The Wilby Conspiracy
Seeing The Wilby Conspiracy anew on DVD -- it never made it to laserdisc -- is a profoundly moving experience. The only significant feature film from a major studio (United Artists) dealing with South Africa and apartheid, it disappeared from theaters without a trace in the mid-'70s -- Americans were still concentrating on Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War -- but found an audience on television. This new transfer, mildly letterboxed to the standard European non-anamorphic widescreen ratio of 1.66:1, looks sharper and crisper than any TV master ever prepared of this movie, and has the added virtue of preserving the original theatrical version's violence and humor, which were censored for broadcast and are very important to the effectiveness of the movie. The Wilby Conspiracy is, at heart, a profoundly serious movie, to be sure, but in telling its story, relentless seriousness of tone would have doomed the task of getting its message out. Screenwriters Rodney Amateau and Harold Nebenzal recognized this in adapting Peter Driscoll's novel, and included a share of realistically humorous moments, playing off the bizarre ironies of life in white-run South Africa as well as injecting some savage violence, some of which was also cut for broadcast. One piercingly serious joke, invoking the name of Jesus, definitely never made the cut for TV or syndicated broadcast. Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine display a beguiling chemistry together onscreen as a pair of fugitives in the white-supremacist country who find themselves caught up in a web of double-dealing and triple-crosses, all tied to the political strife over the country's racial policies. Ralph Nelson's careful mix of topical drama and suspense still plays well, and it looks sensational. The original theatrical prints probably looked even better, but measured against decades of lower-quality broadcast masters, even the night shots on this disc have a velvety, silky texture that reveals details previously missed. The audio has been mastered at a high level, as well, bringing out little bits of nastiness and humor in the dialogue, in addition to the beauty of the song that is sung over the opening credit sequence. The 20 chapters show a genuine effort at treating this film properly. The trailer is especially interesting in that it was better able to allude to the racial aspects of its subject in 1974 than it would have been a decade later (when the Reagan White House brought an influx of apartheid apologists to Washington). A commentary track might have been welcome, however, given that this is part of what MGM/UA calls "The Sidney Poitier Collection." Considering that the actor made his second screen appearance in an equally groundbreaking movie about South Africa (Cry, The Beloved Country ), it's entirely possible that Poitier might have been willing to offer some reminiscences, about the movie and director Ralph Nelson, with whom he also made Lilies of the Field in 1963. Moreover, Michael Caine has always been particularly proud of this movie, recalling in a 1990 interview that he was persona non grata in white-ruled South Africa for having starred in the film. The disc opens automatically on a simple menu that includes the trailer and access to a Spanish soundtrack and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.