Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone) is the sole survivor of a British tank crew after a major battle with Erwin Rommel's victorious Afrika Korps. Delirious, he stumbles across the North African desert into the Empress of Britain, a small, isolated hotel owned by Farid (Akim Tamiroff). The staff consists of just Frenchwoman Mouche (Anne Baxter), as the cook has fled and the waiter Davos was killed the night before by German bombing.
Before Farid and Mouche can decide what to do with the newcomer, the swiftly advancing Germans take over the hotel to use as headquarters for Field Marshal Rommel (Erich von Stroheim) and his staff. Bramble assumes the identity of Davos to save himself. When Rommel summons him to a private chat, Bramble is stunned to discover that Davos was a valued German spy, but manages to play along. He learns that he is to be sent to Cairo next.
Later, he steals a pistol from genial, music-loving Italian General Sebastiano (Fortunio Bonanova), planning to serve the field marshal a bullet rather than coffee the next morning. Not wanting trouble, Mouche steals the pistol and waits on Rommel herself. When some captured British officers are brought to the hotel for a luncheon with Rommel, one of them (a past guest) realizes that Davos has been replaced. Bramble privately explains who he is and what he plans to do. The officer orders him to use his position of trust to instead gather military intelligence.
At the luncheon, Rommel teases his guests, allowing them to ask him twenty questions about his future plans. Bramble listens with interest. From the conversation and later remarks by Rommel, he eventually deduces that the field marshal, disguised as an archeologist before the war, had secretly prepared five hidden supply dumps, the "Five Graves to Cairo", for the conquest of Egypt. The final piece of the puzzle (their locations) falls into place when Bramble realizes that Rommel's cryptic references to points Y, P, and T refer to the letters of the word "Egypt" printed on his map.
Meanwhile, Bramble and Mouche clash. She despises the British for abandoning the French at Dunkirk. He in turn is disgusted at how she is playing up to the Germans. As it turns out, Mouche's motives are not mercenary; she pleads with Rommel to release her wounded soldier brother from a concentration camp. He is unmoved, but his aide, Lieutenant Schwegler (Peter van Eyck), is more appreciative of her charms. He pretends to help her, showing her fake telegrams to and from Germany.
That night however, when everyone takes shelter in the cellar during an Allied air raid, Schwegler discovers the body of the real Davos (easily identifiable by his clubfoot), uncovered by the bombing. In the noise and confusion of the raid, Bramble and Schwegler play a deadly game of hide and seek in the darkened hotel before Bramble kills his enemy and hides the body in Mouche's part of the servants' room. When Mouche finds out, she threatens to unmask him.
However, she has a change of heart. Schwegler's body is soon found, and Rommel accuses her of killing his aide when she discovered he was lying about his assistance. Mouche does not deny it. Bramble leaves for Cairo, but arranges for Farid to present faked evidence the next day that Bramble committed the crime.
Bramble's information allows the British to blow up the dumps and thus thwart Rommel's plans, culminating in the Second Battle of El Alamein. When Bramble returns in triumph with his unit to the hotel, he is devastated to learn that the Germans had executed Mouche, not for murder, but because she would not stop saying that the British would be back. He takes the parasol he had bought for her, something she had always wanted, and uses it 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
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave the film a mixed review. He admired one performance, writing, "... von Stroheim has all other movie Huns backed completely off the screen" and " ... whenever he appears in this picture, ... , he gives you the creeps and the shivers. Boy, what a nasty Hun!" However, he was less than impressed with the rest, complaining, "As though this fanciful story weren't sufficiently hard to take, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, a couple of old-hand Paramount wags, have dressed it up with shenanigans which have the flavor of fun in a haunted house." "It has a little something for all tastes, provided you don't give a darn." The Variety magazine response was more generous, calling it "a dynamic, moving vehicle" and praising Wilder's handling of "the varied story elements, countless suspenseful moments and vivid portrayals in excellent fashion." Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader agreed, characterizing the film as a "crisp spy thriller" and, as Wilder's second stint at directing, "Excellent apprentice work, with many Wilder themes seething beneath the surface."
Production lasted from January 4 to February 20, 1943. It was filmed at Paramount Studios, Hollywood, California, with some exteriors shot on location at the Salton Sea and at Camp Young at the Army Desert Training Center, Indio, California, where, with the cooperation of the Army Ground Forces, a battle sequence was staged, and in Yuma, Arizona.
Wilder wanted Cary Grant to play the role of Bramble. Grant was repeatedly asked by Wilder to star in several of his films, but though the two were friends, Grant consistently refused.
A Hollywood Reporter news item reported that in November 1942, David O. Selznick had agreed to lend Ingrid Bergman for this film. However, Paramount instead borrowed Anne Baxter from Twentieth Century-Fox.
The Germans are played by German actors and thus speak with the right accent, except for 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 an American actor who speaks with an American accent.
The German tanks in the film are American M2 light tanks, which were used for training.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction (Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté, Bertram C. Granger).
The film is available on both VHS and DVD.
Brigadier Dudley Clarke, the commander of the British deception department based in Cairo, saw Five Graves to Cairo in January 1944 and was inspired to create Operation Copperhead. Marshall Bernard Montgomery had recently been transferred from North Africa to England to take command of the ground forces intended for the Normandy invasion. Clarke located a look-alike, pre-war actor Lieutenant M. E. Clifton James, and had him study's Montgomery's look and mannerisms. The actor then made public visits to several Mediterranean bases in the guise of Montgomery just a few days before D-Day in an attempt to convince German intelligence that an Allied attack on Northern Europe was not imminent. Though the ruse did not appear to have any significant impact on German plans, the events of Operation Copperhead were in turn dramatized in a book and a movie, both entitled I Was Monty's Double.