American cinema of the early to mid-1970s was often pessimistic, paranoid, and bleak, befitting the gloomy times that punctured the American dream – queuing for gas at exorbitant prices during the OPEC crisis, limping away from an unpopular war in Vietnam, with a growing erosion of trust in the post-Watergate political arena. Science fiction as a genre was no different, until a certain science fantasy blockbuster offered “a new hope”. But until then the granddaddy of future sport dystopia’s strapline ran contra to that: “In the future, there is no crime, there is no poverty, there is no war, there is… Rollerball.” William Harrison’s speculative short story The Rollerball Murders, published in Esquire magazine in 1973, was adapted for the screen in 1975 by its author and the director Norman Jewison. A Canadian who noticed that ice hockey in his native country was getting ever more ferocious and dirty, Jewison felt the core themes, of massive corporations supplanting national governments in the running and control of people’s lives, and the bread and circuses diversion of Rollerball’s violent sport, were not only prescient, but becoming increasingly visible in the tumultuous world of 1975. A news article about the deadly drama made the connection at the time – “From what we know today, to systemized sadism.”
Perversely, on the surface, the world of the film seems to be one of plenty and stability. After the vaguely defined “Corporate Wars”, the world exists in a Pax Collegium, carved up between the city-state winners, such as Houston’s monolithic Energy Corporation, the owners of our hero’s team. The executives live a pampered and protected existence, keeping the masses happy and distracted with the gladiator-like spectacle of Rollerball. James Caan is Jonathan E., popular player and captain of his Rollerball team. Jewison had been impressed by his performance as a football running back in the 1971 ABC film Brian’s Song. When we see him at attention for the “Corporate anthem” he reflexively thumps his gloved fist against his thigh, something he picked up from a football player.
The future sport is a fast and furious body contact mash-up of motocross (each team has three motorcycle riders that can boost skaters via pull handles), hockey (their “pucks” are studded gauntlets, jabbing knees and elbows heavily padded), and roller derby (the remaining players fast skate around the arena, a 38-degree-pitched circular track). The teams skate and ride counter-clockwise, trying to gain possession of a steel ball shot clockwise from the top of the track like a cross between a roulette wheel and a pinball table, and score in the magnetized, heavily guarded opposing “goal”.
To Jonathan E., the Corporation is mother, the Corporation is father. Attachments and questioning are discouraged – his wife Ella (Maud Adams) has been taken away from him, desired by an Executive (in this seeming utopia, women’s rights have regressed). He is beginning to strain against society’s leash, dissatisfied with his gilded cage’s revolving door of companions. The Library he visits to unsuccessfully learn more about history pre-Corporations is a 1970’s vision of a massive computer brain (ZERO), programmed only with the knowledge the Executives feel is fit to be known, and unreliable at that. Much like Winston Smith is told in George Orwell’s 1984, “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
James Caan said a review at the time from Women’s Wear Daily made an interesting comment – “Well we saw James Caan the athlete, but where was the acting?” “She nailed the movie exactly. In other words, these guys were state raised, they couldn’t think, and the truth is, their emotions were buried.” Caan’s restrained performance perfectly captures this simple pawn’s predicament. The alienation of this world is emphasized by DoP Douglas Slocombe’s stately and subdued contrast of the world away from the kinetic hand-held track action captured on skates by “action cameraman” AtzeGlanert, who had filmed sports in 1972 Munich Olympics.
Rollerball is designed to channel society’s potential dissent and aggression. To that end, players, as pampered as they are, cannot be allowed to become bigger than the game. “If a champion defeats the meaning for which the game was designed, then he must lose,” Jonathan is told. Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), Jonathan’s boss and chairman of the multi-corporation board that rules the world, wants him to retire. But Jonathan loves the game, and his team-mates, too much. “I don’t mean to resist. I’m just tryin’ to understand,” he fumbles. Mr Bartholomew is quietly insistent: “This is for your own benefit. All decisions concerning you are.” Gradually, the rules change, and the arena becomes a literal blood sport.
Rollerball was filmed on location in 1972’s Olympic village in Munich, production designer John Box making good use of the reconfigured basketball stadium and modernist building exteriors such as the city’s BMW headquarters and museum for other corporate centers. Jewison used solely classical music to avoid dating the piece, a very 1970’s vision of the future outside of the arena, akin to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, albeit with an intelligent, art-house sensibility. What the classical music (such as Albinoni’s Adagio) does do is heighten the feeling of a virtually drugged, subservient populace – where there is nothing to strive against, there is no new creative endeavor. Bach’s dramatic Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens and closes the drama in the arena. Costume design was relatively restrained, women often wearing flowing robes, Jonathan a Spanish-flavored short jacket and wide-brimmed hat with cowboy belt and boots when at rest. Executives and team coaches are naturally in contemporary suits, regular fans in jeans and T-shirts. The themes resonate down through the ages though. Now more than ever, massive corporations subtly shape Western society (and hobble Third World development), controlling our press, TV, and influencing governments. Fox News today decries the mainstream as “Fake News”, telling its supplicant subscribers what to think, feel, and fear. Until recently a direct conduit to the deranged deliberations of a displaced despot. Grab them by the Rollerballs and their hearts and minds will follow, you might say.
At a party in an Executive’s country house (this film’s Mar-a-Lago?), guests gather to watch Jonathan E.’s interview/career retrospective on multiple screens, laughing and applauding at the violence on screen (only one woman seems disturbed, outside on the lawn in tearful close-up). Alcohol is lightly sipped – if people seek a high, they pop a pill – or stumble outside to hysterically zap the treeline, indifferent to the beauty and fragility of the natural world around them. William Harrison loved the art house influence on the film, describing it as “a European intellectual action film – Last Year at Marienbad with game sequences.”
While Jonathan balks at his freedoms, his friend and team-mate Moonpie (John Beck) is very happy with his lot. He naturally will suffer for Jonathan’s intransigence, left brain dead from the erosion of the safety barriers in the next game with Tokyo (“No substitutions, no penalties.”). Jonathan, from having a number 6 on his shirt, in perhaps a nod to the struggle between freedom and conformity in the iconic TV show The Prisoner, may as well now have a target on his back.
Ironically, Rollerball is designed to be a violent sport that we should be naturally appalled at, but truth be told, it’s thrilling to watch. Jewison had four cameras locked on the circuit for wide shots, and relied on handheld camerawork weaving in and out of the players, and a low riding buggy towing another camera for the more visceral action. Caan and Beck do all their own stunts – every other player is the cream of the stunt world, recruited especially to “sell” the thrill of the game. Practice sessions were no match for the reality, the slanted surface proving an exhausting and confusing arena. Players learned to think as if they were on the flat and skating contra wise to the norm to propel forward and stay upright became second nature. The filmmakers had to create actual rules for the game, something that was a bit hazy in the short story source.
Rollerball was the first film where the entire stunt crew got individual credits, something Jewison lobbied hard for. They deserved it. One stunt skater suffered a fractured leg, slammed up against the concrete perimeter of the arena. Caan got an action close-up where he was slammed over a defending player’s body before landing a goal. Early costume nylon trousers were quickly replaced with tough leathers. On the last day of filming in the mean arena, Jewison told the performers to “play it to win it” – no choreography, brutal.
As Jonathan becomes more popular, Mr. Bartholomew maneuvers harder and more desperately to tear him down. The final game between Houston and New York has no time limits, meaning it will only finish with the last man standing. The crowd erupts with each exploding bike and slain skater – one such receives the steel ball shot from its launcher to the back of his head. Surely no game cult can sustain such blood frenzy? Jonathan, the sole body now in-play, secures the ball and pulls back from killing his remaining opponent; he skates a final circuit past flaming bikes and prone bodies, the crowd now deathly silent, until he scores the point. His victory ignites the crowd again; they chant his name, over and over. Ironically though, they probably don’t even know what they are rebelling against.