June, 1942. The British Army, retreating ahead of victorious Rommel, leaves a lone survivor on the Egyptian border–Corporal John Bramble, who finds refuge at a remote desert hotel…soon to be German HQ. To survive, Bramble assumes an identity which proves perilous. The new guest of honor is none other than Rommel, hinting of his secret strategy, code-named 'five graves.' And the fate of the British in Egypt depends on whether a humble corporal can penetrate the secret…
Hollywood made few movies about the desert conflict during World War II–and curiously, two that they did (Five Graves to Cairo is the other) were remakes of films set elsewhere. John Howard Lawson based his script on a prewar Russian film (Lawson would later be blacklisted, incidentally) about a military patrol besieged by Asian bandits. The situation readily lent itself to a wartime parallel and became one of the most engrossing story lines of its era.
A U.S. tank crew and their commander (Humphrey Bogart), separated from the main force, make their way through the desert, accumulating a veritable United Nations of stragglers as they go: a few of Montgomery's tommies (including that old limey Lloyd Bridges) and a towering African (Rex Ingram) and his prisoner–a garrulous Italian (Oscar-nominated J. Carrol Naish) who can't wait to tell his new friends about his relatives in "Peets-a-bourg Pennsylvania." They come upon a ruin, the onetime site of an oasis, and almost immediately find themselves defending it against a small army of Germans who believe there's still water to be had there. Yes and no–there's a biblical wrinkle to this tale–and the standoff between the polyglot democrats and the Nazis who far outnumber them is a fine, sun-baked study in suspense.
For Bogart, this Columbia picture was a rare furlough from Warner Bros., where he always felt embattled. His pleasure must have seeped into his work, because Sgt. Joe Gunn is one of the most sympathetic and heartfelt characterizations the actor ever gave us. This is one good movie. –Richard T. Jameson
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