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Michael Caine described The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) as his "first foray into that very risky realm of 'message' pictures." The film takes place in South Africa during apartheid and co-stars Sidney Poitier as a political activist named Shack Twala. Caine plays an Englishman named Keogh who is in trouble with the law. The two men team up and are soon hunted by a bigoted police officer hoping the pair will lead him to the chief activist, Wilby. In spite of Caine dubbing The Wilby Conspiracy a "message" picture, it is primarily a chase film. Most of the politics of the original novel by Peter Driscoll have been removed. The anti-apartheid theme, however, did prevent them from filming in South Africa.
On location in Kenya, Michael Caine quickly discovered no one there knew who he was. The first realization came at the airport in Nairobi when he and his family were looking for the person sent to meet them. They eventually spotted a man who appeared to be looking for someone. In his autobiography, Caine recalls, "I went up and stood right in front of him, but before I could open my mouth he walked straight by me and went up to a little old fat man with a bald head and asked him if he was Michael Caine." At first Caine thought he would enjoy the lack of attention, but after a while he became disgruntled with his non-celebrity status.
In contrast to Caine's anonymity, Sidney Poitier was recognized and revered everywhere he went in Kenya. During their stay, Michael Caine noted that Poitier would get the best table in a restaurant while he was seated next to the kitchen. Poitier received the highest honor when he was invited to meet Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta. The visit, however, did not go quite as Poitier had expected. When he returned, Caine asked how the meeting went and Poitier candidly remarked, "He asked me what I did for a living."
Filming The Wilby Conspiracy in Africa proved to be more than just a blow to egos, it was almost a blow to the head. For one scene, Poitier and Caine were driving a car in a chase. Since there was no dialogue, the film crew attached the fifty-pound camera to the front of the jeep and let Caine and Poitier turn it on. Poitier had gotten the car up to a fast speed when the camera suddenly broke loose and flew between the two actors' heads. Caine recalls, "It went like a massive bullet, and if it had hit either of us, our head would have been crushed to pulp. Sidney and I took several days to get over the shock of our near deaths, and this incident brought us both down to earth with rather more than a bump."
The Wilby Conspiracy is the third film teaming Sidney Poitier with director Ralph Nelson. The first time they worked together was in 1963 on Lilies of the Field, the film for which Poitier received an Academy Award. Nelson also directed Poitier in Duel at Diablo in 1966.
Producer: Martin Baum, Helmut Dantine
Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: Rodney Amateau, Harold Nebenzal. Based on novel by Peter Driscoll.
Cinematography: John Coquillon
Art Direction: John Hoesli, Ivo Nightingale
Music: Stanley Myers
Cast: Sidney Poitier (Shack Twala), Michael Caine (Jim Keogh), Nicol Williamson (Major Horn), Prunella Gee (Rina Van Niekirk), Rutger Hauer (Blane Van Niekirk), Saeed Jaffrey (Doctor Mukarjee), Persis Khambatta (Persis Ray), Rijk de Gooyer (Van Heerden).
by Deborah Looney