THE WILBY CONSPIRACY, a well-intentioned mess from 1975, was later recalled by Michael Caine as his “first foray into that very risky realm of ‘message’ pictures.” The message here, an anti-Apartheid thriller set in once-pariah South Africa, goes—thanks to jumbled writing and erratic direction—off the rails trying to simultaneously be a racial/political drama, a buddy movie, and a chase flick road trip with a diamond heist subplot. Shooting in sensitive South Africa was a no-go, so location work was done in Kenya. The extent of plot authenticity for this dud is that both countries are on the same continent.
“A politically committed Indian dentist? That sounds like all the people I can’t stand at a cocktail party.”
Freed after a decade, revolutionary ‘Shack Twala’ (Sidney Poitier) is quickly re-arrested by bigoted policemen, but manages to escape with the help of visiting Brit engineer ‘Jim Keogh’ (Caine), the boyfriend of Twala’s liberal lawyer ‘Rina van Niekerk” (Prunella Gee). On the run, the dissimilar duo undertake a peril-ridden 900-mile drive from Cape Town to Johannesburg, pursued by State Security officer ‘Peter Horn’ (Nicol Williamson), a vicious racist. Encountered en route are Indian dentists with a jewel stash and Rina’s estranged husband.
Whatever qualities may have worked in Peter Driscoll’s novel were jumbled in the script written by Rod Amateau and Harold Nebenzal, and further futzed by Ralph Nelson’s schizophrenic direction. Tone jerks from serious to silly, with an absurdly conceived sex scene tossed in for no good reason, jokey moments that are out of place and highly unlikely action sequences: it’s farcical. The Poitier-Nelson combo that made Lilies Of the Field a game-changing charmer and Duel At Diablo a rowdy western is nowhere in evidence. Though there is some obvious interest in watching Caine and Poitier, more telling is the wasting of them, along with supporting players Saeed Jeffrey and Persis Khambatta (the dentist/diamond connection), and Rutger Hauer (the husband). Everyone works like pros (Gee, in her debut, is a non-starter) with Williamson getting some nasty mileage out of his villain.
It was the first English-language picture for both Hauer and Khambatta, later to reteam to taut effect in Nighthawks, while the wonderful Jeffrey would shortly join Caine for the great The Man Who Would Be King, where blending action, exotica and humor worked like a charm. At least Poitier and Caine forged a friendship, with bonding perhaps accelerated when a camera mishap nearly decapitated them. They’d revisit South Africa’s situation for a 1997 TV movie, Mandela and de Klerk; Poitier as Nelson Mandela, Caine as F.W. de Klerk. Caine famously kidded his many lame projects (in between the good and great ones), summing the lesser lot up with his judgement of Jaws: The Revenge, quipping “I have never seen the film, but by all accounts it was terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” The Wilby Conspiracy isn’t Sir Michael’s worst (too much company) but other than seeing Caine & castmates, it’s a loser. Even Kenya’s scenery isn’t well used: they might as well have shot it in Arizona. 101 minutes long, this managed to place 87th in ’75, grossing $3,000,000, and also features Helmut Dantine.