Thursday, November 30, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #24: The Wilby Conspiracy

Cast: Sidney Poitier (Shack Twala), Michael Caine (Keogh), Nicol Williamson (Horn), Prunella Gee (Rina), Saeed Jaffrey (Mukarjee), Persis Khambatta (Persis), Ryk de Gooyer (Van Heerden), Rutger Hauer (Blane), Patrick Allen (District Commissioner), Joe De Graft (Wilby).

Crew: Ralph Nelson (director), Martin Baum (producer), Rod Amateau and Harold Nebenzal (writers), Stanley Myers (music), John Coquillon (cinematography), Ernest Walker (editor), Harry Pottle (production design).

Synopsis: In Capetown political prisoner Shack Twala is released after ten years in a South African jail, thanks to his lawyer Rina Van Niekirk. But within minutes the police try to arrest Shack and attack Rina when she tries to stop them. The pair escape with help from Rina’s new boyfriend, a British mining engineer called Jim Keogh. Shack and Keogh have to flee South Africa, but Shack insists on travelling via Johannesburg, 900 miles away. The fugitives are stalked by Major Horn from the Bureau of State Security. He murders a white man who helps the pair and dumps the body in their car boot. Keogh realises Shack is vice-chairman of Black Congress, a political group fighting against apartheid. The fugitives reach Johannesburg where Shack enlists the aid of Indian doctor Mukarjee to recover £750,000 of uncut diamonds. The stones will be used to further Black Congress’s cause. Keogh and Shack are reunited with Rina. She blackmails her estranged husband Blane into flying them across the border into Botswana. They land safely and are welcomed by Wilby, the chairman of Black Congress. But Horn arrives, intent on abducting Wilby and taking him back to South Africa to stand trial. Horn says Shack and Keogh were allowed to escape so they would lead him to Wilby. The uncut diamonds are just fakes. The Black congress members foil Horn’s plan and kill all his men. Keogh realises he can no longer be neutral and murders Horn…


Peter Driscoll’s political thriller about racism in South Africa, The Wilby Conspiracy, was first published in 1972. Screenwriters Rob Amateau and Harold Nebenzal adapted it for the big screen, downplaying the political content and heightening the more cinematic chase element. Ralph Nelson was hired to direct the film, having twice helmed films starring Sidney Poitier. Their first collaboration, Lilies of the Field (1963), had won Poitier a best actor Oscar – the first black actor to be awarded this accolade. Poitier was chosen for the role of political activist Shack Twala, while Caine came on board as British tourist Jim Keogh.

Caine had experienced apartheid while filming Zulu on location in South Africa during 1963, and soon learnt to abhor them. Several years later he also experienced the effects of racism while shooting Hurry Sundown (1967) in the US state of Louisiana. The actor had no time for such attitudes, as his mixed race marriage to Shakira Baksh in 1973 showed. When the chance arose to star in an anti-apartheid thriller, Caine grabbed it.

The Wilby Conspiracy was unable to shoot in South Africa because of the film’s political content. Instead Kenya and Nairobi were used for seven weeks of location work during 1974, with studio sequences lensed at Pinewood back in Britain. The picture was Rutger Hauer’s first English-speaking role and gave a film debut to English actress Prunella Gee. In 1975 she told Film Review about making the movie. ‘As it was my first film, it was a bit of a strain. But Michael kept me doubled up with laughter most of the time. He is so funny. It was quite difficult to do some of the scenes for laughing.’

In Kenya Caine frequently found himself ignored while Poitier received all the adulation. But both actors almost made headlines for the wrong reason. They were filming a high speed scene in a jeep with a camera mounted to the front of the vehicle. The £35,000 camera jolted loose and flew through the empty windscreen, narrowly missing them.

The Wilby Conspiracy was released in Britain during the spring of 1975, rated AA. The picture got a mediocre reception from critics, uneasy at the mixture of politics and action. It reached America in July that year, rated PG. The Wilby Conspiracy was released on video 12 years later, reclassified as a 15. The tape has long been deleted in Britain but can still be found in the US. No DVD edition has yet been issued. {Update: The Wilby Conspiracy is now available as a Region 1 DVD.]

In his autobiography Caine said the picture was worthwhile, even without box office success: ‘This film was my first foray into that very risky realm of “message” pictures, and as such proved to be a bit ahead of its time, but I am still proud that I made it anyway.’ More than 20 years after The Wilby Conspiracy, Caine and Poitier were reunited to play the title characters in Mandela and de Klerk, a 1997 TV project about the end of apartheid in South Africa. The situation portrayed in their 1975 film had become part of history.

Reviews: ‘Somehow the story comes out too much of a pot-boiler undeserving of the fine work that Williamson, Caine and Poitier put into it.’ – Variety
‘Michael Caine has never been better, carrying off his role with a sense of humour that never interferes with the seriousness of the escapade.’ – Daily Express

Verdict: The Wilby Conspiracy is a curious mixture of chase film, buddy movie and political diatribe. It tackles the issue of racism with fervour, but loads the dice by portraying the white racists as evil sadists. There is also a crudity to the picture, with gratuitous nudity thrown in simply to titillate. But the strengths of the three leads and a sardonically humorous script ensure the film is never less than watchable. Nicol Williamson delivers a delightfully eccentric performance as the hunter Horn, while Caine and Poitier spark off each well as the fugitives whose fates are inextricably linked. The Wilby Conspiracy is an enjoyable movie, even if it employs a sledgehammer to make its point.

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