Monday, February 5, 2018

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)



"Don't you love your country?"
"Yes, but is it the same country?"

Prisoner #34, Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier) stands trial. It's Capetown, South Africa in the midst of apartheid. Thanks to the remarkable defense work by his lawyer Rina Van Niekirk (Prunella Gee), Twala is now free. Rina's boyfriend Jim Keogh (Michael Caine) wants to celebrate her victory and Rina invites Twala to join them. On their way to her apartment they encounter the Capetown police who are a little too eager to arrest another black person. Twala, Keogh and Rina get into an ugly fight with the police officers and escape. Rina helps Twala and Keogh flee to Johannesburg. Things begin to escale when two members of the secret police, Major Horn (Nichol Williamson) and Van Heerden (Rijk de Gooyer), are sent out to hunt down the fugitive duo. Twala knows of an Indian dentist Mukerjee (Saeed Jaffrey) who will help them, if his assistant Persis (Persis Khambatta) doesn't get in the way. But Twala is hiding something. Keogh soon learns about the Wilby conspiracy. Mukerjee, Twala and Wilby have a treasure trove of diamonds hidden in a sinkhole. This loot will help finance the Black Congress' revolution, something the secret police are hell bent on stopping. All Twala and Keogh need to do is get the diamonds, find Wilby and escape South Africa before it's too late. But that's easier said than done.

The Blu-Ray is a million times better quality than this image!

Directed by Ralph NelsonThe Wilby Conspiracy (1975) is a political thriller set in the oppressive era of apartheid. Based on the novel by Peter Driscoll, it explores the racial dynamics of the era while also serving as a thrilling chase movie. Some of the politics from Driscoll's original novel were stripped away from the movie but the final product still demonstrates the dangerous political climate of South Africa in the 1970s. The movie was filmed in Keny and at the MGM Pinewood Studios in England. It was far too risky to actually film on location in South Africa.

Actor Sidney Poitier hadn't been in Kenya since filming Something of Value (1957) and found a much different country on his return. He was warmly embraced by the locals and the government as a major movie star. Much had changed politically in Kenya over the past decades. The film has some amazing aerial footage and there is extensive use of small aircraft and helicopters. Chase scenes in the air and on the ground are thrilling to watch.

Independently produced in conjunction with United Artists, producer Martin Baum used to be Poitier's agent and he cast both Poitier and Caine for the film. Director Ralph Nelson had worked with Poitier on Lilies of the Field (1963) and Duel at Diablo (1966). For Caine this was his first "message film." In his memoir he wrote, "my experiences on the set of Zulu had made me an implacable opponent of the apartheid system and I was pleased to be able to make a contribution to highlighting its cruelty." Caine and Poitier were good friends and bonded even further during the making of the film. They both had a near death experience when a 50 pound camera broke loose, almost killing them both. If anything it drew them closer together and they've been friends ever since.

Even without some of the politics of Driscoll's original novel, The Wilby Conspiracy holds a powerful punch as it delivers the painful message of oppression. The film suffers at one point when the story begins lose its purpose and relies too much on the extended chase. Perhaps what was taken away from Driscoll's story should have been left in. The movie is part political thriller and part action drama and I found it wholly engrossing. Caine and Poitier's characters have a contentious relationship and it was intriguing to see what they both had to bring to two very different roles.

On a side note, in one of the scenes actor Nichol Williamson utters the Dutch curse word "godverdomme". My father, who lived in the Netherlands for a brief time, used this curse word, which translates into g-d dammit, whenever he was angry. I have never heard anyone else use it until I watched this film. My father passed away a couple of years ago (you can read my tribute to him here) and it briefly reminded me of him. It made me smile because even though he said it when it was mad, it was one of those quirks that was unique to my dad.

While watching The Wilby Conspiracy I couldn't help but make the connection to The Defiant Ones (1958). Caine and Poitier as two fugitives on the run reminded me of Poitier and Tony Curtis as two chain-gang fugitives who escaped prison. I would recommend pairing those two films together. You could also pair The Wilby Conspiracy with another Poitier film set in South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).




The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) is available from Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow! When you purchase through my buy links you help support this site. Thanks!

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review.

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