Forty years after original release, it is the violence for which Rollerball is remembered; ironic then, that in the promotional materials at the time of release director Norman Jewison described the film as “a statement about the absurdity of violence and bloodsports.” The trouble with satire is that it is most effective when subtle, and the result of that subtlety is that the intended message of a film can be lost on those who might benefit most from it, and certainly in Rollerball there is much to distract from the subtext.
It was in 1973 that William Harrison’s short story Roller Ball Murder was published in Esquire magazine, the inspiration for the background of the story a book Harrison had read about how nations would fade away over time in favour of corporations, a situation which would leave the masses under the power of those against whom they had no leverage: “We don’t vote on the directors of corporations.”
Jewison read the story and obtained the rights and was surprised to receive a call from Harrison requesting that he be allowed to draft the screenplay himself despite having no experience at screenwriting. A stark contrast to his previous films Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, Jewison recalls that the pitch to United Artists focused very much on the physicality of the project. “We were stunned that UA agreed to do the film.”
Now remastered and released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, the impact of the opening scene is undiminished, the vast shadowy arena slowly illuminated as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor swells on the soundtrack, an enormous sense of scale coupled with an almost fetishistic approach to the muscled men in their leather and studs atop their motorbikes, contrasted with the unexpected sight of the rest of the team on roller skates.
The match is Madrid versus Houston, and as the anthem of the Energy Corporation who run that Texan city plays star player Jonathan E (James Caan, star of The Godfather and Misery) pounds the beat with his fist. The game is brutal and the camera unflinching, weaving amongst the players and following their every move, but despite the knocks, tumbles and scrapes the crowd love the breathless action.
In the dressing room after the match, the team are congratulated by chairman Mr Bartholomew, the unmistakable John Houseman (The Fog, Ghost Story), his harmonious voice and gentle demeanour a refined contrast to what has gone before, the orchestrator of the bread and circuses of the gladiatorial arena. If sport is a business it is he who keeps his eyes on the flow of money and ensures that nothing interferes with preserving the conditions which keep the bottom line stable.
Requested to visit Mr Bartholomew at the luxurious Energy Corporation offices, Jonathan is informed that despite being a ten year veteran at the top of his game he is expected to retire this season. “The executive directorate want you out.” Despite all that he has given, it is felt that his individual achievement is overshadowing the game as a whole which cannot be allowed to happen; it is dictated that no one person can ever become larger than what they represent. “Corporate society takes care of everyone.”
“The corporation took my wife away,” Jonathan counters, refusing to submit to the decision. What is superficially a utopia hides ugly compromises beneath the facade; the careers and personal lives of the population are dictated to them, the woman Jonathan married reassigned to a corporate executive, a replacement concubine arriving at his home with no warning, a stranger in his home and his bed.
The ubiquity of television in the lives of the characters, multiple screens whch dominate their homes, recalls François Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 though without the decayed council estate grimness of their surround; these people live comfortably so long as they do not question. Akin to Bradbury’s work there is a huge loneliness here, with Jonathan aware his friends and relationships can be terminated by executive decision.
While books are not banned as they were in Bradbury’s dystopia, with the government fearful that education and enlightenment could stimulate minds towards upheaval and revolution certain titles are restricted. The film is never clear on the particular work Jonathan is trying to obtain or what he hopes to gain from it and the scene where he finally meets the Librarian (Ralph Richardson, the Supreme Being of Time Bandits) serves little purpose, but his interest is spurred by his meeting with Mr Bartholomew.
“Nations are bankrupt, gone. None of that tribal warfare any more. Even the corporate wars are a thing of the past. So now we have the majors and their executives, transport, food, communications, housing, luxury, energy, a few of us making decision on a global basis for the common good.”
In this Rollerball serves “a definite social purpose,” a vicarious release for the supposedly civilised masses and their polite conversation and designer clothes. Parties are thrown, drugs are taken, and they gather to watch the games, celebrating in the glorious violence of it, the only expression of honesty in their otherwise rehearsed lives.
As sterile as 2001: A Space Odyssey, as sanitised as Logan’s Run released only nine months later, the violence is as arranged and segregated as those submitting to Carrousel and hoping for rebirth. While Battlestar Galactica’s pyramid owes much to Rollerball, an even more apparent heir is The Hunger Games.
Assured without being cocky, on the whole Jonathan treats those around him well, but when he feels that Daphne (model and artist Barbara Trentham) is serving the agenda of the corporation, even in hopes of protecting him, he is furious, and despite all that unfolds in the arena the one shocking moment of violence is when he turns on her. The unstable element who can rouse the otherwise compliant masses, in the accompanying interview with James Caan, newly recorded for this release, he confirms that he saw Jonathan’s story as a prelude to revolution.
It’s a flawless print of the classic film though the restoration does make it apparent that in the shadows of the arena the farthest stands are on occasion empty, the crowd only filling the foreground, and in accompanying location documentary The Fourth City unit manager Dieter Meyer recalls his concern over finding sufficient extras to make Tokyo believable, though having dropped flyers at local hotels 150 eager Asians showed up for the required days.
Undeniably, the three matches shown onscreen, as Houston play against Madrid, Tokyo and then New York, the arena set redressed and the crowds suitably attired for each, are a bloody and unrelenting testament to the dedication and skill of the entire cast and crew. “How they could follow focus at thirty, forty miles per hour I have no idea, but they did… I was terrified of killing someone,” Jewison recalls, with Meyer adding that “Shooting the sequences was almost as dangerous as it looked in the film.”
Interviewed separately in Bike Work, stuntman Craig Baxley who played the lead biker for the Madrid team speaks extensively about the camaraderie in the arena, actually a basketball court in Munich. “The German crew treated us like royalty, the German skaters treated us like brothers. The stuntmen were a major part of this movie and they were treated like cast which was not normal for this time.”
Now a standard film inclusion in every film, editor Antony Gibbs states “It was the first time stuntmen ever got a credit,” and the approach to the spectacle mirrors the attitudes of the time, with Canadian Jewison having been brought up watching ice hockey (“blood on white ice ignites people”) and Harrison recalling the celebrity accorded daredevil Evil Kneivel, a fixture on seventies television who boasted of his injuries whose escalating disregard for safety was encouraged by networks seeking ratings.
“It’s an anti-violent film, yet it has to use violence to make its point,” Jewison states, and beyond those three manic sequences inside the arena the tone of the film is markedly different, calmer and with periods of introspection amid pastoral tranquility more akin to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude as Jonathan is reunited with lost love Ella (Octopussy herself, Maud Adams), wandering through the trees discussing what the world they live in has become.
“People had a choice a long time ago between having all them nice things or freedom. Of course, they chose comfort.”
“But comfort is freedom. It always has been. The whole history of civilisation is the struggle against poverty and need.”
In contrast to his teammate Moonpie (John Beck) who believes that bravado and team spirit are all they need to win over the techniques of the Tokyo team, Jonathan is a more noble barbarian, his melancholy soundtracked by the tones of Albinoni and Giazottos unmistakable Adagio in G Minor, and as the violence spreads to the crowd at the concluding New York deathmatch where his downfall has been planned in an effort to restore order Jonathan remains unrepentant in his defiance of Mr Batholomew: he’s a murderer yet the crowd still love him.
Using the stunning modernist architecture of Munich and with many of the extras receiving an additional stipend in order to cut their trendy long hair so the look of the film would not be tied to the era it was produced in, while in the arena their costumes are timeless it is in their civilian lives that the safari suits and flared pantsuits betray the film as a product of the seventies.
While well received and successful in Europe, Jewison feels the largest potential audience missed that the film was a condemnation of violence rather than a celebration of it: “In America everyone wanted to play the game.”
In the following four decades the world of sport has become even more commercial and high stakes driven, the players treated as though they were demigods, their endorsements sought, their wages comparable with captains of industry, their opinions given equal weight to great thinkers and philosophers but more relevant is the ever increasing domination of politics by business interests.
In a new interview exclusive to the Arrow edition, Caan comments that in the early seventies “Exxon was the fourth leading monetary power in the world… It’s not so far-fetched that corporations run the world.” Where the choice is between comfort and the hard edge of freedom and the responsibilities it brings, too many choose to unquestioningly accept what is given them rather than seek their own answers, the roar of the crowd drowning out the cries of the oppressed.