Director: Norman Jewison
Screenwriter: William Harrison
In memoriam: James Caan 1940-2022
By Roderick Heath
Science fiction movies produced in Hollywood in the late 1960s and 1970s have a tantalising quality from today’s perspective. After the genre’s boom in popularity in the 1950s ended, sci-fi remained a niche audience thing, until it suddenly returned as the stuff of major movies, a revival that might have been stirred by the James Bond movies and began properly with 1966’s Fantastic Voyage. The 1968 triptych of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, and Ralph Nelson’s Charly made science fiction cinema prestigious and won it popularity amongst the younger audience of the day, who latched onto the genre’s ability to offer witty and thoughtful reflections of contemporary concerns as well as future dreaming through a lens of parable and satire. For the next decade sci-fi simmered away with a string of usually modestly budgeted but thematically ambitious entries, with futuristic dystopias, often involving nuclear war or environmental degradation, and quasi-fascistic regimes aplenty. Many movies of this moment, including A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omega Man (1971), Silent Running (1971), THX-1138 (1971), Soylent Green (1972), Westworld (1973), Zardoz (1974), and Logan’s Run (1976), remain objects of fierce cult followings. The success of Star Wars (1977) suddenly made the genre the stuff of blockbusters, but also by and large skewed the genre back to its less elevated roots.
Norman Jewison’s Rollerball is at once of the most sorely undervalued and significant entries in the style. Jewison himself was for a long time one of Hollywood’s most respected and prestigious directors, reputed for constantly tackling socially conscious subjects whilst proving himself across a range of genres. Jewison, born in Toronto in 1926, served in the navy during World War II, and when attending university after the war became involved in student theatre. He eventually found work in the fledgling days of Canadian television, quickly proving adept in many areas of production. When he moved to New York to work for NBC in 1958, he directed mostly live shows and star showcase specials, and eventually the actor Tony Curtis suggested he try feature filmmaking. Curtis gave him his first shot, too, with 1962’s 40 Pounds of Trouble. After a few middling comedies Jewison gained his first real attention for The Cincinnati Kid (1965), a film he was ironically only hired onto as a quick replacement for Sam Peckinpah, as Jewison proved he was able to balance serious character portraiture with an overlay of slick, inventive, then-modern style, a talent Hollywood urgently needed at the time. His follow-up, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), became a cause celebre in depicting the chaos ensuing when a Soviet submarine appears off the coast of New England, offering a puckishly depicted possibility for rapprochement between Cold War foes. Jewison then made In the Heat of the Night (1967), a deft and moody blend of cop thriller and social issue movie, and captured the Best Picture Oscar, although it also marked the second of the seven occasions he’d be nominated for Best Director and lose.
Jewison scored further big hits with a segue into pure pop cinema, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and adaptations of the musicals Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). A filmmaker of Jewison’s stature making a violent sci-fi film was a reasonably big deal in 1975, and sparked some mild controversy. Rollerball, adapted by writer William Harrison from his own short story, represented a coherent extension nonetheless of Jewison’s recurring fascination for brilliant but assailed protagonists who have the potential to be ignominiously crushed or emerge as messianic heroes, a tendency explored most obviously on Jesus Christ Superstar but perhaps most truly fulfilled on Rollerball. Aspects of Rollerball are extremely dated today. But in other respects it’s proven one of the more uniquely prognosticative sci-fi entries of its time. Its concept of the future, one where people increasingly seek proof of heroism’s possibility in non-intellectual settings, particularly sports, as the rest of the world becomes increasingly corporatized and conformist and narcotised by media consumption, feels damn near Nostradamus-like. The way it seeks messianic heroism amidst crushing fascistic realms in the genre setting would transmit that figuration to Star Wars and on to the likes of The Matrix (1999) and The Hunger Games (2012): the latter film in particular would riff on a similar proposition of sports used as a form of violent sublimation and social control. In more immediate terms Rollerball anticipated the following year’s Rocky in anointing the popular ideal of an underdog sporting hero, and sparked a brief run of futuristic gladiatorial competition movies, including Paul Bartel’s glorious Death Race 2000 (1976). Rollerball even gained a remake in 2002, but the less said of that the better.
Rollerball also gave star James Caan one of his finest lead roles after The Godfather (1972) cemented him as a major star. Caan was cast as Jonathan E, the champion of the eponymous sport. Jonathan plays for the Houston team in the international Rollerball league sometime in the 2080s. Jonathan has become the sport’s one indisputable legend, to the degree that he’s about to become the first individual player to ever be the subject of a showcase of a special on “Multivision,” the future’s multi-screen, multi-camera version of TV. Rollerball, as depicted in forensic detail in the film’s long opening sequence, is a brutal, gladiatorial sport that resembles a mixture of ice hockey, roller derby, and American football. Two competing teams charge at speed around a circular course, most players on roller skates but some also riding motorcycles, and fighting for control of a heavy metallic ball fired at speed from a cannon, with points scored by punching the ball into a small magnetic hole. Deaths in the game aren’t just common but expected. Jewison memorably raises the curtain on the film with Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” blaring out as technicians prepare the arena for the upcoming match, spectators and bigwigs file in, and the players assemble.
The opening sequence depicting the unfolding match with its odd mix of the chaotic and the ritualistic in its unfolding is remarkable for making the imaginary sport palpable and convincing in its details. Jewison extends the oddball period punk aesthetic he explored with his Roman soldiers in Jesus Christ Superstar, here with the helmeted, padded, gauntleted look of the Rollerball players. The differences between this futuristic sporting event and more familiar ones soon become apparent, as the players and crowd are required to stand not for a national anthem, but for corporate anthems, as this future has seen the world carved up between a handful of colossal, omnipotent corporations, each with a different area of the world economy to maintain monopolistic control over. Houston represent the home of the Energy Corporation, also their sponsors, with their high-ranking executive watchdog Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) looking on from the stands. Houston play Madrid in the quarter-final match: whilst there are some rules and curtailing limits, the competitors have relatively free rein to beat, bash, and run over each-other in the flow of play. Jonathan scores all three of Houston’s goals to win the match, whilst he’s given expert protection by his pal and protégé ‘Moonpie’ (John Beck), who specialises in taking enemy players out of the match with targeted hits and tackles, and Blue (Tony Brubaker), who rides a motorcycle used to haul whoever has the ball around the track to the goal. By the game’s end eight players are listed as injured or killed.
After the match the Houston team members are treated to a locker room visit by Bartholomew, a great honour that grows greater as Bartholomew charms the players by assuring them that whilst they might fantasize about gaining the power and privileges of a corporate executive, the executives all fantasize about being Rollerball players. Bartholomew offers Moonpie a recreational drug pill from his personal stash, and asks Jonathan to come and see him at his office the next day. When he does, however, Jonathan is left bewildered and chagrined when Bartholomew tells him that that the executives want Jonathan to announce his retirement on the Multivision special. This request, couched in the most smoothly affable terms by Bartholomew, is nonethless laced with a clear undercurrent of baleful coercion: “Take your time, take a few days…think about it, but understand it. Do understand it. Because I don’t understand your resistance, and I don’t think anyone else will.” This request however stings Jonathan out of the detached holding pattern he’s been maintaining since his wife Ella (Maud Adams) left him, or, as he thinks, was taken from him by a high-ranking executive. Other women assigned to him regularly to serve essentially as concubines, including current paramour Mackie (Pamela Hensley), who is aggravated when she finds Jonathan is having her replaced and plainly wanted her gone by the time he returned home. Jonathan is much happier to return to the company of his former coach and mentor, now personal trainer, Cletus (Moses Gunn) Cletues still has some contacts in the corporation hierarchy, and agrees to try and find out why the executives want Jonathan retired.
Rollerball’s unusual style pivots repeatedly from the bristling, bloody furore of the three Rollerball matches depicted to the muted, drifting, naggingly melancholic tone of the rest of the film, which Jewison depicts as a kind of lotus eater world of narcotising luxury and disorientating, deliberately ahistorical, amniotic existence, at least for people in Jonathan’s sphere. The use of classical music as the only scoring for the film, probably influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey but achieving its own, rather different impact, underpins the mood of detached and bewildered absence that dogs Jonathan with works of lilting, longing emotionalism. Jonathan nominally misses his wife but in fact, as he eventually realises, suffers from an aching absence defining his entire existence: the only time Jonathan is entirely alive is on the Rollerball track. Which proves, eventually, to be exactly the problem: Rollerball as a game, it eventually emerges, is designed not simply to be an orgiastic outlet for the violent bloodlust of the audience in a perpetual cycle of repression and sublimation, but also one where the damage wrought upon individual players is a feature rather than a bug. It’s supposed to demonstrate the futility of individual effort, to use up human bodies in the course of entertaining and disarming the crowd. Jonathan himself holds the record taking the most opposing players out of a single match, standing at 13. And so Jonathan’s rise as a player who hasn’t just grown strong but properly and legitimately titanic in the sport is quite literally a violation of its whole ethos and purpose, and threatens the corporate establishment in case people start feeling themselves empowered. The essential matter of the fable questions whether the quick death of the body is any worse than slow death of the spirit, whilst presenting a situation where the two go hand in hand.
Rollerball at least offers a little sympathy for the devil in that regard because, as Bartholomew notes, the age of the corporate overlordship has delivered an age of apparent peace and plenty after the old nations all went bankrupt, and even the days of “The Corporate Wars” are past. Of course, such contentment is actually embalming, and Jonathan, as he tries to learn a little more about why things are as they are, finds himself coming up against a barrier of pleasantly beaming secretaries, suit-clad officials, and company-appointed courtesans trying to keep him safely within bounds. Rather than necessarily putting this down to nefarious deliberation as in, say, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Rollerball hints this is due as much to general indolence and anti-intellectual habits from this future society, and the overly confident fiddling of technocrats eager to subsume knowledge into their computers, as it is from the corporations trying to quash the nuances of history and culture. Again, this feels quite keenly prophetic. Trying to learn some of the history of the rise of the corporations, Jonathan learns that all books have been transcribed and summarised on computer and the unexpurgated versions kept on an AI supercomputer called Zero, located in Geneva. When he travels there to get answers, Jonathan encounters Zero’s keeper, known as the Librarian (Ralph Richardson), who proves eager to please the great celebrity. This proves a vivid interlude of dark and woozy comedy, warped genre poetry, and dystopian sarcasm. The Librarian escorts Jonathan in to the innermost sanctum of Zero, which runs on “fluid mechanics…a memory pool. He’s supposed to tell us where things are and what they might possibly mean.” But the Librarian also laments that the erratic Zero is erratic, having recently lost all its knowledge of the Thirteenth century after a performing a colossal memory dump when someone asked it a specific question. “Not much in the century,” the Librarian tries to assure Jonathan, “Just Dante, and a few corrupt popes.” Jonathan beholds the core of Zero, a cage-like structure around a bubbling fluid memory bank, but when he asks his question the computer degenerates into incoherent phrases about corporate governance and the word “Negative” constantly repeated, whilst the Librarian furiously kicks the errant machine.
Sci-fi often works best when embracing qualities of fable in terms of narrative but insisting on realistic detail in its minutiae, and Rollerball offers this, pointing the way to other successful variations on the same template as Blade Runner (1982), if in a more modest fashion. The idea of corporate dictatorship as one of many possible futures of illiberalism had been fairly common in 1950s sci-fi writing, and aspects of Rollerball had been anticipated by the radical British filmmaker Peter Watkins with films like Privilege (1967), The Centurions (1968), and Punishment Park (1971), with his interest in systems of power degenerating into violence and atavism. In offering its own, more accessible take on such notions, Rollerball wields its own brand of cunning in the way it recognises and only exaggerates familiar phenomenon of its day just a little, phenomena that have only grown more acute over time. Particularly aware is the way it perceives the sporting hero as a genuine locus of worship and admiration as a figure retaining and employing primal virtues like strength, skill, physical courage, and a particular kind of reflexive, predatory intelligence once required everyday back when humans were hunter-gatherers but now suppressed and necessarily dulled, only allowed to be unleashed in certain arenas like competitive sports. Only the athlete and the actor have retained that kind of electrifying connection with the modern psyche.
Rollerball takes up that kind of sympathy and also the way great athletes and sportspeople become avatars for ordinary people the more they’re feted and rewarded rather than less. The previous year’s prison football drama The Longest Yard had sketched out the theme of the sportsman as a particular bastion of individualism against bullying power, and Rollerball took it considerably further. Much of the film’s first half is given over to perceiving the tension underlying Jonathan’s seemingly luxurious, indulged, and insulated life, manifesting in his interactions with Mackie, and her replacement Daphne (Barbara Trentham), who Jonathan quickly realises has been placed with him to keep him on a short leash in this decisive moment. During what’s supposed to be an interview recording session for the special, Jonathan finds he’s being fed lines via autocue trying to force him into retirement, with Bartholomew and his aide (Richard LeParmentier) watching on from a booth and Daphne lolling about in a drug daze, but Jonathan resists. Jonathan begins to suspect he might be assassinated, particularly as he continues to resist Bartholomew’s efforts to make him retire before the upcoming semi-final that will pitch Houston against Tokyo. Despite Bartholomew’s personal entreaties when they meet at the party Jonathan throws to coincide with the Multivision special, Jonathan insists on playing with the team in Tokyo, because the rules are going to be changed, eliminating all penalties and limiting substitutions, and with even more extreme measures being slated for the final match when it comes. When Daphne tries to prod Jonathan into toeing the line with veiled threats he furiously throws her against a couch and scratches her cheek with his studded uniform bracelet, telling her not to be around when he returns, and avoids taking a private flight to Tokyo, electing instead to travel with the team.
In a touch Steven Spielberg would appropriate in Minority Report (2003), Jonathan feeds his grieving and alienation by constantly rewatching old personal recordings of his glory gays with his missing wife: Daphne’s first arrival comes during one of these sessions. Here Rollerball successfully anticipates another aspect of modern life: technology becoming a kind of stasis chamber feeding out emotional reflexes and nostalgia urges back at is in a loop. The Multivision night party proves a uniquely epic vignette as realised by Jewison and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose images, at once sleekly lit and gritty, capture a drifting, languid, detached quality amidst the flashy pleasure-seeking that presents a sarcastically amplified edition of a Hollywood player party. Moonpie, contending with a bevy of beauties and a dash for a quickie upstairs with one, is the one person who still knows how to enjoy themselves, amidst a sea of drugged-up gladhanding and benumbed sensuality, whilst odd guests experience private gibbers of intense, inchoate emotion, signalling that the bewildered and displaced experience Jonathan is dealing with is a common lot. Amidst the seemingly objective, almost unmoored play of zoom and tracking shots that survey the party we see characters engaging in plays of looks that signal unacknowledged but vitally important dramas unfolding – Jonathan arranging with Cletus a time to sneak away and discuss what Cletus has learned; Bartholomew watching them with intent; Mackie glaring after her former lover.
The Multivision special, filling the many screens all around the house, offers powerful slow-motion analysis of Jonathan’s gameplay, viewers applauding and gaping in glee with each shot of Jonathan clobbering challengers conveyed with both aesthetic and forensic intensity. Lustrous, dreamy beauty and intimate brutality meet, the thrill of sublimating violence and the transformative power of art blended into catch-all for the needs of the audience. That Jewison had his career beginnings as a shooter of live television and star showcases lends personal subtext as well as convincing technical approximation to the film’s depictions of such. The raw immediacy of the Rollerball matches is contrasted by the stylised spectacle of the special, both nonetheless conjoined as part of the apparatus of pacification and manipulation of the audience. Whilst Bartholomew confronts Jonathan and admonishes him for his intransigence, confessing that he and others have been embarrassed, the party guests head out into the dawn light as one man has brought a laser pistol. The glitzy-dressed society damsels begin shooting trees that erupt in fireballs to electric, orgasmic pleasure, experiencing the pure joy of destruction for its own sake, finding their own way of tapping what they imagine is a reserve of power only Jonathan can know.
Rollerball belongs to a strand of Hollywood cinema common in the 1970s that had an unusually European-feeling glaze of style and atmosphere, exacerbated here through location filming. Jewison himself, dismayed by American politics in the early decade, had relocated to London. The film is also a product of a time when a lot of directors assumed all you really needed to do to evoke a cold and pitiless future was film around some particularly odd and flashy examples of high modernist architecture – and it usually worked. Jewison found some particularly ripe examples in shooting portions of the film in Munich, including at the then-new BMW headquarters, and at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, whilst the Rollerball matches themselves were filmed in the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle, built for the Munich Olympics. All the lettering and numbers seen throughout are in the supposedly super-futuristic “Westminster” computer-readable font, a more amusingly dated touch, if also one that serves the film’s construction of its particular, sequestered reality. Amidst the lead-in to the match against Tokyo, the Houstonians are obliged to listen to an expert (Robert Ito) in the Tokyo players’ martial arts-derived playing style which represents a threat of precision and dexterity to the Houstonians’ celebrated forceful approach. Moonpie, encouraged by Jonathan, acts as self-appointed tactician and morale officer and refuses to listen to the expert, instead working up his fellow players until they converge en masse on the luckless lecturer whilst chanting their team name with warlike zeal.
Jewison strikes a foreboding note in this spectacle of camaraderie, Moonpie’s resolute refusal to countenance the idea any foe can foil his team’s strength returning to haunt him in the ensuing match. The semi-final proves every inch the dreadful battle Jonathan feared as players on each team are clubbed, bashed, and broken. Jonathan and Moonpie contrive to drag an opponent up into the path of the fired rollerball itself, the projectile breaking his neck, and this in turn prods the Tokyo players to target the two. Whilst Jonathan is taking a time-out after suffering a gouging blow to the arm, three Tokyo players tackle Moonpie and, just as he suggested to his own teammates, they waylay him, strip off his helmet, and punch him in the ganglia, a blow that leaves Moonpie instantly comatose and brain dead. Jewison stages this moment with brilliance as he shifts from the documentary-like style he shoots the rest of the Rollerball scenes to create a moment of tragic, hallucinatory clarity. The camera performs a quick zoom in on Jonathan’s face as he beholds his friend about to be destroyed by considered and ruthless violence, before switching to his viewpoint for a delirious slow-motion shot of Moonpie taking the blow. Jewison then moves in for a close shot of Moonpie’s dead-eyed gaze as his head strikes the track. Blue helps Jonathan get payback by cornering the player who struck Moonpie with his motorcycle, allowing Jonathan to grab him and smash his head in, but Blue himself is soon sent driving wildly against the wall of the track by an opponent’s blows, and burned when his bike explodes after being hit by the launched ball. So thrilled and moved are the Tokyo crowd they begin tearing down barricades.
The steady degeneration of the Rollerball matches from a coherent if madcap game into what are essentially gladiatorial bloodbaths and glorified street fights proves eventually to be cleverly motivated by a reasoned purpose on the behalf of the executives. As Bartholomew notes during the one scene depicting the various corporate honchos interacting over screens, they’ve voted against taking Jonathan down by illicit means, because they need Jonathan to either quit or be destroyed in the arena now that he’s raised the possibility of heroic achievement there. Instead it’s Jonathan’s allies who fall victim to the mounting carnage. Jonathan refuses to let Moonpie’s body be euthanized for transplant surgery, so he’s spirited back to Houston and kept in a clinic where Jonathan comes to visit him just before the last match, and he meditates on the likelihood that Moonpie could live on in his vegetable state long after Jonathan himself has met his end in the final. Jonathan is briefly reunited with his wife Ella thanks to Bartholomew’s string-pulling. Ella tries to argue Jonathan into accepting his fate and retiring, and Jonathan quickly divines their reunion could be made permanent as a reward for doing so, and that Ella will accept that despite now being happily settled with her executive husband and children. Jonathan is so disillusioned when he realises this he erases his recordings of Ella, and sets off in a state of complete existential readiness for the final match.
The role of Jonathan required both a virulently athletic presence and a fine acting touch to portray a troubled, quietly consumed figure, a man who’s not stupid but can express himself with far more clarity and authority when in combat than when confronted by systems of power that are deliberately and dangerously opaque, but still determines to press along his own path. Caan was one of the few actors of the time capable of convincing in both spheres, and he’s exceptionally good at conveying Jonathan’s quiet, deflecting, self-effacing manner when not playing – a common quality of top sportspeople that Caan plainly grasped. Jonathan barely weathers his life outside the arena as a constant succession of disorientating codes and bewildering absences, suddenly arriving and vanishing lovers and teammates. Jonathan isn’t at all a perfect or even always terribly good guy – he is after all someone who’s become enormously successful by unleashing a killer edge in games, whilst also keeping it on a tight leash at all other times – and gives few shows of specific emotion, like his rage at Daphne, and his evident happiness in training with Cletus. He tends to farm out his feeling through indirect gestures – giving Daphne a pill that makes her sleepy rather than alert during the interview, or letting Moonpie rev up the Houston team – and his rebellions petty, unfocused. Perhaps one of the more obvious touches in the film was casting Houseman as Jonathan’s nemesis, the personification of the corporate world order. Not because Houseman is ineffective: he’s characteristically good and intriguingly subtle in the part, conveying a more insidiously intelligent kind of villain and seeming all the more hateful for it, as in the way he quietly, gently, but coercively places his hand on Jonathan’s knee when telling him his time is up. Rather, because of his anachronistically patrician manner to contrast Caan’s rugged, plebeian grit: it’s a backward-looking touch, rather than one that confronts a less comforting schism than snobs versus slobs. Especially from today’s perspective, when all the magnates are trying desperately to seem like you chilled-out bro.
But Jonathan’s journey is rendered with strokes appropriate to mythology, with inevitable Christlike echoes, but also very strong hints of Achilles: like the Homeric hero Jonathan is the essential natural warrior, profoundly offended by the theft of his woman and the killing of his great and beloved fellow fighter. Jonathan’s attempts to learn about history and society meanwhile have their own tint of parable, of a man seeking wisdom who is constantly stymied and blocked, contending with gnomic watchdogs and psychotic machines, and ultimately finds the only way he can express himself is also the one he’s best equipped for, one that requires no learning from outside himself. So great has Jonathan’s cult grown that before the final starts Jewison shows locales around the world, all deserted and silent, whilst the chanting of his name from people watching both in the arena and their homes is heard on sound, registering the starved fervour he’s stirred in the people. The final match of the film which provides its apocalyptically-tinged climax sees Houston playing New York in a game played without penalties and no time limits, which essentially means it will play out as a long session of mutual murder. Soon enough the arena is a stygian space filled with sprawled corpses and blazing fires. Jewison wrings some juice out of asides like the sight of even Bartholomew’s aide being seduced into the cult of Jonathan, as the great player survives all efforts to bring him down.
Finally only Jonathan is left of the Houston team, pitted against two New Yorkers stalking him as the crowd has fallen to utterly fixated silence, only the billowing fires and the revving engine of the motorcycle under one opponent breaking the hush. Jonathan seems badly injured as he takes up a waiting station directly before Bartholomew’s ringside seat, only to prove to be feigning as he grabs the NY player who charges him, and crushes the life out of him before Bartholomew’s sternly concerted gaze. When the last opponent attacks, Jonathan tackles him, swiping him off his bike, but this time catches himself and, instead of killing his foe, gets up, takes the rollerball to the goal, and scores the game’s only, winning point. Instead of killing Jonathan or reducing him to a mindless killing machine, the corporate game finally hands him the proper venue to achieve apotheosis. The crowd take up their chant again from a breathless, ecstatic whisper to roaring triumphalism as Jonathan cruises around the arena, bloodied and battered but gaining new and fearsome determination with every second, until Jewison offers a succession of freeze-frames of his glowering face as “Toccata and Fugue” suddenly resurges, now the anthem of Jonathan’s wrath. Such gestures very quickly became cliché in popular moviemaking, but in the context of Jewison’s brilliantly sustained slow burn, they retain enormous, thrilling power. The film’s ultimate point isn’t that Jonathan is a singular titan who can slay armies or take down a single, hated tyrant, but one fit in the most ironic way for the role he was chosen for, the avatar for embodying and focusing human ferocity, the hero who stole back some of the gods’ fire.