sophisticated take on Horrid Huns he'd played since the previous war. Wilder would remember though, and come calling again with Sunset Boulevard, a part not so imposing as Rommel, and for just that reason perhaps, not one Stroheim would recall with pleasure or satisfaction.


Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Had I realized how great a movie this was as I watched it on TCM last week, I'd have recorded it. Stroheim really is terrific; Franchot Tone, despite the on-and-off UK accent, does a first-rate job as well. It might not be a classic on par with "Casablanca," but it's fine entertainment nonetheless, and ought to be better known than it is.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Jim Lane said...

Shows how much I know: I would have thought 5GtC was better known than it evidently is. But the fact that Kevin and I are the only commenters (so far) suggests to me that there aren't a lot of GPS readers out there familiar enough with it to chime in. Anyhow, I second what Kevin says, a really terrific movie. Tone's and Baxter's accents are both a little shaky, I guess, but Stroheim's certainly isn't, and all three are, as Kevin says, first-rate. I think my favorite moment is the one where Tone suddenly makes the connection, realizes the meaning of the five graves; beautifully staged, edited and scored.

9:11 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The very first time I read something about FIVE GREATS TO CAIRO was that cinematographer John Seitz considered it as his favorite film and the one that resembles his silent work with Rex Ingram.

I completely disagree with his opinion because it is a great film and that there is no comparison... his good work here is much better than in the silents but it is not the most memorable thing in the film.

Later, I learned that this film is a remake of HOTEL IMPERIAL, first filmed as a silent by Paramount then as a talkie with disastrous results. I haven't seen either one of those version because I never wanted to spoil the greatness of Wilder's vision.

In Argentina, I used to have a VHS version (subtitled) which was very good. Although there has been no DVD version in the United States, there is one in Europe, which I managed to get a few years ago.

1:03 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some e-mailed thoughts about "Five Graves To Cairo" ...

I watched Five Graves to Cairo on TCM that same evening and enjoyed it for the same reasons you identified in your article. In a way, it’s rather like Casablanca, with its mordaunt commentary on the madness of the times, as when Rick looks up from his dossier in mock amazement, asking “Are my eyes really brown?” In Five Graves, the usual stereotypes are brought out—the Germans are brutal and venal, not unintelligent, obviously, but not our equal in a fair fight, the Italians sing and make babies amidst the ruins of Rome, the English “play the game,” and the French are wounded and broken, but they can rise again if they’re reminded of their greatness—but these assumptions shared with the audience allow the film to have such fun with them. Casablanca was centered upon a tragic romance, however, which gave it a certain emotional weight Five Graves doesn’t have. Possibly it would have been different, had Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman been cast in the lead roles. As it is, Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter are attractive and competent performers, but they haven’t the charisma or outsized personalities of the great stars, which would have overflowed what are essentially character roles. No, Five Graves is really Erich von Stroheim’s movie. However many minutes he has in screen time, he dominates every scene he’s in and is the reference for every other scene. The Stroheim mannerisms are in place—the heel clicking and scrupulously correct salutes, the way he knocks back a glass of cognac, the sly smile when he reveals yet another stroke of brilliance, or the pedantic grasp of obscure knowledge (“Aieda, in German, leaving out the third act, which is too long and not too good”—but if this is not another brutal Hun, it is more the Stroheim of Friends and Lovers than of Grand Illusion. The English liked to believe that Rommel was a chivalrous opponent, in contrast to the other Nazis, which made their defeats at his hands a little more tolerable. No doubt he was, to the extent any commander could be in such a war. Stroheim’s Rommel, however, is not at all that way. When Anne Baxter comes to him to beg for her brother’s life, the Rommel of imagination would have found some courtly gesture of accomodation. Stroheim, on the other hand gives a witty commentary on the operatic conventions applying to such a situation, before concluding, quite definitely, “This time there will be no duet.” Or as Peter van Eyck says afterwards, putting in motion his own play for the nubile Miss Baxter, “You shouldn’t ask a great man for a little favor.” The film does make use of Rommel’s habit of entertaining captured officers, with Stroheim gathering around himself a “Cheerio, old top” of veddy English types, including a dissapaited Ian Keith, who looks as though he could use a shot of “Bramble” or just about anything else with a proof rating. Alas, the question which would have revealed the secret of the “Five Graves” is the 21st in a game of 20 questions, as an utterly deadpan Stroheim reminds them, in yet another of the witty set pieces that make up this film. It is not a great one, it doesn’t touch the heart or reveal anything deeper about the human condition, but it is refreshingly intelligent and most entertaining, with a most unusual personality at the top of his game.


6:16 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Boy, it's been a few years since I caught up with this one, but always a favorite. Kind of an indication of how terrific a team Wilder and Brackett were that a gem like this is actually overlooked... on the resume of anyone else, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO would stand out as a mini-masterpiece. I did catch the Pola Negri HOTEL IMPERIAL at a screening at Cinefest some years back. The connection to 5GtC is a little loose, but that one's pretty good on its own terms too.

10:56 AM  
Blogger citizenkanne said...

I agree with Dave K. Wilder made so many great movies that some of them seem to have slipped through the cracks of the collective cinema consciousness. I love "Five Graves" because it does touch the heart and reveal something deeper about the human condition. It does for me, anyway. Most WWII movies (especially those made during the war) just seem to be about lots of action and patriotic platitudes. It is ridiculous that this classic has not been released on DVD in the United States. It probably would be if Grant or Bergman were in it. However, Mr. McElwee is right that they would have thrown off the balance of the picture. Too bad that Von Stroheim's ego and money demands got in the way after the movie was finished. What a personal appearance tour that would have been! I also can't help but dream that if Erich had been more cooperative that it might have led to more opportunities. After all, Paramount had writer/directors like Wilder and Preston Sturges under contract at the time.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

"You were ten years ahead of your time", Wilder supposedly said upon meeting Stroheim. "Twenty!" he shot back.

11:37 PM  
Blogger Lee1001 said...

it's been on dvd a few years now,great movie here's a review I found on demonoid

Cameron Crowe describes Five Graves to Cairo as a masterful predecessor to the Indiana Jones action phenomenon. Over 40 years before Lucas and Spielberg, Billy Wilder created a captivating adventure film that deftly weaves its way in and out of actual history. The fictitious John J. Bramble (Franchot Tone) must uncover vital Nazi secrets and, if successful, incite the genuine routing of the German Afrika Corps during World War II. The stakes are high (the fate of the world is in the balance), but the stage is small (the setting is an Egyptian hotel) -- historical fact is expertly whittled down to the personal arena. This allows for romance, as well as individual heroics. Moreover, it permits creative and spontaneous portrayals of even the most documented figures -- as evident in Erich von Stroheim's blustering and comic take on General Erwin Rommel. However, it is important to note that Wilder and co-screenwriter Charles Brackett do not simply capitalize on the harrowing world war as a setting for melodrama or wit. Filming in 1943, they understood that contemporary war films were a powerful form of propaganda. The movie's politics and beliefs are clear -- it exalts patriotism, sacrifice, and action -- but the film is not heavy-handed. Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo is a skillfully executed adventure and a thoughtful film, which accounts, as Crowe points out, for its timelessness and its reflection in popular films today.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too caught up with this marvelous film on the recent TCM showing. I’d seen it before and was impressed but somehow I’d forgotten all about it. If Grant and Bergman had been cast it wouldn't have been as good a film. Wilder used that edge (Tone's off-screen behavior was rather nasty at times) that Tone … well … toned-down and it really works as marvelously as a character. He seems cut from the same cloth as William Holden in STALAG 17. Ann Baxter is a marvelous actress and she disappears into the character whereas Bergman would’ve overpowered the character. Damned clever script and the Germans were less stereotyped … but just as nasty … as similar characters in other WW2 films.

Spencer Gill (

9:57 AM  

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