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Rollerball (1975)
Director: Norman Jewison

review by J.C. Hartley

Logan's Run (1976) on skates? There's a noble tradition in film (and elsewhere of course) of members of superficially well-ordered societies discovering the dark underbelly and, as a consequence, joining a resistance movement and ending up trying to stick it to the man. Anti-establishment films were de rigueur in the 1970s, as were films suffused with paranoia, and Rollerball is in this mould but with a twist. Jonathan E (James Caan) is an essentially conservative hero, he doesn't rage against the system, and he would very much like to maintain the status quo but, unfortunately for him, the very visible masters of his world have decided he is a threat and wish to remove him.

That tradition of comfortable privileged members of society having their eyes opened to reality goes right back to sword 'n' sandal biblical epics like Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), and Ben Hur (1959); there's an added impact to the analogy in Rollerball with the theme of bread and circuses, gladiatorial combat, and sacrificial messiahs. The film reference that is most powerfully invoked here though is Peter Watkins' gloomy 1967 British flick Privilege, in which pop idol Paul Jones is serially abused on-stage in front of adoring fans, and then summarily jettisoned by the establishment when he declines to use his status to preach conformity.

Caan is Jonathan, captain of Houston's all-conquering rollerball team, a vicious very-few-holds-barred combination of American football, roller derby, and the excesses of the WWF. Alternatively, think of Sir Chris Hoy strapping on knuckle-dusters in the Velodrome and getting the French to take back all those cheating claims. The game is so simple, and the potential for violence so acute, it is amazing that it has never been taken up for real.

Having won through to the quarter-finals of the world championship with Houston, Jonathan is to be honoured with a documentary about his unique ten-year career at the top. Called in to a meeting with Energy Corporation Chairman Bartholomew (John Houseman), Jonathan is told that certain leading executives think it is time for him to retire, and it is proposed that he make a statement to that effect during the documentary special. Jonathan does not understand, and responds by raising the sacrifices he has made, such as having to give up his wife Ella (Maud Adams) to an executive who wanted her for himself. Bartholomew dismisses the complaint alluding to the fact that it was Ella who wished to leave Jonathan. Briefly reunited with Jonathan, later in the film, Ella confirms this, finding Jonathan so obsessed with the game she did not think he had time for her, whereas he reiterates he wanted everything to stay the same, with the world outside the arena a predictable comfort zone.

Jonathan starts to think about how the world works and asks his coach Cletus (Moses Gunn, Shaft) to find out what is going on behind the scenes. Having declined to announce his retirement, Jonathan leads Houston to semi-final victory in a bruising encounter in Tokyo, in which his friend Moonpie (John Beck, Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid) is attacked and rendered brain-dead. Bartholomew reveals that rollerball, a game he actually despises, is designed to show the inability of humanity to function outside of a team environment. The game is not only a substitute for global war but a means of ensuring conformity, its brutality ensures that no single individual can excel and differentiate himself from the team, a situation that Jonathan has unwittingly challenged. Now in the final against New York, the Houston team discover that further rule-changes have decreed that there are no penalty calls, no substitutions, and no time limits; the game has been weighted to ensure that Jonathan dies in the arena.

Rollerball was a bit of a sensation in 1975, largely I think because of the violence and the way it seemed to be commenting upon a Year Of The Sex Olympics scenario of emotional insularity, apathy, and indifference. Viewing now I don't think it was ever a satire on TV violence and manipulation, that came the following year in Network, and in many ways it's impossible to pin-down a 'big message'. Jonathan is not a likeable rebel, he is admirably single-minded but, until he is about to be deprived of the game he loves, he is content to enjoy the comfort his success has brought, only brooding on the unfairness that deprived him of his wife, a situation his own selfishness exacerbated. He is only energised about the concept of free-will when his personal freedom to conform is circumscribed, and his attempts to educate himself about how the contemporary situation arose are woefully inept.

The world of Rollerball is not a dark empire recycling human brains or turning corpses into pabulum, it is one run by multinational corporations that have abolished war and poverty, and simply want to be allowed to get on with business without people wanting to go off the grid. The concept behind Rollerball does not let us into the lives of ordinary people, we see the executive class staving off ennui with drug-fuelled parties and sublimating their aggression by torching pine trees with a flame-gun, and we see the rabid crowds of salary-men at rollerball games.

For all his rebellion Jonathan is given every opportunity to conform, and he is even allowed access to the facility transcribing, summarising, and ultimately misplacing, or perhaps erasing, history, in the computer library. In a nod to the conventions of science fictional perfect-but-flawed societies, Jonathan meets the master computer and its programmer (Ralph Richardson in a charming but superfluous cameo), unlike Logan, or Patrick McGoohan's Prisoner, a simple 'Why?' does not blow the place up.

Of its time certainly, and the annoying 'cybernetic' numerals displayed everywhere remind you of that, but I think the inherent ambiguity in Rollerball has kept it fresh, unlike the pointlessness and simplification of the 2002 remake (Rollerball). One assumes Jonathan will die in New York, he doesn't; he wins by wiping out the opposition, asserting his individuality by emphasising his conservatism and carrying on as before, although he spares his final opponent. Quite why Bartholomew flees the arena while the crowd chants Jonathan's name is open to question, this isn't the start of a revolution after all, it's just a slight hitch which will be ironed out by seamless rescheduling.

There's a generous extras package, a 'making-of' featurette and an interview with Caan emphasise the prescience of the piece, namely the rise of the multinationals until they became the secret rulers of the world. Of course, whereas the corporations of Rollerball have abolished war and want, our modern versions don't care a fig for war, terrorism, the environment, or global poverty, they only care about making money and protecting their assets through things like the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and Investor-State Dispute Settlements. There's a feature on the stuntmen, Rollerball gave acknowledgment to the stunt teams in the credits which was new, a look at the locations used in the picture, and a comparison between the rollerball game and its antecedents in the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome.


copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press