June, 1942: Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps have launched an offensive that has sent the British into headlong retreat out of Libya and into Egypt. Cpl. John Bramble, the sole survivor of a British tank hit in battle with Rommel, staggers delirious into the dusty desert hamlet of Sidi Halfaya, and into a hotel owned by avuncular Farid, and staffed by Mouche the maid (Baxter). Not much more than an hour or so later, the advancing Germans, including Erwin Rommel himself (von Stroheim), also arrive in town.
In order to avoid capture and imprisonment, Bramble changes into civilian dress and assumes the identity of Davos, the hotel waiter, who was killed the night before in a German bombing raid. He soon learns that Davos the waiter was actually a German spy. He also learns that Rommel has five caches of fuel and supplies—the "five graves"—hidden in the Egyptian desert, supplies that he badly needs in order to keep advancing and capture Cairo. Bramble thus has to figure out where the German supply dumps are, while preventing the Germans from figuring out who he is before they smuggle him back into the Allied lines.
Billy Wilder was a great admirer of the films Erich von Stroheim directed during the 1920s. Seven years later, he used von Stroheim again in Sunset Boulevard.
- Bittersweet Ending: Bramble makes it back to the Allied lines, gets promoted to lieutenant, and leads a tank in Montgomery's counterattack which sends Rommel reeling back out of Egypt, ending any threat to Cairo and the Suez Canal. But Mouche was executed by the Germans right after Bramble left.
- Dead Foot Leadfoot: The film opens with a single British tank aimlessly trundling across the desert. The reason it is aimlessly trundling is that four of the five crewmen have been overcome by carbon monoxide after the tank's exhaust was damaged in combat, including the tank driver, slumped dead against the controls. Cpl. Bramble makes it out Just in Time.
- Dead Person Impersonation: Bramble assumes the identity of Davos the dead waiter, which becomes more complicated when he finds out what Davos was up to.
- Defeat Means Friendship: The Italian General Sebastiano is portrayed as a Butt-Monkey, at least as far as the Germans are concerned; he doesn't like them very much either. When Bramble encounters him again as a captured Sebastiano is being taken to an Allied POW camp, Sebastiano greets him with a friendly smile, before marching away singing.
- Double Agent: Bramble becomes this against his will when he finds out that Davos, the man he is impersonating, was a German spy.
- Gasoline Lasts Forever: One of the most important items amongst the Hidden Supplies is the fuel the Nazis need to march to Cairo and the Suez Canal. The "graves" where the fuel was hidden underground are mentioned to have been dug in 1937 five years earlier. In Real Life gasoline will break down in two years tops even in ideal conditions. Realistically the fuel has long since gone bad, but we wouldn't have much of a thriller if it did...
- Gratuitous English: Rommel sends off a message to Berlin. Then he says "And now in English, to save them the trouble of translation when they intercept this message," and delivers the message again, for the audience.
- Hallucinations: When Bramble makes it into the hotel, he's suffering from heat stroke, dehydration, and carbon monoxide poisoning. He has whole conversations with imaginary British personnel at the hotel, while Farid tries to bring him around.
- Hidden in Plain Sight: Rommel shows Bramble his battle map of Egypt, and comments sarcastically about how the English are always looking for complicated hidden messages and can't see what's right in front of their faces. Bramble eventually figures out that the letters which spell "EGYPT" on the map actually mark where the supply dumps are.
- Hidden Supplies: The titular "five graves", buried somewhere in the North African desert.
- Historical-Domain Character: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Von Stroheim, who first had success in Hollywood playing evil German officers a quarter-century before, got to do it again.
- I Have a Family: Mouche is about to turn over Bramble to the Germans, when he asks for a second to compose a message to his wife and children. She has an attack of conscience and doesn't rat him out. Later he admits that he has no family.
- Just Between You and Me: Rommel cheerfully tells captive British officers about his plan to use hidden supply dumps to fuel his thrust to Cairo. When the officers try to get him to tell where the fuel dumps are, he says "I offered you twenty questions, that was twenty-one!"
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Rommel does this when he scornfully rejects Mouche's offer of Sex for Services.Rommel: This is a familiar scene, reminiscent of bad melodrama.
- Mathematician's AnswerSchwegler: What's a French maid doing in Egypt?
- No Peripheral Vision: At one point Lt. Schwegler leans up against a wall, and completely misses Bramble, passed out on the floor about four feet directly to his left.
- Sex for Services: Mouche makes a very thinly veiled offer of sex to Rommel—"If there's anything I can...do..."—in exchange for Rommel getting her brother out of a German POW camp. Rommel is not at all interested.
- Staggered Zoom: Onto the number 5 on the servants' buzzer, which tells Bramble that Rommel (in room #5) is buzzing for Mouche.
- Thirsty Desert: Bramble is on his hands and knees, crawling through the sand and on the verge of death, when he stumbles into Sidi Halfaya. When he makes it to Farid's hotel, he's hallucinating.
- Wicked Cultured: Rommel tells his staff to arrange a performance of Aida when they get to Cairo, "omitting the second act, which is too long, and not too good."