The Wilby Conspiracy
Action for the sake of politics

by Mary-Kay Gamel Orlandi

from Jump Cut, no. 20, May 1979, pp. 5-7
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

There is little reason to hope for much revolutionary content or form from standard Hollywood type action narratives. [1] Pseudo-political films of the late sixties and early seventies like THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (1970), CHE! (1969), R.P.M. (1970) and GETTING STRAIGHT (1970) show what happens when Hollywood tries to exploit student discontent and other fashionable themes, and now that the sixties are long gone there are no more films of this sort. Not surprisingly, the political struggles of emerging African nations have held little attraction for Western filmmakers, who have seen Africa as an exotic setting for escapist dramas, usually historical ones (MOGAMBO, 1953; KHARTOUM, 1966; ZULU, 1964). Many films about Africa express implicit or explicit racism, depicting the white man as bringer of civilization to savages who are too stupid and too brutish to appreciate it. In SOMETHING OF VALUE (1957), SIMBA (1955), and SAFARI (1956) the Mau Mau uprisings are treated only from the threatened whites' point of view.

The white man is usually not only smarter and more civilized than the black African, but stronger and braver as well. ZULU (1964) shows the heroic struggle of a few English troops against overwhelming numbers of Zulu warriors. THE NAKED PREY (1966), a South African product, pits white hunter Cornel Wilde against tribesmen who kill his hunting party, then allow him a slight head start — naked, without weapons — before they pursue him to kill him. Despite the odds against him, he survives. There are, of course, documentaries about the South African struggle, of which LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA (1974) is an outstanding example — but their circulation is extremely limited. But in 1975, director Ralph Nelson took a second-rate apolitical novel about South Africa and made it into a Hollywood feature that fulfills all the formal requirements of the action film while making some powerful political statements. After its debut THE WILBY CONSPIRACY (1975) ran mostly as the second feature in theatres, but was shown on nationwide television in 1977.

The plot of THE WILBY CONSPIRACY is standard melodrama. An Englishman called Keogh is visiting South Africa and has started an affair with Rina Van Niekirk, a Capetown lawyer. In the first scene Rina is requesting the release of her black client Shack Twala from the prison at Robben Island, where he has been held for ten years on an unspecified political charge. Surprisingly, Shack is freed, and Rina suggests that the three of them go back to her office for a celebratory bottle of champagne. En route they are stopped at a barricade, and Shack is ordered out of the car for an identification check. Although Rina explains that he has just been released from prison and has no pass card, the policeman hauls him out of the car and slams him up against the wall. When Rina intervenes and the policeman punches her, Keogh and Shack beat the policeman and escape in the car. Rina and Shack explain to Keogh that he and Shack must get away, or Shack will go back to Robben Island and Keogh to jail for aiding a black. The only way out is to flee to Johannesburg, where Shack has a friend who will help them escape across the border to Botswana. The unwilling Keogh is finally convinced, and he and Shack set off. Meanwhile, a police official and a state security agent called Horn are shown discussing the roadblock incident. Horn reappears when Shack and Keogh stop for food; Shack recognizes him as a cop, wonders why he doesn't pick them up.

The journey to Johannesburg continues with melodramatic and comic incidents (such as getting manacles cut off Shack's hands, being traced by a homing device, encounters with highway patrol). In the process it becomes clear that Shack is the vice-president of an organization called the Black Congress. He was fleeing South Africa with the president Wilby Xaba when he was captured, and he now wants to join Wilby, who has been hiding in Botswana. Finally, they reach Johannesburg, and Shack seeks out his contact, an Indian dentist named Mukkerjee. Together Shack, Mukkerjee, and Keogh prepare to take a fortune in diamonds (which Mukkerjee has hidden) to Wllby for the arming of a revolutionary force. Meanwhile Horn visits Keogh and Rina and threatens them into apparently agreeing to doublecross Shack and Mukkerjee to prevent Wilby's getting the diamonds.

After various exciting complications Shack, Keogh, and Rina fly across the border with the diamonds to a small village where Wilby has come out of hiding to meet them. But immediately a truck roars up, disgorging Horn and several armed assistants. The whole thing has been a plot to seize the Black Congress chairman. Horn thanks Keogh and Shack for leading him to Wilby: "Your friends may call you traitor, but I call you patriot." Shack tries to bargain for Wilby's release with the diamonds, but Horn tells him they are fake; the real ones were retrieved years ago and these left as bait. Horn is about to take Wilby away in a helicopter "to stand trial for all the world to see"; but Shack, with the aid of the villagers, stops the helicopter from taking off and kills Horn's strongmen. Horn is at the point of shooting Wilby, but Keogh convinces him not to: "If he dies, every black man in Africa will join the Congress and drive the whites into the sea." Horn agrees and surrenders, saying, "My government will have me out of here in six weeks, and I will be back." Keogh stares at him and says, "I really believe you will." "Oh, I will." Keogh suddenly raises his pistol and shoots Horn between the eyes. The film ends with Keogh and Rina walking away from the ruined helicopter as Keogh says, "Rina, I think I'm going to need a good lawyer."

Sounds very hokey, doesn't it? The usual veneer of politics for the sake of empty action. I suggest, on the contrary, that the makers of this film have used action for the sake of fairly good politics. There is certainly a lot of unnecessary derring-do, but there is also the sustained evocation of a repressive society, an apolitical person's education to political understanding and radical action, strong portrayals of blacks and women as well as the proponents of the status quo. Most important, emphasis is on group rather than individual action for change.

The film's combination of conventional format with unconventional content is reflected in the career of its director. Ralph Nelson wrote and directed TV dramas for "Studio One" and "Playhouse 90" during the fifties; his films include such varied items as REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962), LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963), CHARLIE (1968), and SOLDIER BLUE (l969). [2] Like many Hollywood films, THE WILBY CONSPIRACY is a morality play. But its moral is hardly the usual one.

The first shot shows a beautiful bay with surf breaking gently as a woman's voice sings an Afrikaans song. Keogh is on holiday in beautiful South Africa. But immediately he is introduced to apartheid — the courtroom, with its shackled prisoners wearing numbers; the police roadblock, with a row of blacks against the wall being searched; the rude manner of the police constable — "Where's your pass, boy?" As he slams his elbow into Rina's stomach, he says, "Mix with kaffirs and you'll get treated like one." Keogh and Shack in flight are constantly watched by a police helicopter, no warrants are needed for searches, and their plane crossing the border is surrounded by jets to force it back into South Africa. As Shack says, "The police are always busy." When Keogh is speeding away from the roadblock he says, "Let's report this to the authorities." Shack: "Those were the authorities."

There are frequent references to the political and racial tension in the country. In the first scene, the police official accuses Horn of being a "fanatic," trying to preserve a "never-never land." Horn reminds him that there are three million whites to eighteen million blacks in South Africa, saying "No Zulu twenty years out of the trees is ever going to shove fifty francs in my hand and tell me there's a ferry waiting in Capetown harbor to take me out of the country I built." While trying to get Rina and Keogh to betray Shack, Horn says that blacks can't be trusted because "they don't trust whites, y'know." "I wonder why," says Rina sarcastically; seriously, Horn replies, "It's history, not our fault. We're a civilized Christian minority and we've got to defend ourselves." After Shack and Keogh leave a village where they've hidden long enough to eat and get some sleep, Horn arrives and humiliates the old chief:

"You people are constantly asking for a voice in your own affairs, but you can't think what the proper penalty for harboring fugitives would be. I wish all those bleeding heart liberals could see this, trying to get you to be responsible. I fear for my country."

The contrast between white and black economic status in South Africa is not explicitly drawn, but the differences between the skyscrapers and cars of white Capetown, the dusty Bantu village, and the rundown Indian section are obvious.

The character of Horn is crucial to the film's success, not only because it is superbly acted by Nicol Williamson but because it avoids easy judgments of him as just a baddie. Historical and ideological reasons, not individual moral ones, are suggested for his positions and behavior. He is an Afrikaner, probably a farmer's son. His racism is not a sign or a result of his being evil. It is an article of belief and his actions proceed naturally from it. When (in disguise) he approaches Keogh on the road to Johannesburg, Keogh pretends to be a commercial traveler. "Ladies' underwear?" says Horn. "I'd hate for your kaffir to handle the merchandise." When Horn comes to threaten Keogh and Rina, he finds them taking a bath together, "I'm surprised your friend Shack's not in the bath with you — he's shared your plates and sheets, hasn't he?" He says to Keogh with genuine puzzlement, "It hurts me to see an intelligent educated white man so against his own people." He regards antagonism between the races, as the natural state: to Mukkerjee, "Stick to what you Indians know best — cheating the blacks."[3]

By contrast, Keogh is at first quite uninterested in the struggle in which he becomes involved. He fights the police only because Rina is hit, not to save Shack. Rina and Shack have to convince him that the only hope for their escape is to stick together. He expresses constant reluctance and anger, distrusts Shack right up to the end — as Shack distrusts him. [4] Casting Michael Caine at his most Alfie-esque in this role was perfect; his initial unconcern and unwillingness make his final understanding all the more powerful. Keogh's attitude also keeps the film away from a hateful stereotype: the white man's taking up the blacks' struggle and doing their job for them. [5] Keogh's being an outsider also makes explanations of the South African situation a natural part of the film.

Most important, he can be seen as embodying the spectator of the film itself — an outsider, unconcerned, just out to be entertained. But by the end of the film, sides must be taken. Keogh is capable of pushing Shack ("Are you a brave male Bantu?") when Shack must expose his hand to a whirring saw to cut off the manacles; "You are what is known as a cheeky kaffir" at another point. But both these remarks prepare the way for important responses — Shack does cut off the handcuffs himself and agrees with Keogh, "I am the most feared species in all of Africa — a kaffir who cannot be broken." Keogh's wit and detachment begin to seem shallow compared to Shack's anger and commitment. His purpose seems only to get himself and Rina to safety, until the last scene. Then, although they are safe, he intervenes to stop Horn's shooting Wilby, taking Horn's line: "Alive, without the diamonds, Wilby's just an old man in a wrinkled suit." Horn thinks Keogh is trying to help him, "Thank you, Mr. Keogh." Thus Keogh's pointblank shot is sudden and shocking — a violation of all the conventions about shooting in cold blood. Shack's response is,"Now you understand." Now he understands that he cannot remain uninvolved in this struggle.

The white romantic interests, Keogh and Rina, get too much of the foreground. But Shack Twala is the most complex and interesting character in the film and the best spokesperson for political change. Though a fugitive and a "jailbird," with no access to white middle-class privileges like Keogh and Rina, Shack's determination and commitment make him, not Keogh, the motivating force of the film. He can mask his anger with a thick accent and slow speech when a highway patrolman tells Keogh his car will be ruined because, "Kaffirs don't know anything about automobiles." When Rina cautions him at the beginning, "You'll have to watch your step; the same people are still running things," he says, "No, they've got to watch their step." Keogh asks him if he is a "Commie," and Shack jokes "I discovered Marx and Lenin in church" via a missionary education. (Horn calls Mukkerjee a "godless Marxist, trying to bring down the house," and the allegation is never denied.) In the last scene Horn taunts Shack, "You, the sooty intellectual! You led us right to Wilby!" But Shack is also the one who discovers and foils an attempt by Rina's husband to kill him and Keogh, the one who rushes the helicopter when all seems lost.

Just how pointed Shack's portrayal is in the film can be seen by comparing it to the novel. There Shack escapes from Robben Island through a secret police deal; he is forty years old, decrepit and scared. He and Keogh are thrown together by chance when Keogh takes pity on him; it is Keogh who arranges the flight, retrieves the diamonds, everything; Shack is killed by Horn during the retrieval of the diamonds. Rewriting this role and casting Sidney Poitier in it shows the filmmakers' determination to present a strong, intelligent, politically educated African working for the liberation of his country.

The women's roles, too, are strong ones. In the novel Rina is simply Keogh's mistress; in the film (played by Prunella Gee) she is an idealistic lawyer, a bit naive in her assumption that the United Nations Code on Human Rights will be accepted by a South African court. (It is, but apparently this is part of the plot to get Wilby.) Her strength is physical as well as intellectual and moral: she stands up to and pays the price of a humiliating body-search. When she and the men are running through the veldt to catch the plane, she does not collapse and get carried, like so many heroines. The other woman in the film, Mukkerjee's dental assistant Persis, tries to convince the others to divide the diamonds. She cares nothing for the struggle; she has bourgeois ambitions to get to London, "where a girl like me has a decent chance." When the diamonds have been retrieved, she asks Mukkerjee, "You are determined to give the diamonds to those black terrorists?" Mukkerjee replies, "Those black terrorists are the only hope for South Africa. If the emerging nations of the Third World are to obliterate terrorism and racism…" "I don't give a damn about the emerging nations!" breaks in Persis and shoots Mukkerjee in an attempt to steal the diamonds. Her character is overdrawn and melodramatic, but she is certainly more than an ornament or sex object.

Mukkerjee, by contrast, is a rather comic character. Short, middle-aged, nervously smiling, he is terrified when Horn invades his office to search for Shack, naive in his idealism and no match for Persis' determination. On the other hand, his depiction makes the important point that a revolution is not made up exclusively of handsome heroes. When Keogh finds out who Shack's contact in Johannesburg is, he says incredulously, "A politically committed Indian dentist?" setting Shack up for another good answer: "We have all colors, even yours."

One may object, correctly, that there is too much emphasis in the film on the dramatic, superficial aspects of revolution (will the diamonds be retrieved? will the enemy capture Wilby?) rather than on an explication of the contradictions in South African society which make revolution necessary and desirable. For example, there is no clear statement of the objectives of the Black Congress. What they would do with the weapons bought by the diamonds is left carefully, vague. Yet little trouble has been taken to make the melodrama tight and successful. If the whole point of the plot is to get Shack across the border, so the secret police can capture Wilby, why do the air force jets try to turn back their plane? How could Horn and company get so quickly to the village where the plane lands? and so forth.

And there are subtle, effective, and accurate allusions to the political, economic, and psychological situation in South Africa. The conflict between English and Afrikaners, the contrast between black and white standards of living, white fear of black sexuality, the pass (identification) system and other examples of apartheid (Keogh and Shack cannot eat together in public, for example), the existence of black political organizations, the threat of armed struggle are all depicted. [6] Yet the presentation could have had quite a different thrust. Compare the South African detective novels of James McClure (The Stean Pig, The Caterpillar Cop), which carefully detail and accept all the conditions mentioned above. Similarly, BLACK AND WHITE IN COLOR (1976) makes colonialism, racism, and war-mongering into objects of cutesy humor. Moreover, director Nelson draws important similarities between the South African situation and that of the United States. When Horn and his men emerge from the truck, they are dressed in battle fatigues and green berets, and the helicopter which so casually invades another nation is a reminder of Vietnam.

Even the final twist of having the diamonds turn out to be paste is significant. On the one hand, this shows that Horn and state security have anticipated the moves of Shack and Mukkerjee from the beginning. [7] On the other hand, these manipulations are undone by the concerted action of Shack, Keogh, and the villagers. In the most powerful scene of the film, the helicopter (symbol of Western technological supremacy) is first brought down by people clinging to it, and then it's destroyed with hoes and rakes. Arming a revolutionary force does not depend on the diamonds at all.

The film clearly promotes unity, not separatism, as the way of change for South Africa. The characters in the film can be seen as representative of their various classes and races — blacks, Indians, whites, working-class, lower-middle class, and bourgeoisie — working together. More important, there are several scenes in which the individual stars are upstaged by group efforts. When Shack and Keogh stop in the village, men and women push over a hut to hide the car, children rub out the tire tracks with their feet. As the two fugitives eat and recuperate, they are surrounded by smiling faces while music plays in the background.

But this is not an idyllic pastoral picture (compare WALKABOUT, 1971). The village is dusty, the villagers ragged and poor ("we have only sixty-five francs in the village). When an expedition to retrieve the diamonds is being organized, a long line of Indian men and women is seen passing the necessary equipment hand to hand. (Compare the bottle-passing scene in THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA (1969) to see the difference.) A message from Shack to Wilby is passed between old and young of different races, by phone and on foot. Finally, the villagers' attack on the helicopter shows literally that individualism cannot work; if the others had not come to help him, Shack would have been killed. Each character has a role to play in foiling the conspiracy  — white technological and legal expertise, black political education and commitment. Compared to the negative picture of failed individualism in a film like THE HARDER THEY COME (1974), THE WILBY CONSPIRACY provides a positive image of revolutionary cooperation. But it suggests no liberal panaceas. The attack on the helicopter and Keogh's shooting Horn show that the only way to deal with Horn and his kind is by force.

In Le Cinéma de l'Afrique Paulin Vieyra says,

"I'm afraid that we will wait a long time for simply honest narrative films about our people, about our country — if we don't set ourselves to making them."

THE WILBY CONSPIRACY isn't "simply honest" or made by Africans. But the accurate depiction of South African political and social realities and promoting revolution by collective effort and armed struggle make the film worthy of note. And it has reached audiences who will never see a Godard film, LA HORA DE LOS HORNOS (1968), or LAST GRAVE AT DIMBAZA.


1. For a useful but not very critical survey of American narrative films of "social comment," see The Celluloid Weapon, by David Manning White and Richard Averson (Boston, 1972).

2. See Nelson's comments on SOLDIER BLUE in "Massacre at Sand Creek," Films and Filming, March 1970, pp. 26-27. For a harsh view of Nelson's career, see David Thomson's denunciation in A Biographical Dictionary of Film (New York, 1976), pp. 404-05.

3. THE WILBY CONSPIRACY thus avoids the simple-minded signals of pretty heroes and ugly villains. In STATE OF SIEGE (1973), for example, the Tupamaros were gorgeous young people and the corporals brutish oldsters — only Yves Montand broke the pattern. Films which "explain" fascism as connected to such individual psychological drives as homosexuality (THE CONFORMIST, 1970), THE DAMNED, 1970) are worse than simple-minded.

4. Were there echoes, perhaps ironic, of THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) in the scenes en route to Johannesburg?

5. For example, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1963), THE INTRUDER (1962), BLACK LIKE ME (1964). This stereotype was avoided in the pleasant comedy THE SKIN SAME (1971), in which the black and white con artists are equally adept. The film ends with a slave escape, which is quite as satisfying as that of ROOTS (1977) and contains several witty scenes in which the black leading man plays dumb in order to fulfill the expectations of bigoted Southerners.

6. See Herbert Allen, ed., South Africa: Sociological Perspectives (Oxford, 1971) and his Modernizing Racial Domination (Berkeley, 1971); also Joe Slovo's essay "South Africa — No Middle Road" in Southern Africa: The New Politics of Revolution (Penguin Books, 1976). The events surrounding the recent death of black political leader Steven Biko amply prove the factualness of THE WILBY CONSPIRACY.

7. Just as in the James Bond novels and movies, SPECTRE is always manipulating; in espionage novels (Le Carré, McCarry) the CIA and foreign spy agencies are always foiling each other; and in Shogun Toronaga is always one step ahead of his enemies. To judge from these recent examples of popular culture, manipulation of the individual by unseen powers is a favorite theme of 1970s America.