Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Bermuda Triangle (1979)

“I know my story sounds fantastic, but it is true.”

Way, way back in Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, history shows he steered the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria into what would come to be known as the Sargasso Sea. Named for the sargassum -- a dense, floating blot of aquatic vegetation that marks its boundaries, this nebulous body of water has earned itself a rather insidious reputation over the centuries since Columbus first mistook these masses of seaweed as a good omen that land must be near.

Prone to deadly calms that left sailing ships stranded indefinitely, the Sargasso soon earned itself several nicknames, including The Sea of Lost Ships, as several salty sea tales of massive graveyards of vessels, swamped in the muck, their holds full of gold, with their skeletonized crews still waiting for a wind that would never, ever come just waiting to be plundered, began to surface.

And as wind power gave way to steam, ships still managed to venture into these waters only to never be heard from again. It didn't help matters that this area was also prone to magnetic disturbances known to send compasses spinning or pointing to true north instead of magnetic north; and dead spots, where all radio communications were disrupted or neutered, which led to another nickname -- The Sea of Fear, as the troublesome concentration of these maritime disasters began to define itself a little more clearly; an area that was roughly demarcated by a line drawn from the southern tip of Florida to the island of Bermuda, then south to Puerto Rico, and then back along the Bahamas to Florida.

Even as man took to the sky this new means of travel brought no immunity as several airplanes met the same unknown fate above as their water borne brethren below somewhere over the Sargasso. However, most of these instances were isolated with plenty of plausible explanations for these abrupt disappearances.

But then, on December 5, 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers left the naval air-station at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, on what was supposed to be a routine two-hour training flight. Designated Flight-19, it was under the command of Lt. Charles Taylor, a combat veteran, who had served in the Pacific campaign on the carrier Hancock. And while the rest of the pilots and crew were trainees, they were far from their first flights. In fact, this was to be their last training mission before graduating. And after a slight delay, the flight departed; and as the planes formed up the weather was clear and favorable, the sea moderate to rough. 

Again, this practice bombing run was nothing any of these pilots hadn't done before. And once they cleared the runway, another batch of trainees would launch to run the exact same exercise -- somewhat ironically, a triangular course, just as another group was ahead of them and already well on their way to Chicken Shoals.

But once Flight-19's bombing run was successfully completed, something strange happened. It began with pilot to pilot radio transmissions, asking for a compass heading. This chatter continued, growing more agitated as it became apparent Flight-19 was off course. More radio calls inferred the entire flight's compasses were malfunctioning, and no one could get a proper bearing or heading. More confused transmissions followed, desperately trying to get fix on their location; one thinking they might be over the Florida Keys, another fearful that they were now somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico.

On the ground, all efforts to triangulate the flight's location failed. Radio contact with the squadron was spotty and intermittent, and as the crisis dragged on it suddenly stopped. Still, the plane to plane chatter continued, arguing over which direction to head as Taylor kept them circling ever eastward, while the others begged him to head west. At one point, several land-based radio stations were able to fix Flight-19's location as nowhere near Florida but north of the Bahamas. But before this could be confirmed, contact was lost.

As the weather started to deteriorate and the sun began to set, with the planes now dangerously low on fuel, a distraught Taylor radioed how the sea didn't look right, and was awash in a strange light. Then, the last transmission from Flight-19 was received: "All planes close up tight ... We'll have to ditch unless landfall ... When the first plane drops below 10-gallons, we all go down together."

Despite a massive air and sea search covering nearly 250,000 square miles, no traces of Flight-19 or the 14 men who manned the five planes was found. No debris. No oil slicks. Nothing. They simply vanished. Now, this flight was one man short since a Corporal Allan Kosnar was excused from duty because, according to legend, he had felt a "strong premonition of doom" and begged off sick. A Naval board of inquiry initially laid the blame on Taylor, but this was later revised and the official reason for the disappearance was "cause unknown." Seventy-five years later, they still don't know what happened for sure. But back in 1945, the Sargasso had earned itself another new name: The Bermuda Triangle...

The first allegations that something screwy was going on in the waters east of Florida first saw print in September, 1950, with an article by Associated Press reporter E.V.W. Jones, as a follow-up to the recent disappearance of The Sandra -- a 175-foot freighter, loaded down with pesticides and on its way to Venezuela from Savannah, Georgia -- that seemingly vanished without a trace in June, 1950, which tied several unsolved maritime disasters, including Flight-19, to the area. 

In 1952, Fate Magazine published an article by George Sand, "Sea Mystery at Our Back Door,” which was the first to note the (now standard) triangular shape of the troubled area, and was the first to suggest a preternatural element as the root cause to all of these strange disappearances.

A decade later, Vincent Gaddis' "The Deadly Bermuda Triangle" saw print in the February, 1964, edition of Argosy, which further expanded on the pattern and causes of these disappearances. Said Gaddis, “The Bermuda Triangle underlines the fact that despite swift wings and the voice of radio, we still have a world large enough so that men and their machines and ships can disappear without a trace.” And though Gaddis would later publish his theories in a book, Invisible Horizons (1969), the Bermuda Triangle didn't really strike a chord with the masses until Charles Berlitz came along.

As the legend goes, gonzo author and noted linguist Charles Berlitz first became interested in the Triangle phenomenon at a travel agency in the late 1960s, when he became intrigued by several customers who adamantly refused any mode of travel through the dreaded area. That, however, was not quite true.

Born in New York City in 1913, Berlitz, fluent in four languages before the age of three, after graduating magna cum laude at Yale, where he pushed that number of languages to over 32, got into the family business, teaching at the famed Berlitz School of Languages, which was founded by his grandfather, Maximilian, in 1878.

With America's entry into World War II, Berlitz enlisted and found his way into the Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps. Once the war ended, Berlitz stayed in the military for nearly 13-years as a reservist. He also returned to teaching, eventually taking over the stewardship of several branches of the Berlitz school, where he pioneered the use of records and tapes in learning a second (or third or fourth or 33rd) language, and then took over Berlitz Publications until it was sold to a rival publishing house in 1967.

From there, Berlitz abandoned linguistics and went full bore into the world of ancient civilizations, underwater archeology and the paranormal; more specifically, locating and proving the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis, and later, getting to the bottom of the deadly occurrences inside the Bermuda Triangle.

As a child, the author was fascinated by ancient languages, particularly hieroglyphics, which fueled a lifelong obsession to “learn something about the origin of languages.” A firm believer in Ancient Astronauts and alien visitations since the dawn of man, Berlitz's first two books, The Mystery of Atlantis (1969) and Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds (1972), delved into these theories and the possible effect and influences these *ahem* ‘visitors’ had on some of these infamous "lost civilizations,” echoing the work of Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? (1968).

From Roy Stemman’s Visitors from Outer Space (1976). Illustration by Chris Foss.

“If planes, ships and people are being kidnapped, especially from the Bermuda Triangle, by UFOs or by other means, an important factor of any investigation should be the consideration of a possible reason or reasons,” postulated Berlitz. “Some researchers have suggested that intelligent entities, light-years scientifically advanced over the comparatively primitive peoples of Earth, have been engaged throughout the centuries in observing our progress and will eventually intervene to prevent us from destroying our own planet.

“On the other hand,” Berlitz continues, “it may be that there exists, in the vicinity of the Bermuda Triangle and certain other nodal locations of electromagnetic gravitational currents, a door or window to another dimension in time or space through which scientifically sophisticated extraterrestrials can penetrate at will but which, when encountered by humans, would represent a one-way street from which return would be barred by alien force. Many of the disappearances, especially those involving entire crews of ships, suggest raiding expeditions, ranging from collecting human beings for space zoos, exhibits of different eras in planetary development or for experimentation.”

Around this time Berlitz also had his alleged encounter at the unknown travel agency, which determined the topic of his next book. But most of this interest, however, seems to stem from his time as a reservist, where he served as an investigative officer for the Army Air-Corps when Flight-19 disappeared. And after compiling all of his research, Berlitz believed that "the people and planes and ships that have reportedly disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle have been victims of some sort of electromagnetic disturbances that cause them to disintegrate and fall into the sea."

And his speculative exposé on this and other theories, The Bermuda Triangle (1974), sold more than 14-million copies worldwide, feeding the voracious appetite of the crypto-addled public of the 1970s, who had gone completely bonkers over UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, and psychic whammies, and almost single-handedly made the notorious area of water a household name and caused a massive dip in Bermuda's tourist trade.

“This area -- referred to as the Bermuda Triangle -- occupies a disturbing and almost unbelievable place in the world’s catalogue of unexplained mysteries,” declared Berlitz in the opening salvo of his book. “It is here that more than 100 planes and ships have vanished into thin air, most of them since 1945, and where more than 1000 lives have been lost in the past 26 years, without a single body or even a piece of wreckage from the vanishing planes or ships having been found … In no area outside the Bermuda Triangle have the unexplained disappearances been so numerous, so well-recorded, so sudden, and attended by such unusual circumstances, some of which push the element of coincidence to the borders of impossibility.”

At some point during all of this, Berlitz also hitched himself onto noted prognosticator and self-proclaimed mystic Edgar Cayce's bandwagon and tied his two obsessions together, claiming Atlantis was located inside the Bermuda Triangle -- even claiming to have found a massive pyramid on the ocean floor near Bimini. But a reviewer for TIME Magazine countered, saying the author "takes off from established facts, then proceeds to lace his theses with a hodgepodge of half-truths, unsubstantiated reports and unsubstantial science.'' And Naval historian Eliot Morison called Berlitz's book "a load of hoey,” adding most of the documented disappearances didn't actually happen inside the Triangle or could easily be explained by more normal causes.

But even as the Washington Times tagged him as "the de-facto expert on weird phenomena,” Berlitz was just getting started. Flooded with more eye-witness testimonies after his first book hit big, he immediately published another on the Triangle, Without a Trace (1977), followed by yet another exposé on some deadly Naval exercises that took place in these very same waters, The Philadelphia Experiment (1979), co-authored by William Moore, which alleges the US Navy tested some top-secret high-powered generators to make a "magnetic field" powerful enough to render a destroyer invisible that went completely awry, causing the boat to shift between dimensions, leaving several crewman dead, melded into the hull, while others kept blinking in out of this known existence. And as the 1970s came to a close, Berlitz once again stirred up the notion that the government was covering up the existence of aliens with The Roswell Incident (1980).

Meantime, producer and director Charles E. Sellier Jr. -- probably best known to the masses for the ruination of Christmas with his controversial but, in the end, harmless holiday slasher, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), was quietly becoming one of the patron saints for a certain niche of shlock cinema. For we children of the 1970s remember him more for a rash of faux docs on cryptids and other strange phenomenon like The Mysterious Monsters (1975) -- which gave five year old me one of thee worst case of the drizzles, The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena (1976), and Beyond and Back (1978), which he unleashed on the public and drew the ire of both noted film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, along with his eccentric historical docudramas, In Search of Noah's Ark (1976) and The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977) -- half of which I remember seeing in the theater. The others used to be late night staples on the Supestations before they all chucked them for more mainstream programming. (Altogether now, BOO!, Superstations. We said, BOO!)

Charles E. Sellier Jr.

So to say Sellier Jr. was a bit obsessive on the mysterious and unexplained would be a bit of an understatement; but he found a kindred spirit with fellow filmmakers Rober Guenette -- The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981) and James Conway -- Hangar 18 (1980), who all found distribution through Sunn Classic Pictures, a subsidiary of Schick Enterprises, who had expanded beyond disposable razors. Based out of Salt Lake City, Sunn Classic was kind of a throwback to the old barnstorming and hucksterism road-show days of Dwain Esper and Kroger Babb, moving from city to city, with over-saturation advertising campaigns to lure people into the theaters, where it would have a limited run to add even more urgency before moving on and starting the process all over again.

As 1978 rolled around, Sellier Jr. and Conway managed to get the film rights for Berlitz's book and set out to adapt it to film in their usual docu-drama style. Now, what I always loved about these kinda movies and books on this type of whackadoodle subject matter is they all tended to follow a fairly familiar pattern. First comes an introduction to what mystery we're investigating, then comes the dramatic recreations of infamous incidents and firsthand testimonials, followed by a token attempt to show all the possible rational explanations for these strange phenomena before we get to the best parts, where the crackpot theories roam wild and free.

In The Bermuda Triangle (1979), director Richard Friedenberg and scriptwriter Stephen Lord stick to this gonzo approach, playing rather loosely with the facts for ... uhm, dramatic purposes, and throw in everything but Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. And while Flight-19 is a centerpiece (-- and it should be specified that this was Berlitz’s version, which is highly embellished with a few more supernatural twists and turns, 'natch), it begins with Christopher Columbus' encounter with a series of strange "fireballs" in the sky near Bimini; then a ghostly encounter with the Mary Celeste and the Flying Dutchman; then the disappearance of the U.S.S. Cyclops. 

These, along with about a dozen more encounters in the Triangle, by sea and air, related by those who survived and speculation over what happened to those who did not, round the film out. Highlights include:

A rather unintentionally hilarious segment about a dimensionally-displaced barge; a plane passenger's harrowing close encounter with a space-time vortex; an airliner that ceased to exist for 12-minutes; a rather creepy segment on Carolyn Cascio, who, on June 7, 1969, was piloting a small plane near the Grand Turk Islands, where she and her passenger were apparently caught in a time bubble, circling back and forth, unable to land because whenever / wherever they are / were the airport hadn't been established yet, even as the confused radio-operator in the tower below could see and hear them circling overhead until they disappeared into the clouds and were never heard from again. Things even get a little sinister when some of these surviving eye-witnesses die under dubious circumstances for, dare I say, knowing too much.

As far as the theories go, well, once pilot-error, underwater earthquakes, water-spouts, and leftover mines are written off due to the lack of physical evidence, followed by some heated conjecture between several oceanographers with out-RAY-geous French accents over (sacré) blue holes (-- essentially giant whirlpools), the film starts thinking outside the box -- and these ideas are all bone-headedly magnificent.

One of my favorites is the claim that it all boils down to Atlantis -- namely a powerful crystal that, when not harnessed properly, is prone to violent discharges of energy that not only destroyed and sunk the ancient civilization but is still popping-off from the ocean-floor to this very day like some ersatz death-ray -- represented by pilfered and spliced-in footage from George Pal's Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1961).

Dimensional rifts caused by all that magnetic interference is also given some play, as is a wild reenactment of the "failed" Philadelphia Experiment, where the U.S.S. Eldridge is super-charged for naught and all her sailors turned into ghostly, intangible lab-rats. But the film's own favorite pet theory is a UFO connection -- which I'm sure had nothing to do at all with the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) the year before, claiming there's a secret underwater alien base near Puerto Rico, who have been picking off ships and planes to keep it a secret since the 1800s.

This notion even leeches into the Flight-19 segment, with additional radio chatter about a silver object and strange lights before all communications are lost. (Again, Flight-19 plays a role in Spielberg's film, as well. Coincidence? I think not. Nope. Nosiree.) In fact, the last third of the movie is dedicated to these Unidentified Flying -- no, wait, sorry, Underwater Floating Objects, even going so far afield for another hilarious dramatization of Captain Thomas Mantell's fatal encounter with a UFO over Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1948, which, according to my map, is nowhere near Bermuda. We also learn that these aquatic alien invaders have an aversion to salsa music. Go figure.

Tying all of these spooky and kooky tales together is Brad Crandall, who serves as our omnipresent moderator and guide. Crandall's career began as a proto-shock jock for WNBC, New York, in the 1960s. In the 1970s he sort of became a freelance narrator for films like this one, making his deep and authoritative voice as familiar to me as Percy Rodriquez, Ernie Anderson or Don LaFontaine. The rest of the acting by the cast of mostly unknowns in the reenactments is serviceable enough, as is Friedenberg's direction of the same.

Often overlooked in these things, but John Cameron's score kinda quietly glues the film together; making the eerie and ominous even creepier, the rousing more bombastic, or capturing the strange mix of dire danger and gob-smacked awe of the impossible things being seen and heard by all these alleged witnesses. As for what we saw they said they saw, the FX -- credited to Doug Hubbard, is grounded in the decade that spawned it but is actually quite good once you consider the budget; though thinking on it about three-quarters of his job was just adding a green-filter to the camera lens. Still, the miniatures and pyrotechnics were rather spiffy.

Obviously, Berlitz's book is part truth wrapped-up in a ton of bullshit. But I do believe it was sincere bullshit. Sellier's film adaptation, of course, is pure exploitation, beating the evidence and the sincerity around the head and neck with the three Fs: faulty, fraudulent and fabricated. "Science does not have to answer questions about the [Bermuda] Triangle because those questions are not valid in the first place," said Dr. Buzzkill in an episode of NOVA (June, 2006) dedicated to debunking this particular myth. "Ships and planes behave in the Triangle the same way they behave everywhere else in the world."

The United States Coast Guard does have an official file on the subject (5729) -- again, according to Berlitz, but their official line on the Bermuda or Devil’s Triangle is that “its an imaginary area located off the southeastern Atlantic coast of the United States, which is noted for a high incidence of unexplained losses of ships, small boats and aircraft.” Yeah. It's been said that if you took a global map and drew a triangle with the same dimensions as the Bermuda Triangle and placed it anywhere else that was blue it would show that just as many ships and planes disappeared in the new triangle as the old, making it no more or less dangerous than anywhere else -- even though anywhere else never got its own home version board game from Milton Bradley. (Take THAT, Dr. Buzzkill.) 

And while I don't necessarily believe in things like the Bermuda Triangle, I like the idea of it existing -- and the same goes for Bigfoot, lake monsters, UFOs and ghosts, if that makes any sense. And I love books and documentaries based on them even more, with The Bermuda Triangle being a particularly riveting favorite both in print and film. Yes, even though the majority of it is bullshit -- I know it, and you know it, I love this flick unconditionally because sometimes ... Sometimes you simply just don't care and just simply run with it to see where the bullshit takes you because the bullshit is the best part. And if that doesn't compute for you, well, I'm sorry. Truly sorry.

And one more thing before I once again set sail to parts unknown, while a lot of these old paranormal and cryptid-docs managed to eke out a VHS release they still have yet to make the digital leap; and I would hope that someone, anyone, would rectify that as soon as possible.

Originally posted on July 26, 2015, at Micro-Brewed Reviews. 

The Bermuda Triangle (1979) Schick Sunn Classics / P: Charles E. Sellier Jr., James L. Conway / D: Richard Friedenberg / W: Stephen Lord, Charles Berlitz (book) / C: Henning Schellerup / E: John F. Link / M: John Cameron / S: Brad Crandall, Vince Davis, Anne Galvan, Robert Magruder, Tom Matts

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)

"I've looked and looked but there is no 'Y' in Egypt!" 

Our feature kicks off with the British 8th Army on the run with the German Afrika Korps hot on their heels. And after the fall of Tobruk in June, 1942, the plot-proper begins with the surreal sight of a lone, crippled British tank rocking its way through the seemingly endless sand dunes of North Africa. The entire crew is dead, save for Cpl. John Bramble, who, barely alive after sucking on exhaust fumes for who knows how long, manages to crawl his way out of this runaway death-trap.

Lost and delirious, Bramble (Tone) struggles through the heat and sand until he eventually stumbles into the small seaside town of Sidi Halfaya, where he finds refuge in the Empress of Britain, a local hotel, run by an oafish Egyptian named Farid (Tamifoff), who quickly hides the unconscious soldier despite the malignant indifference of a French girl named Mouche (Baxter); the last member of Farid’s housekeeping staff that hasn’t run off or been killed in the constant air-raids or artillery bombardments, who warns what will happen to them if they get caught hiding the enemy. 

You see, unfortunately, this hotel is now located in German occupied territory and has been pegged to be the new command center of the Desert Fox himself, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Von Stroheim). Luckily for Bramble, he is able to assume the identity of Davos -- Farid’s recently deceased club-footed waiter, currently buried under some rubble in the basement cellar from the latest air-raid, before he is discovered.

But, this luck has a fine razor's edge to it. Turns out this Davos was a German mole who spied on the British when they occupied the hotel. So, while this allows the fake Davos to be trusted to move freely amongst the enemy, he is also in constant danger of getting recognized as not being who he claims to be -- on top of being expected to know certain things he possibly couldn't.

Thus, Bramble as Davos must carefully bluff his way through several dicey conversations; and as he traverses this precarious, razor-wire tightrope, with some reluctant help from Mouche, who has her own agenda to work with the Germans, Bramble keeps his eyes and ears open, with a hope to find some vital detail to unravel the enigma of the "Five Graves" that will hopefully derail Rommel's march to Cairo and the eventual seizure of the Suez Canal. For if that falls into the Reich's clutches, says Herr Rommel, then Churchill will be forced to take that "big fat cigar out of his mouth and say, 'Heil Hitler!’”

The screenwriting tandem of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett first worked together on Ernst Lubitsch's screwball comedy, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). And after What a Life (1939) and Midnight (1939), the duo teamed up with Lubitsch again on Ninotchka (1939), a career redefining role for Greta Garbo, which earned them their first Academy Award nomination. (They would lose to Sidney Howard and Gone With the Wind (1939), which steamrolled through the Oscars that year.) Wilder would receive dual nominations in 1941 for best original story with Thomas Monroe on Ball of Fire (1941), a delightful, jazzy twist on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and with Brackett for best original screenplay for Hold Back the Dawn (1941). (He would lose both to Harry Segall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

But! Despite getting skunked on all these nominations, this string of box-office successes generated by their screenplays for Paramount gave Wilder just enough rope to try and secure the director’s seat on their next collaboration, The Major and the Minor (1942). "The thing to do was suggest an idea, have it torn apart and despised. In a few days it would be apt to turn up again, slightly changed, as Wilder's idea,” said Brackett in “It’s the Pictures that Got Small,” a collection of diary entries edited together by Anthony Slide, which chronicled working with Wilder and how their process worked -- that honestly reads like dispatches from the front by some grizzled war correspondent. “Once I got adjusted to that way of working, our lives were simpler."

 Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

Now, before he migrated to Hollywood, Wilder had directed one feature in Europe -- Mauvaise Graine (1934), released domestically as Bad Seed, and, not wanting to be relegated to a typewriter for the rest of his career, he convinced producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. -- who had produced the Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard comedy spook-shows, The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), to let him make his pitch to Ginger Rogers on a proposed adaptation of the play, Connie Comes Home.

Coming off her Oscar winning performance in Kitty Foyle (1940), Rogers had earned enough clout to pick her own pictures and have a say on who directed them. Both Rogers and Wilder shared the same agent, Leland Hayward, who arranged a meeting. The two hit it off immediately, and the picture was a go with Wilder directing and Rogers headlining. And while the role of Major Phillip Kirby was written with Cary Grant in mind, as the legend goes according to Wilder, it was a chance meeting at a stoplight, and an offer through an open window, that got Ray Milland involved in the picture.

“When I became a director ... my technical knowledge was very meager," said Wilder in a later interview. And to compensate for this, Wilder relied heavily on his editor, Doane Harrison, during the filming of The Major and the Minor. Harrison had been the editor on Hold Back the Dawn, and Wilder had him on set from shot one. “I worked with a very good cutter, from whom I learned a great deal. He was much more of a help to me than the cameraman.” See, Harrison taught Wilder how to cut “in camera,” resulting in a minimal amount of film being expended and very little coverage, which had less to do with saving money and more to do with eliminating the possibility of the studio later going back and re-cutting things or adding footage the director had deemed unnecessary. “When I finish a film,” Wilder added, “there is nothing on the cutting room floor but chewing gum wrappers and tears."

When The Major and the Minor proved to be another box-office smash, Paramount rewarded Wilder with his choice on what he wanted to do next. And what Wilder wanted to do was another adaptation of Lajos Biro’s play, Hotel Imperial, which had already been adapted to the screen in 1927 by Mauritz Stiller, in 1936 as I Loved a Soldier by Henry Hathaway, and in 1939 by Robert Florey. And while Brackett found the play and all the adaptations rather dreadful -- and that’s putting it mildly, Wilder was hellbent and soon had the studio onboard.

In the original play, the action takes place on the Eastern Front during the first World War, specifically a town caught in the no man’s land between the Russians and the Austrians, which has changed hands so many times its denizens aren’t really sure who is in charge from day to day. Enter Ann Warschaska, who is there to avenge the suicide of her sister after she was betrayed by an Austrian officer. But the only clue to his identity is the number of the room he’s staying in at the Hotel Imperial, where she gets a job as a maid and befriends a Russian general, who currently holds the town. 

When she finally makes her move on room 12, she discovers Nemassy, a young Austrian officer hiding out after getting left behind, whom she plans to turn over to the Russians in her bid for revenge. However, she soon discovers the hotel has two room 12s, and in the other is the real culprit; a Russian spy, who was a mole planted in the Austrian army. And from there, Ann and Nemassy team up to eliminate the spy and escape the hotel for friendlier environs.

In their version, Wilder and Brackett shifted the action to the second World War and the location from the Russian front to the deserts of North Africa. They also shifted the characters around, bringing Nemassy to the front as Bramble and shifting Ann to a secondary character with Mouche. Here, initially, Mouche and Bramble do not get along because the girl despises the British, believing they abandoned the French at Dunkirk, including her brother, who was severely wounded and is now languishing in a prisoner of war camp. And in an effort to secure his release, she starts to fraternize with the enemy -- first with Rommel, which goes nowhere, and then one of his underlings, Lt. Schwegler (Van Eyck), who strings the girl along but has no intention of ever really doing anything.

Meantime, fearing it will derail all her efforts, Mouche thwarts Bramble’s attempt to assassinate Rommel before “Davos” is sent on to Cairo to once again spy on the British. His mission changes when Rommel hosts several captured British officers for dinner, who are the first to recognize Bramble is not the real Davos. Here, Bramble is able to clandestinely explain how he came to be in this predicament with his superiors, who charge him to turn the tables on the Germans and gather all the intelligence that he can to share with the British high command once he reaches Cairo.

Thus and so, Bramble keeps his eyes and ears open as Rommel allows his captive audience to ask him twenty questions about his plans to take Cairo and seize the Suez Canal. And from this conversation, along with some further digging, Bramble discovers that while posing as an archeological expedition in Egypt before the war, Rommel had secretly prepared five hidden supply dumps of gas and munitions -- which he refers to as the Five Graves. As to their location, all Bramble has are some cryptic references to a point Y, P and T. Thinking these are the first letters to certain cities, Bramble scrambles to find the most probable locations on Rommel’s maps -- only he can find no city, village or oasis that begins with the letter Y.

Alas, when the quarter finally drops for our hero, everyone must take shelter in the hotel’s cellar, where the current Allied bombing raid unearths the real Davos’ corpse, which is discovered by Schwelger. And as the bombs continue to fall, Schwelger chases Bramble throughout the blacked-out hotel, until he is killed in the quarters Bramble shares with Mouche. When the body is discovered, Mouche is ready to rat out Bramble for ruining everything until Rommel accuses her of killing his underling because she found out he’d been lying all along about helping her brother. 

With that, Mouche decides to take one for the team, so to speak, and confesses to the murder, which allows Bramble to take Rommel’s secrets on to Cairo. But before he leaves, Bramble instructs Farid to come forward during her eventual trial with evidence that “Davos” was the one who really killed Schwelger.

Originally, Wilder wanted Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman for his leads in Five Graves to Cairo; but even though they proved untenable, Franchot Tone and Anne Baxter do just fine as the bickering protagonists that are hamstrung by some strong sexual tension as they pursue their own ends. Wilder did get his first choice for Rommel, and allowed Eric Von Stroheim to run wild with the character's wardrobe and accouterments.

Behind the camera, Wilder and cinematographer John Sietz turned the lights down low and kept them there, giving things a nice, noirish flare as characters slink around in the shadows and in the dark. On screen, the espionage and intrigue are taut and suspenseful as Bramble barely stays one (club-footed) step ahead of the Germans. And if I have one beef with the film, and it's a minor one, is that the overt comedy elements, supplied mostly by Akim Tamiroff's buffoonish Farid, don't really gel all that well with -- and distract from, the overall tone of the film.

Paramount released the film in 1943, not long after the British stopped Rommel cold at El Alamein. History shows that the good guys would eventually win the day, and they win the day in Five Graves to Cairo, too, but not without a great cost. In the film, Bramble’s information allows the Allies to blow-up Rommel’s remaining supply dumps, leading to that (cinematic) victory at El Alamein. But when Bramble returns to Sidi Halfaya in triumph, he discovers Mouche was executed by the Germans, even though she was exonerated of Schwegler's murder, due to her aiding and abetting the enemy over her insistence that the British would be back. 

Here, Bramble takes the parasol he bought for the girl in Cairo, something she had always wanted, and uses it to provide shade for her grave, where he posthumously informs her she was right -- the British came back; and not just the British, but the Americans, Canadians and all free-thinking Allies, who are going to chase Rommel all the way back to Germany, and they will keep on pushing until final victory is achieved.

As the story goes, looking back on it several years later, Brackett always bemoaned the fact that Five Graves to Cairo had "the dreadful smell of propaganda" to it. Eh, I think that sells the film way too short. Yes, there are a few spotlight speeches on why we fight, but I think those scenes only add pressure to the proceedings. This was only 1943, remember; and despite the recent victories the war was still far from over; and who would be the eventual victors was still very much in doubt. As for me, the film was a resounding victory. This was my introduction to Wilder, and Brackett, when I caught this on Matinee at the Bijou many, many, many moons ago via our local PBS affiliate and it always stuck with me. And while not as well known as Wilder's screwball comedies -- The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like it Hot (1959), his film noir -- Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), or his biting social commentaries -- The Lost Weekend (1945), Ace in the Hole (1951), The Apartment (1960), or even his only other war movie, Stalag 17 (1953), this one is well worth the watch and is ripe for rediscovery. Get to it, won't you? Thank you.

Originally posted on April 24, 2010, at Micro-Brewed Reviews.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) Paramount Pictures / EP: Buddy G. DeSylva / P: Charles Brackett / D: Billy Wilder / W: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Lajos Biró (play) / C: John F. Seitz / E: Doane Harrison / M: Miklós Rózsa / S: Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Erich von Stroheim, Akim Tamiroff, Peter van Eyck