Our exploration of the the 1970s films of Michael Cainearrives at The Wilby Conspiracy, alongside the late Sidney Poitier.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers ahead for The Wilby Conspiracy…
Directed by: Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, Father Goose, Charly)
Tagline: Adventure across 900 miles of escape and survival.
Other Featured Geezers: Sidney Poitier as Shack Twala, Nicol Williamson as Major Horn, Prunella Gee as Rina Van Niekirk, Saeed Jaffrey as Anil Mukerjee, Persis Khambatta as Persis Ray, Rutger Hauer as Blane Van Niekirk.
What’s it all about, Alfie?: Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier), a black anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, has just been freed from prison by his lawyer Rina (Prunella Gee). However, on their way to celebrate alongside Rina’s partner, British mining engineer Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), they are involved in a violent altercation with racist policemen turning all three of them into fugitives who must escape to safety in neighbouring Botswana whilst being pursued by the evil Major Horn (Nicol Williamson). To complicate matters even further hidden diamonds and dentists are somehow involved too.
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Caine-ness: We glimpse Caine within the film’s first few minutes, lazing about in a courtroom gallery doing a crossword whilst his girlfriend is busy defending Shack Twala.
After his recent turns as hitmen and spies, Caine is brought crashing back down to earth as the exasperated everyman Jim Keogh, a simple English engineer who ends up way in over his head in the dangerous world of resistant fighters and diamond smuggling. “The travel poster was right, come to exciting South Africa!” an irked Keogh exclaims mid-pursuit by corrupt officials.
I was relieved that Caine played a visiting Englishman, and so doesn’t have to attempt a South African accent (unlike Prunella Gee whose accent comes and goes scene by scene). However, for the morbidly curious, you can experience a South African Caine if you check out the 1997, imaginatively titled, TV movie Mandela And De Klerk, where Caine played F.W. de Klerk alongside Poitier again as Nelson Mandela.
Caine brings a charming lightness of touch to his performance that helps to prevent the film becoming overwhelmed by the bleakness of some of its underlying themes. He’s frequently quite funny in an underplayed way. When Keogh and Twala are held at gunpoint, after being caught breaking into a factory, and the man with the gun says “I’m not sure whether to shoot you or call the police”. Twala responds “You better shoot me” and Keogh with “I’m neutral”. A line delivery that Caine sells with amusingly laidback aplomb.
For someone who ends up in such dire straits, Keogh does appear for the most part relatively unruffled and more peeved than distressed. Although we’re treated to one scene of peak shouty Caine when he argues with Twala over dinner.
In the climax, after shooting a man in the head, Keogh quips to Rina “I think I’m going to need a lawyer” suggesting that perhaps he wasn’t such the everyman we suspected all along (or the whole experience has simply made him into a sociopath, which to be fair, I wouldn’t be too surprised about).
We’re gifted with a tantalising taste of Caine’s singing voice too when he gives a policeman a delightful rendition of a Coke jingle (he’s pretending he’s a travelling ad man), which provides an exciting premonition of out of key Muppets Christmas Carol warblings to come.
Lastly, we get a light bit of stunt Caine when he goes up and down on this little seat thing that’s lowered down a sinkhole. He then gets attacked by some annoyed bats who were minding their own business living down there (and, for reference Christopher Nolan, if needed this could easily be edited into Batman Begins as an additional origin sequence for Alfred).
Caine-nections*: As far as I can tell, this is the first time that Caine has worked with the main cast and crew of this movie.
My most important connection is face foam based. It’s been a while since we last saw Caine with shaving foam on his face after it had started becoming a bit of a running theme (well, in Zee and Co and Pulp at least) but he’s, sort of, back at it again! This time with bubble bath bubbles on his mush!
*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie
Best Non-Caine Actor: The film is a two hander between Caine and Poitier and, unsurprisingly, Poitier is excellent as the stoically heroic revolutionary. He’s adept at showing composed silent seething anger as Twala is consistently subjected to condescending and brutal treatment at the hands of the bigoted authorities.
This was one of Poitier’s last major films as a leading man, even though he popped up here and there sporadically over the next few decades. He was only in his late 40s at the time of filming and his committed performance shows that he still had it in him, and could have easily done a Liam Neeson and pivoted to a twilight career as an action star if he had wanted to (he does a lot of running, driving and has a hang off a helicopter at the end).
Most importantly, him and Caine have good chemistry, without which the film wouldn’t work. This is best demonstrated in the scene where a handcuffed Twala desperately needs a pee but can’t undo his zip and so tries to delicately communicate the intimate assistance he’ll need from an oblivious Keogh in an increasingly more flustered manner.
However good Caine and Poitier are they can’t help but be upstaged by the spellbindingly malevolent performance of Nicol Williamson as the gleefully hateful Major Horn. It’s a testament to Williamson that such a thoroughly detestable character is so much fun to watch.
He’s the bigoted chain-smoking major working for the Bureau of State Security tracking Twala and Keogh. He relishes being the bad guy, he finishes a scene intimidating a group of villagers with the jaunty “Righty tighty, let’s go” and has lines such as “You’re lucky I’m not a Frenchman or else I’d kiss both your cheeks”. He also, along with a crony, in a tense but darkly comic scene breaks in on Rina and Keogh in the bath and threatens them with a hair dryer. Then there’s also the excellent scene where he’s threatening the dentist whilst his terrified patient is still in the chair in the background.
Speaking of which, there’s a nice little supporting turn from Saeed Jaffrey as this “politically committed Indian dentist” Mukerjee, a description that Keogh describes as sounding “like all the people that I can’t stand at a cocktail party”. This leads to a great scene where Mukerjee talks to Twala whilst going through the motions of a typical dentist appointment (giving Twala’s teeth a good look over) so as to not raise suspicion if anyone walks in on then.
This film also features the debut English language appearance of Rutger Hauer as Rina’s smugly handsome pilot ex who they have to begrudgingly ask for assistance in flying them out of the country. With his slightly shiny face and stiff blonde hairdo, he looks like a Ken doll come to life.
My Bleedin’ Thoughts:
This was another of Caine’s films that I was previously unfamiliar with (which tends to be a bad sign). I went in anticipating the worst for The Wilby Conspiracy especially since, along with Caine, it features another big star in Sidney Poitier but has left no cultural impact. However, I ended up pleasantly surprised. This is a solidly well-executed and entertaining buddy chase romp.
The film’s opening, which features an unflinching glimpse at the brutal institutional racism inherent in apartheid era South Africa in the way that Poitier’s Twala is treated, also led me to expect a significantly more dour and earnest film from what we ultimately get. The last third of the film, with hidden diamonds and helicopter action, leans more heavily into a “boy’s own adventure” vibe than the gritty social commentary that seems promised earlier.
However, even though the film does become more fun as it goes on, you never lose sight of the harrowing things going on in the background such as Twala mentioning how the police have “always put the handcuffs on too tight”, and him talking about he was tortured so badly in prison it’s impacted his bladder control.
I can’t imagine that the South African tourism board were too happy with this film, as it does a pretty good job throughout of making it look like a desolate authoritarian hellscape.
The Wilby Conspiracy is similar to other buddy adventure movies like Midnight Run or Silver Streak, but with a more serious social commentary underpinning it. I imagine some filmmakers would have been tempted to make the Caine character racist to help stimulate the conflict, but I’m glad that they didn’t do that as it allows the film to keep a lighter tone whilst still acknowledging the injustices that Twala regularly faces. Caine’s Keogh certainly isn’t a great social campaigner, and would much rather be at home with his feet up, but his annoyance with Twala isn’t based on anything deeper or more hateful than him just getting in the way of him having an easy life.
This isn’t a particularly visually striking, or flashy, film. It’s directed by Ralph Nelson with a confident workmanship but does contain the occasional creative flair such as one scene that particularly stood out to me where the camera tilts up from medium shot of Caine talking to reveal two policemen silently watching him.
It also has a ton of well executed set-pieces; Twala and Keogh breaking into a factory in the middle of the night so that Twala can saw his cuffs off (very, very carefully so as not to lose a whole hand), a few car chases and a daring third act helicopter escape.
It makes it look like a Honey I Shrunk the Kids style romp where they are attacked by tiny people in a tiny helicopter. They both look, understandably, very confused.
Trivia: Courtesy of IMDB;
Poitier and Caine were almost seriously injured during the filming of a chase scene when a fifty-pound camera flew in between them and into the front of the Jeep that Poitier was driving fast. Caine said of the incident; “It went like a massive bullet, and if it had hit either of us, our heads 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.”
Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta personally invited Sidney Poitier to shoot this movie in Kenya.
Overall Thoughts: This is a hidden gem of Caine’s and Poitier’s, and has been unfairly forgotten. There’s some good action, a few light chuckles, excellent performances but it’s all underpinned by some serious, and timeless, themes. Well worth checking out!
Rating: 4/5 Terrified Dental Patients
Where You Can Watch This: This is currently available to rent, and purchase, from most streaming services but appears to be out of print on physical media in the UK.
Up Next: Oh no…Caine’s in Zee and Co territory again with another psychological relationship drama. But perhaps, as with this movie, I’ll be pleasantly surprised? We’ll find out when I cover The Romantic Englishwoman. At the very least, perhaps he’ll get the opportunity to show off his ping pong skills again.
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