Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Classic Tuesdays: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

    In which Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier teach us the value of working together…

    We open right in the middle of a trial in South Africa, where lawyer Rina Van Niekirk pleads for the freedom of Bantu activist Shak Twala (whom the court will recognize only as #34), a man who has spent the last ten years in prison. Acquitted of all charges, Twala, his lawyer and her boyfriend Jim Keogh decide to go out for a celebratory drinks. It isn’t long before he’s back in handcuffs, as he’s assaulted by two policemen before they can make it down the street. The confrontation turns violent, and before he knows it Keogh is swept up in Twala’s plight, as the two of them must make for Johannesburg and safely get out of the country if they are to survive.

    Not even ten minutes in, and the main thrust of the plot is already in motion. That’s one of several delightful touches of The Wilby Conspiracy: its straight-forwardness. Taking place during the height of Apartheid in South Africa, the film cannot completely ignore the politics of the day. But it moves too quickly to stop for any grand speeches, more concerned with telling a ripping good yarn than anything else; letting the political and social aspects simmer just beneath the surface before they boil over at the film’s climax. This stripped-down approach lends the film its power - the messages don’t bog it down, and the rip-roaring chase provides an adequate vessel to endear us to the film’s themes. It’s the best of both worlds.

    Sidney Poitier plays Twala with the conviction and intensity that made him famous in films like In the Heat of the Night. He’s reunited with director Richard Nelson (whose Lilies of the Field won Poitier his first Best Actor Oscar), and he works well with his actors to bring some levity to the film and keep it from getting too serious. Poitier is also careful not to idealize his character too much, such as an early moment of the film where Twala all but drools at the local women dancing at a party (he has been in prison for ten years, after all).

    Also helping to keep the film’s tone from getting too dour is Michael Caine as Keogh. Caine is probably my favorite actor ever, so I may be a bit biased, but nevertheless he’s wonderful here. I don’t know what it is about the classic British actors, but all of them seem to possess an almost chameleonic talent when it comes to tone - especially Caine, who can turn from charming to fierce to dimwitted at the drop of a hat. The banter between Poitier and Caine also keeps the film enjoyable, aided by a sharp script filled with witty exchanges between the two of them.

    While not as famous as the two leads, Nichol Williamson does equally fine work here as the heavy, Major Horn of the Bureau of State Security. When we first meet Horn, he seems like a decent-enough fellow, but as the film goes on his bigotry shines through in increasingly more ruthless ways. Prunella Gee rounds out the cast nicely as Twala’s defense attorney Rina, and there’s also a surprising early appearance by Rutger Hauer as her pilot ex-husband, who winds up helping the trio escape from South Africa. The only note that rings false throughout the whole movie is a subplot involving Twana’s love affair with the assistant of an Indian dentist who helps them escape, played by Persis Khambatta. She feels tacked-on and unnecessary, and not helped at all by a last-minute twist to her character.

    As stated above, the politics of the movie stay relatively below the surface for much of the run-time - most of which is devoted to Caine and Poitier’s flight from the South African authorities. But once the final scene rolls around, the racial and social injustices come screaming out, so much so that Keogh (who’s been rather ambivalent to Twala’s cause thus far) steps up to become an active participant in the climax. The ending scene has Horn taking away one of the revolutionary leaders (the “Wilby” from the title) in a helicopter. Fed up with it all, Twala charges the copter, killing most of the guards and grabbing the landing skids as it lifts off the ground. The other African villagers rush around to do the same - eventually so many of them are hanging from the skids the helicopter can’t take off, preventing Horn from getting away with their leader.

    And that sums up the ultimate theme of The Wilby Conspiracy perfectly. Fierce individuality - the need to distinguish oneself or race so vehemently from the rest - always leads to fear and paranoia. But get enough people together - establish a strong enough community that works together - and you can actually make a difference.      

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