The town in the movie, Sidi Halfaya (where the hotel is situated), is not actually a real place in Egypt. There is a place called the Halfaya Pass (aka Hellfire Pass) in Egypt, which was a region which was involved in World War II's North African war. The village town Sidi Halfaya in this movie was actually a large set built at a location near the city of Indio in Riverside County, California.
According to the book 'The Great Spy Films' by Leonard Rubinstein, " . . . this film was released in early 1943 shortly after the British victory at El Alamein [in North Africa] and incorporated some footage from that battle in its closing scenes, besides providing an imaginative explanation for that success."
Both of Billy Wilder's two only war films, Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953) received the same number of Academy Award nominations: three. Five Graves to Cairo (1943) received Oscar nominations in technical categories (Editing, b/w Interior Design, b/w Cinematography) whereas Stalag 17 (1953) received Oscar nominations in performance-related categories (Director, Actor, Supporting Actor), the latter winning Best Actor. Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and Stalag 17 (1953) were both released in years where another black-and-white World War II movie dominated at the Oscars: Casablanca (1942) winning three and From Here to Eternity (1953) winning eight.
Erich von Stroheim playing Field Marshall Erwin Rommel dictatorially insisted on garnishing his own military uniform and he got permission from the Paramount studio to design this costume as well as his hair & makeup. He studied photographs of Rommel and then made requests for specific equipment, clothing and props. These included authentic German field glasses, a whisk, and a 35mm Leica camera with actual film. These items were all fully functional, in working order and of the correct provenance. Stroheim maintained that his performance could be affected as an actor would know if the items he were wearing or using were not authentic. Director Billy Wilder queried him about the real film in the camera which wouldn't be seen by viewers with von Stroheim replying, "An audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false." Rommel dressed casually and wore loose-fitting uniforms yet von Stroheim demanded that he wear "a uniform as it is supposed to be worn." Von Stroheim believed that Rommel never took off his cap in the desert sun and so did not have sunburn face make-up above his eyes.
The tank seen at the start of the picture was an actual American army tank but not authentically a British one. It was loaned to the production by a neighboring American army base. The production had attempted to get a real British tank but had had their request knocked backed.
This movie utilizes Second World War story elements relating to the military campaign in World War II North Africa which were quite current and topical current affairs at the time and were only months old at the time of production and release.
Cinematographer John F. Seitz and Director Billy Wilder examined in detail a large number actual black-and-white photographs of the real locations of the settings featured in this film including battle shots so as to give the film the right look of authenticity.
The Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library states that the British Army's Major David P. J. Lloyd was appointed a consultant and technical adviser to the production, this being attributed to his "first hand experience and knowledge of desert tank warfare in Libya."
For the first shot of Erich von Stroheim playing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in this film, director Billy Wilder filmed him in a close-up from the back of his neck as an establishment shot. Wilder said: "Standing with his stiff fat neck in the foreground he could express more than almost any actor with his face."
On the first day that director Billy Wilder's hero, Erich von Stroheim arrived on set, Wilder ran to the wardrobe department to welcome him. He said: "This is a very big moment in my life . . . that I should now be directing the great Stroheim. Your problem, I guess, was that you were ten years ahead of your time." Von Stroheim replied: "Twenty."
The title of this movie is based on the fact thT the English name of the country is 5 letters long. However, the German word for Egypt is "Ägypten" so a German map would need 7 graves to Cairo, which might have been confusing to English speaking audiences.
Leonard Rubinstein in his book 'The Great Spy Films' writes that the scriptwriter and associate producer of this movie Charles Brackett commented on this film after seeing it several years after it was made. Brackett said that the movie had left him with "the dreadful smell of propaganda."
In this film, when Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) says to Mouche (Anne Baxter) that her trial will not be conducted under German law in order "to show you we are not the barbarians you think - according to your own law, the Code Napoleon", this is, according to Leonard Rubinstein in his book 'The Great Spy Films', a reference to von Stroheim's character Rauufenstein in La Grande Illusion (1937). Moreover, according to the Virgin Film Guide, Otto Preminger's POW Camp Commandant character Colonel Oberst von Scherbach in Stalag 17 (1953) (Billy Wilder's other WW II movie) is also a play on Erich von Stroheim's similar character Captain von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's, La Grande Illusion (1937).
This was the third filmed adaptation of Lajos Biró's play "Hotel Imperial", made previously only four years earlier with Hotel Imperial (1939) and sixteen years prior with Hotel Imperial (1927). An earlier film production of this play to be filmed as I Loved a Soldier (1936) was canceled. Hotel Sahara (1951) was not an adaption of this play.
The name of the desert hotel in this movie was the "Empress of Britain Hotel". The name "Empress of Britain" has more frequently been associated as being a name of British Empire ships, specifically three Canadian Pacific Steamship Company transatlantic ocean liners which were all built in Scotland.
The North African desert in this movie was portrayed by the American sand dunes of Yuma, Arizona. Filming also took place at the Salton Sea and Camp Young, Indio, Riverside County, California where the battle sequence was staged with the assistance of the Army Ground Forces.
Ingrid Bergman was the first choice for the part of Mouche. The 'Hollywood Reporter' in November 1942 reported that mogul producer David O. Selznick approved the borrowing of its star Ingrid Bergman by Paramount Studios for this movie. By the late 1940s, the Selznick International company was making very few movies and became a talent agency by default, deriving needed income by loaning out its contract stars to other studios. Bergman, though, did not end up being in this picture.
On 13 December 1943, about just over six months after this film was first released in the USA, this movie's stars Anne Baxter and Franchot Tone reprized their characters of Mouche and Corporal John J. Bramble from this movie for a radio broadcast of a Lux Radio Theatre show.
This movie predominantly takes place in a fictitious village called Sidi Halfaya but the production originally wanted to set it in the town of Sidi Barani, an Egyptian town which was a location of actual Word War II combat. Sidi Barani was captured by Nazi German Erwin Rommel's Afrika Corps in 1941 and then taken back by the British Army in 1942.
All the lead characters in this movie are played by actors with a different nationality to that of their character. The British soldier Corporal John Bramble is played by American Franchot Tone; German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is played by Austrian-born Erich von Stroheim; the Egyptian hotel owner was played by Georgian Russian actor Akim Tamiroff; whilst the French chambermaid Mouche is played by American Anne Baxter.
Director Billy Wilder made two World War II pictures, both containing humor, and both filmed in black-and-white. This film was the first of the two, whilst Stalag 17 (1953) was the second, and made ten years after this movie.
This film's opening prologue states: "In June 1942 things looked bleak indeed for the British Eighth Army. It was beaten, scattered, and in flight. Tobruk had fallen. The victorious Rommel and his Afrika Korps were pounding the British back and back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal."
This film's closing epilogue states: "On July first, 1942, Rommel and his Afrika Korps reached El Alamein - - - as far east as they ever got. On September seventh , a new-made lieutenant bought a parasol at a little ship in Cairo. On October twenty-fourth , to the skirl of a bagpipe, General Montgomery's Eighth Army launched its counter-offensive. And so, on November the twelfth, 1942, the British came back to Sidi Halfaya."
This film was exhibited in the New York City Film Forum program "Von Stroheim" between June 25 - July 8, 1999 as well as the New York City Film Forum series "Billy Wilder: 85 Years an Enfant Terrible" between May 14 - 15, 1991.
Wilder's first choice as composer was Franz Waxman, but Warner Bros. would not release him. Wilder was happy with Rosza's score but Paramount Music Department boss Victor Young was not, Wilder ultimately prevailed.
Wilder's first choice as composer was Franz Waxman, but Warner Bros. would not release him. Wilder was happy with Rozsa's score but Paramount Music Department boss Victor Young was not. However, Wilder ultimately prevailed.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The meaning and relevance of the film's title "Five Graves to Cairo" is that it refers to five buried fuel and supplies dumps (the secret location of which was identifiable from each letter of the word Egypt in a map of the same) which were secretly established prior to World War II to prepare for this Germany's invasion of Egypt.