Right off the bat, we're talking issues about race that will bring up deep-seeded feelings and emotions in audiences. And while never completely avoiding the topic, director Ralph Nelson puts his own spin in dealing with a story based in South Africa in the 1970s. For those that didn't read the above link, here's the gist, apartheid is segregation on a massive scale and done legally that in South Africa's case existed for almost 50 years between 1948 and 1994. Instead of making a hard-hitting 'topic' movie, Nelson delivers a message rolled together with an action/adventure movie. Really who would have thought of 1970s South Africa as a ripe location for a buddy action movie?
After ten years in jail in Cape Town, Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier) is released when the charges against him are dropped. Going to get his identification papers with his lawyer, Rina (Prunella Gee), and her boyfriend and English engineer Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), Shack is stopped by the police and threatened with imprisonment. Keogh steps in to help and a fight ensues, forcing Shack and Keogh to flee for their safety. From his days in the anti-apartheid movement, Shack knows who can help them out of the country, a man in Johannesburg almost 900 miles away. But as they run, Keogh begins to suspect there's more going on, and he's right. Shack is after a bag of hidden diamonds that can help fund the resistance and the revolution and needs Keogh's help. Chasing after them are two members of the secret police, Major Horn (Nicol Williamson) and Van Heerden (Rijk de Gooyer).
I won't go as far as saying 'Wilby' is a buddy movie, but it's damn close. Saying that almost seems to minimalize the context of the story which does deal with the situation in South Africa where 3 million whites rule over the 18 million or so blacks. Because the apartheid is legal and supported/approved by the government, there's a delicate balance. What helps this is the very different main characters, Poitier's Shack who grew up and lives within this system and Caine's Keogh who is an outsider and goes along with it because he's expected to, not because he believes it.
Surprisingly enough, this dynamic provides some funny moments as Shack and Keogh are forced to pretend Keogh is the master so as not to arouse suspicion. Both men embrace these situations because they have to, but in the moments afterward they have it out, Shack even admitting 'I read Lenin, Marx, and Winnie the Pooh.' These lighter moments help balance out the story, especially the parts with the secret police who in many ways resemble the Gestapo or the KGB for the fear they can instill in the population. Williamson is a very capable villain as he tracks Shack down on this cross country chase.
All the cast handles this odd dynamic well as they balance social issues like apartheid and racism in general with the lighter additions like the humor and action. Caine and Poitier play off each other well as this forced partnership leaves them no other option than to work together. Poitier gets the meatier role as the anti-apartheid activist with vengeance on his mind, but Caine's performance equals it as the English engineer gets more and more involved within the movement. Gee's Rina is both a love interest and the moral compass in a small but effective performance. Saeed Jaffrey and Persis Khambatta have key roles as two Indians living in Johannesburg who worked with Shack in the past, and then Rutger Hauer is nicely evil as Rina's two-timing husband.
Now all social issues and messages aside, The Wilby Conspiracy has some really solid action sequences -- especially the end with what looks to be an incredibly dangerous helicopter stunt -- and has a quick pace throughout. The backstory of apartheid aside, the movie plays like any number of action movies centering on a chase or a fugitive manhunt. But it's handled so well and with such a unique spin on the story, you'll hardly notice. It's entertaining from start to finish with strong performances from Poitier and Caine. Available on DVD but look out for it on TV.
The Wilby Conspiracy <----trailer (1975): ***/****