Erich von Stroheim (Field Marshal Erwin Rommel) dictatorially insisted on "improving" his own military uniform and got permission from Paramount to design this costume as well as his hair and makeup. He studied photographs of Rommel and 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 and of the correct provenance. Von Stroheim maintained that his performance could be affected by incorrect accouterments, as an actor would know if the items he was 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; von Stroheim replied, "An audience always senses whether a prop is genuine or false." In real life 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.
For the first shot of Erich von Stroheim as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in this film, director Billy Wilder shot 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."
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 Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937). Moreover, Otto Preminger's POW Camp Commandant character Col. von Scherbach in Stalag 17 (1953) (Billy Wilder's other WW II movie) is also a play on von Stroheim's similar character Capt. von Rauffenstein in "La grande illusion".
Both of Billy Wilder's two only war pictures--this film and Stalag 17 (1953)--received the same number of Academy Award nominations: three. This film received nominations in technical categories (Editing, b/w Interior Design, b/w Cinematography) and "Stalag 17" received nominations in performance-related categories (Director, Actor, Supporting Actor), the latter winning Best Actor. This film and "Stalag 17" were both released in years in which another black-and-white World War II movie dominated at the Oscars: Casablanca (1942) won three and From Here to Eternity (1953) won eight.
On the first day 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 that the English name of the country is five letters long. However, the German word for Egypt is "Ägypten" so a German map would need seven graves to Cairo, which might have been confusing to English-speaking audiences.
Cinematographer John F. Seitz and director Billy Wilder examined in detail a large number of actual black-and-white photographs of the real locations featured in this film, including battle shots, in order to give the film the right look of authenticity.
Although the setting of the film is the fictional Egyptian town of Sidi Halfaya, it was originally to be set in the actual town of Sidi Barani, which had been captured by Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps in 1941 and taken back by the British army the next year.
The Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library states that British Army Maj. David P.J. Lloyd was appointed a consultant and technical adviser to the production, due to his "first-hand experience and knowledge of desert tank warfare in Libya."
All the lead characters in this movie are played by actors with a different nationality than that of their character. The British soldier Cpl 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 Russian (from Georgia) Akim Tamiroff; the French chambermaid Mouche is played by American Anne Baxter.
The desert scenes were filmed in sand dunes near Yuma, AZ. Shooting also took place at California's Salton Sea area and at Camp Young in Indio (Riverside County), where the battle scenes were staged, with the assistance of US Army troops.
Ingrid Bergman was the first choice for the part of Mouche. The "Hollywood Reporter" in November 1942 reported that producer David O. Selznick approved the borrowing of Bergman by Paramount for this movie. By the late 1940s Selznick's company, Selznick International Pictures, was making very few movies and became a talent agency, making its money by loaning out its contract stars to other studios. Bergman, though, did not end up being in this picture.
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 that was involved in World War II's North African campaign. The "Sidi Halfaya" in this movie was actually a large set built at a location near the city of Indio in Riverside County, CA.
This was the third adaptation of Lajos Biró's play "Hotel Imperial". It was made only four years earlier as Hotel Imperial (1939) and 16 years prior as Hotel Imperial (1927). An earlier film of the play, to be called "I Loved a Soldier", was canceled. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Hotel Sahara (1951) was not an adaption of this play.
The name of the desert hotel in this movie was the "Empress of Britain". The name "Empress of Britain" is usually associated with British Empire ships, specifically three Canadian Pacific Steamship Company transatlantic ocean liners that were all built in Scotland.
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."
This film was exhibited in the New York City Film Forum program "Von Stroheim" from June 25-July 8, 1999 as well as the New York City Film Forum series "Billy Wilder: 85 Years an Enfant Terrible" from May 14-15, 1991.
Billy Wilder's first choice as composer was Franz Waxman, who was under contract to Warner Bros., but that studio would not release him. Wilder was happy with Miklos Rosza's score but Paramount Music Department boss Victor Young was not. Wilder ultimately prevailed.
One of over 700 Paramount productions, filmed between 1929-49, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. A popular favorite among local television viewers, this film's initial telecast took place in Toledo, Ohio Sunday 4 January 1959, where it launched the Paramount Film Collection on WTOL (Channel 11); its next airings came Friday 9 January 1959 on both KNXT (Channel 2) in Los Angeles and on WBBM (Channel 2) in Chicago; in Omaha it first aired 1 February 1959 on KETV (Channel 7), in Phoenix 6 March on KVAR (Channel 12), in Asheville 26 March 1959 on WLOS (Channel 13), in Minneapolis 4 May 1959 on WTCN (Channel 11), in Philadelphia 7 May 1959 on WCAU (Channel 10), in Milwaukee 19 June 1959 on WITI (Channel 6), in St. Louis Sunday 13 September 1959 on KMOX (Channel 4), in Seattle 14 September 1959 on KIRO (Channel 7), in Johnstown 22 November 1959 on WJAC (Channel 6), in Detroit 28 November 1959 on WJBK (Channel 2), in San Francisco 11 December 1959 on KPIX (Channel 5), in New York City 16 January 1960 on WCBS (Channel 2), and in Pittsburgh 8 April 1960 on KDKA (Channel 2). Universal released it on DVD 10 June 2013, and since that time, it's enjoyed an occasional airing on cable TV on Turner Classic Movies.
This espionage thriller inspired a real spy operation. Actor Miles Mander looked so much like British Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery that British intelligence tried to hire him as Montgomery's double for a mission to deceive the Germans about the location of the D-Day invasion. However, Mander was too tall, so they found an Australian comic, M.E. Clifton James, to masquerade as Monty. They sent the phony Montgomery to Gibraltar to make the Germans think the British would invade southern France before they hit northern France. James later starred in Hell, Heaven or Hoboken (1958). A synopsis of the operation appears in the bestseller, "Double Cross: True Story of the D-Day Spies" by Ben MacIntyre.
The tank in the opening scenes was a US Army M-3 Lee medium, which was used by the British 8th Army in North Africa to some success. It was the first Allied tank to mount a 75mm gun, though it was mounted on the right side in a sponson, thus having limited traverse from directly ahead to about 45 degrees to the right. It had a small turret on top mounting a 37mm gun, basically the same turret seen in the M-2/3 Stuart light tanks barreling though the village when the Germans arrive.
Leonard Rubinstein in his book "The Great Spy Films" writes that this film's scriptwriter and associate producer Charles Brackett commented after seeing it several years after it was made that it left him with "the dreadful smell of propaganda."
This film's closing epilogue states: "On July first, 1942, [Erwin 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."
The Germans are played by German actors and speak with the right accent, except for Erich von Stroheim, who had emigrated from Austria to the US at the age of 24 and whose accent occasionally slips. The British hero is played by Franchot Tone, an American actor who speaks with an American accent. Anne Baxter, playing a Frenchwoman, however, does a credible French accent.
The 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 [Erwin Rommel] and his Afrika Korps were pounding the British back and back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal."
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.