A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

Apartheid in South Africa, one of the more shameful episodes in the last half of this century, seemed to be mostly ignored by Hollywood until late 1980s. Before that time, American mainstream producers didn't dare to tackle the subject of the country that was nominally capitalist democracy and Western ally, yet with the regime that made Communism look good. Instead of them, that task was carried out by movie authors in Commonwealth countries, less troubled with cheap Cold War politics. One of such projects is 1975 British production THE WILBY CONSPIRACY, directed by Ralph Nelson and based on Peter Driscoll's novel.

The movie begins in Cape Town courtroom, where Rina van Niekirk (Prunella Gee), liberal white lawyer, tries to win freedom for her client Shack Twala (Sydney Poitier), black anti-apartheid activist who spent ten years in prison. To her own big surprise, the government decides to let Twala go, but only hours after the release he gets again in trouble with police, this time together with Rina's boyfriend Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), British engineer. Two men become fugitives and are forced to drive to Johannesburg, where Twala seeks help by Doctor Mukharjee (Saeed Jaffrey), Hindu dentist and fellow member of Black Congress. In the mean time, sadistically Major Horn (Nicol Williamson) from the secret police is on their trail.

Like many thrillers from the 1970s, THE WILBY CONSPIRACY has a rather complicated plot and some of today's viewers might even get lost in a quagmire of political intrigue and endless double-crossings between the movie's protagonists. But, Ralph Nelson wraps it up as a solid piece of entertainment, using political reality of contemporary South Africa mostly as a background for conventional action thriller. So, we have a lots of humour, fistfights, car chases and even one totally gratuitous sex scene. Some might argue that the subject of racial inequality and totalitarian oppression would be inappropriate for the use in a such mainstream product. Anyway, the actors did a really good job - Michael Caine brings a lot of charm to his role, unlike Sidney Poitier, whose almost solemn presence gives a rather nice contrast to Caine and establishes "buddy buddy" chemistry between the two. Other performances seems bland, except for Nicol Williamson as very convincing and intelligent villain. The end of the movie is perhaps slightly disappointing, but nevertheless THE WHILBY CONSPIRACY as a whole is worth watching, especially compared with today's "politically correct" movies.

RATING: 6/10 (++)
Review written on October 1st 1998




The Wilby Conspiracy (1974)
movie review by Shane Burridge,

Rating: FRESH

An adventure yarn with enough odd flourishes to earn itself a cult audience

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) 102m.

Not the best-known film in the careers of Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier, but certainly worth catching. Don’t let the homogeneous Robert Ludlum-like title put you off – THE WILBY CONSPIRACY is an adventure yarn with enough odd flourishes to earn itself a cult audience. Caine is a British mining engineer vacationing in Capetown who meets his new lawyer girlfriend (Prunella Gee) for lunch and ends up on the run to Johannesburg with one of her clients (Poitier), a black activist newly released from several years in jail. It looks like some serious exchanges about politics, South Africa, and apartheid are being set up to take place between Caine and the handcuffed Poitier, (THE DEFIANT ONES springs to mind fairly quickly), but you’ll have to watch Richard Attenborough’s CRY FREEDOM if you prefer your chase movies to have a more political bent. THE WILBY CONSPIRACY raises many provocative issues in its opening scenes and then leaves them to ferment as background material. All we have to know about Caine and Poitier’s escapade is that it is politically motivated – the specifics aren’t necessary.

The best thing about THE WILBY CONSPIRACY is the wry, lurking humor displayed in its snappy dialogue and unusual asides (my favourite is when Poitier visits a fellow conspirator who runs a dental practice while Caine pretends to watch a movie in Hindi). Throw in former Miss India Persis Khambatta and a very youthful Rutger Hauer piloting his own plane, and how can you resist? But there’s more: the film is stolen by Nicol Williamson’s laid-back performance as a chain-smoking government security officer who seems to occupy a South Africa all of his own, stramming about the countryside and remarking “All righty” whenever he’s ready to move on. The characters and cast alone could probably carry this movie, but the storyline is also engaging. It splits easily into thirds, each section presenting the protagonists with a problem to solve, i.e. a flight from the authorities, an operation to retrieve some diamonds, and a plan to cross the border. It’s worth noting that this story would have been handled differently if filmed twenty years later – the fairly difficult but straightforward trials faced by the characters would have become over-elaborate and ultimately unrealistic set pieces replete with stunts. The simplicity of THE WILBY CONSPIRACY is what gives it its charm, but more importantly it places the protagonists’ goals within their reach, preventing it from becoming entirely unbelievable. THE WILBY CONSPIRACY is also a lot easier to enjoy now that the business of apartheid has been dispensed with in South Africa – it’s probably just as well the story downplayed this element to begin with. Because of the touchy subject matter, director Ralph Nelson filmed on location in Kenya instead of South Africa. Jack-of-all-trades Rod Amateau (a former producer, stuntman, actor and sitcom director) wrote the script, based on Harold Nebenzal’s novel.