Memory is a funny thing. For decades I had recalled that as a youth, I was drawn to watch The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) by seeing commercials depicting Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine on the run in the South African countryside, shackled together like some apartheid-era variation on Poitier’s The Defiant Ones (1958). Imagine my amused surprise when I started to read the 1972 novel by Peter Driscoll (1942-2005) on which the film was based, only to discover that it contained no such plot mechanism (although Poitier’s character, Shack Twala, is handcuffed), and then sat down to watch the film, shot in Kenya for obvious reasons, only to discover that it also contained no such plot mechanism. Both incarnations are, however, worthy political thrillers with some interesting differences.
The film opens in a Capetown courtroom where Shack, who has spent the last ten years imprisoned on Robben Island (the longtime “home” of Nelson Mandela), is being defended by Rina Van Niekirk (Prunella Gee) against a charge of violating the Terrorism Act. Rina argues that Shack cannot be prosecuted retroactively under an act that was only passed midway through his incarceration, and the prosecuting counsel (executive producer Helmut Dantine) surprisingly agrees to withdraw the case, releasing Shack for the benefit of international public opinion. But en route to a bottle of celebratory champagne with her newly minted boyfriend, vacationing British mining engineer Jim Keogh (Caine), Shack is picked up on a random pass check and restrained by racist constables who rough up Rina, so the two men clobber them—narrowly avoiding being shot—and flee the scene.
Novel and film take entirely different routes to reach the same point: in the former, Shack is unwittingly allowed to escape from prison, and the pass-check incident occurs (sans Rina) at a kind of black speakeasy where Keogh sees Shack while trying to buy some wine, driven to intervene by the constable’s brutal prejudice. At that point, however, the two versions begin to move in parallel as Rina urges the men to travel the 900 miles north to Johannesburg, where Shack says an old friend who owes him a favor can get them across the border to Botswana, and hide out in the flat owned by her conveniently absent soon-to-be-ex-husband, the violently jealous Blaine. Meanwhile, the district commissioner (Patrick Allen) is bemused when the roadblocks are lifted by the loathsome Major Horn (Nicol Williamson), who represents the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) and clearly has his own agenda.
Shack and Keogh are, alas, shackled together only metaphorically, since a white man traveling with his apparent houseboy is inconspicuous, and Shack’s handcuffs are removed when they break into a machine shop, whose owner first holds them at gunpoint and then helps them. Along the way, Keogh learns that Shack—betrayed by parties unknown—was arrested and his driver killed while getting Wilby Xaba, the chairman of the anti-apartheid Black Congress, safely into Botswana, and Keogh realizes to his dismay that (unlike in the novel) Shack was the vice chairman. Feigning a chance meeting at a gas station, Horn does not identify himself but surreptitiously plants a homing device on their car, in the trunk of which Keogh later discovers the machine-shop owner, whose body Shack’s fellow Bantu tribesman conceal.
In Jo’burg, Shack asks Keogh to wait while he talks to Dr. Mukarjee (Saeed Jaffrey), whose involvement he had concealed from his interrogators, but the suspicious Englishman eavesdrops and learns of a cache of diamonds belonging to the Congress, which Mukarjee safeguarded by dropping them into a 230-foot sinkhole. Although the film is generally serious in tone, it has its lighter moments, as when Keogh learns the identity of Shack’s contact and says, “A politically committed Indian dentist—that sounds like all the people I can’t stand at a cocktail party!” Soon after, the BOSS man and his sadistic henchman Van Heerden (Ryk De Gooyer) interrupt Keogh during an idyllic bath with Rina in Blaine’s flat and order him to turn over the diamonds, valued at 750,000 pounds, without which the exiled Wilby will pose little threat.
The novel’s greater complexity and next major point of departure from the screenplay become apparent during the filmed sequence in which Keogh uses his professional skills to retrieve the diamonds, aided by not only Shack and Mukarjee but also the latter’s apolitical colleague, Dr. Persis Ray (Persis Khambatta). The identity of Shack and Wilby’s long-ago betrayer is downplayed in the film to the extent that the character (Yusuf, the brother of Mukarjee’s literary antecedent, Hassim Mayat) is effectively supplanted by the merely opportunistic Persis, who shoots Mukarjee and demands the diamonds before being thrown into the sinkhole by Shack during a struggle. In the novel, conversely, Horn’s men mortally wound Shack and push the wheelchair-bound Mayat into the sinkhole, tossing in grenades that nearly kill Keogh as well.
The cinematic Shack survives to save Keogh from being ambushed by Blaine (a pre-Blade Runner  Rutger Hauer), who is blackmailed into flying them across the border after Rina threatens to complicate their divorce proceedings by exposing his penchant for hash and mistresses. No sooner have Shack, Keogh, and Rina been deposited by Blaine in Botswana and met by Wilby (Joe De Graft) than Horn swoops in with his soldiers to arrest the Congress chairman, his target all along, and reveals that he had recovered and replaced the diamonds with paste ten years ago. When Wilby’s followers prevent his helicopter from taking off, Horn boasts that he will be back after the South African government frees him in a prisoner exchange, and Keogh, realizing that he is right, shoots him in the forehead.
Climaxing instead amid a brush fire caused when a train crashes into a truck, The Wilby Conspiracy was Driscoll’s second novel and the only one of his nine globe-trotting thrillers filmed to date. As he noted in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, “The starting point for all the books I have written—and perhaps the key by which any one of them might be described—is a setting. Often it is a place with a background of some political or social instability [e.g., Northern Ireland] which I like to examine in some detail and which gives an undertone of tension to the narrative….Beyond the obvious elements of action, conflict, and suspense, what I try hardest to communicate are authenticity, atmosphere, and—an elusive but essential ingredient—the quality of fear.” The scene in the sinkhole, where Keogh finds the decayed body of another victim of Yusuf, offers fear aplenty, nor is authenticity in short supply, since the British Driscoll attended college and spent the early years of his journalistic career in Johannesburg, also serving intermittently in the South Africa Army.
The film was a bit of an anomaly for Rod Amateau, who co-scripted with Berlin-born Harold Nebenzal and also handled the action sequences, but more often served as the producer and/or director of such sitcoms as The Bob Cummings Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Dukes of Hazzard. Director Ralph Nelson, however, had displayed a streak of social consciousness in Charly (1968), …tick…tick…tick… and Soldier Blue (both 1970), and worked with Poitier previously on Lilies of the Field (1963)—winning the actor an Oscar and himself a nomination for Best Picture as producer—and the underrated Western Duel at Diablo (1966). As the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that in addition to the 1956 Playhouse 90 and 1962 theatrical versions of Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” Nelson directed Matheson’s Twilight Zone season-one finale “A World of His Own,” featuring Serling’s first on-camera appearance after narrating the previous episodes offscreen.
Poitier and Caine have made far too many films for me to enumerate here, other than such personal favorites as Poitier’s A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love and In the Heat of the Night (both 1967) and Caine’s The Ipcress File (1965), Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and The Fourth Protocol (1987). They were reunited in, and both earned Emmy nominations for, the title roles of Joseph Sargent’s made-for-cable Mandela and de Klerk (1997), and I’ve often wondered if that was just a coincidence, or if somebody thought it would be really cool to cast the co-stars of The Wilby Conspiracy in the ultimate apartheid drama. Speaking of reunions, Khambatta and Hauer (who have no scenes together in this film) later played terrorist colleagues in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Nighthawks (1981), two years after the Indian actress achieved bald-pated fame in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).