Five Graves to Cairo (1943): Billy Wilder’s Oscar Nominated Espionage Thriller

Five Graves to Cairo, Billy Wilder’s second American film (after The Major and the Minor) and third feature, is set during World War II.

Five Graves to Cairo
Five Graves to Cairo 1943 film poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Based on Lajos Bíró’s play Színmű négy felvonásban (which had been done as a silent film, Hotel Imperial, in 1027, it stars Erich von Stroheim as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

Franchot Tone plays Corporal John Bramble, the survivor of a British tank crew after a battle with Erwin Rommel’s victorious Afrika Korps.
He stumbles across the North African desert into the Empress of Britain, a small isolated hotel owned by Farid (Akim Tamiroff), whose staff consists of French woman Mouche (Anne Baxter); the cook has fled and the waiter Davos was killed.

The advancing Germans take over the hotel to be used as headquarters for Field Marshal Rommel (Von Stroheim) and staff. Bramble assumes the identity of Davos to save himself, and is shocked to discover that Davos was a German spy.

Stealing a pistol from music-loving Italian General Sebastiano (Fortunio Bonanova), he plans to kill the field marshal. But Mouche steals the pistol and waits on Rommel herself.

When captured British officers are brought to the hotel for lunch with Rommel, a past guest realizes that Davos has been replaced. Bramble explains his plans, and he officer orders him to use his position to gather intelligence.

Rommel teases his guests, allowing them to ask him twenty questions about his future plans. Bramble deduces that the field marshal, disguised as archeologist before the war, had secretly prepared five hidden dumps-Five Graves to Cairo–for the conquest of Egypt. Bramble then realizes that Rommel’s cryptic references to points Y, P, and T refer to the letters of the word “Egypt” printed on his map.

Mouche despises the British for abandoning the French at Dunkirk, and for his part, Bramble criticizes her playing up to the Germans. But Mouche’s motives are not mercenary; she pleads with Rommel to release her wounded brother from a concentration camp. He is unmoved, but his aide, Lieutenant Schwegler (Peter van Eyck), pretends to help, showing her fake telegrams.

That night, Schwegler discovers the body of the real Davos (identified by his clubfoot). During the raid, Bramble and Schwegler play a game of hide and seek in the darkened hotel before Bramble kills his enemy and hides the body in the room of Mouche, who threatens to unmask him.

Schwegler’s body is found, and Rommel accuses her of killing his aide when she discovered his lies. Bramble leaves for Cairo, but arranges for Farid to present faked evidence that he had committed the crime.

The British blow up the dumps and thwart Rommel’s plans, leading to the Second Battle of El Alamein. When Bramble returns, he is devastated to learn that the Germans had executed Mouche, not for murder, but for her insistence that the British would be back. He takes the parasol, which she had always wanted, to provide shade for her grave.


  • Franchot Tone – Corporal John Bramble / Davos
  • Anne Baxter Mouche
  • Akim Tamiroff – Farid
  • Erich von Stroheim – Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
  • Peter van Eyck – Lieutenant Schwegler
  • Fortunio Bonanova – General Sebastiano


Wilder wanted Cary Grant to play the role of Bramble, but Grant refused.

Initially, David O. Selznick agreed to lend Ingrid Bergman for this film, but Paramount instead borrowed Anne Baxter from Fox.

The Germans are played by German actors and thus speak with the right accent.

Oscar Context:

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards:

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography

Best Art Direction (Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté, Bertram C. Granger).


Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by B. G. DeSylva
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, based on “Hotel Imperial” by Lajos Bíró
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography John F. Seitz
Edited by Doane Harrison
Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date: May 4, 1943

Running time: 96 minutes
Budget $855,000
Box office $1,650,000 (US rentals)