Rollerball (1975)

Year 1975

James Caan as   Jonathan E.
John Houseman as Bartholomew
John Beck as Moonpie  
Moses Gunn as Cletus
Ralph Richardson   as Librarian
Maud Adams as Ella
Director - Norman Jewison  
Screenwriters - William Harrison

There are movies that transcend the initial material in spite of the director. For an example, look no further than Jacobs Ladder. Nobody in the cast or crew understood the script except for the writer. Based on the commentary that accompanied the DVD, the director faked it and Danny Aiello had no clue. Yet, through dedication to their muse, everyone worked together to craft a movie that is a must see. There are also movies where the director and screen writer are in lock-step like Fight Club, which is another must see movie. Then, there's this movie, Rollerball, the 1975 version. It started off as one thing and evolved into something bigger.

Orginally, Rollerball was intended to be a diatribe about the escalating violence in sports. Specifically, Norman Jewison was appalled by the violence in football and how popular a sport based on violence was becoming. So, he extrapolated the violence into the "near" future. If he had stayed with only that theme, the movie would have been good but not great.

The futuristic part of the movie is what makes it so philosophical. Jewison took the violence in sports, understood the reason it was vital to its popularity, and determined that there would be big bucks in violence. Look at the NFL today. It generates $12 billion ($12,000,000,000) dollars a year in revenue. A niche market in sports has a revenue that is about 20% of Apple, Incorporated's. Add to that the fact that the NFL is essentially a monopoly that, until 2015, was considered a non-profit tax-exempt entity. Yep. The NFL gets tax breaks from the states and cities that have teams, too. If you're in a large metropolitan area with an NFL team, how much of your tax dollar do you think goes to the NFL? It's probably more than that. Not just the deals for financing stadiums but tax breaks that your taxes have to pick up the tab for.

My point? In real life, sports franchises are directing governments at the city, state, and federal level. In Rollerball, corporations have superceded the need for governments. Rollerball, the sport, was developed by these corporations.

As in the novel 1984, it took a war for the change to occur. Also as in the Orwell novel, in Rollerball people are nothing more than units that need to be standardized.

All this from the initial revulsion at the degree of violence in 1970's sports.

The plot of the movie is that one man, Jonathan E. (Caan) has excelled at a game that no one was ever supposed to be able to excell at. The corporations must get him out of the game or their hold on society is loosened. As Bartholomew (Houseman) says, "The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort." Jonathan does not want to quit playing. The corporations keep changing the rules of Rollerball to make it more difficult for Jonathan to survive, much less excell.

At first, Jonathan does not care about corporations or society. Over time, he begins to see the big picture and understands his role. He's a great hero. Although he's never shallow, he grows from being game oriented to being societally aware. He's just a gifted athlete who becomes a man on a mission.

The theme of this movie is the one that asks whether it's better to die on your feet or live on your knees. Freedom or security? Uncertainty or comfort? Individuality or democracy?

It's a parable, so these questions are that black and white. Is black better than white? Who knows? The movie does not offer a shade of grey, though. It's an either/or choice.

For me, the movie is always entertaining. If it's not clips of a Rollerball game being played, it's a situation that's captivating. There's usually more than one thing happening at a time and they are tied together through symbolism.

One of my favorites is Jonathan's retirement party. The corporations, seven of them, want Jonathan to retire. They are holding a party for him where he is expected to make the announcement. He, of course, never planned on retiring. While Bartholomew is cajoling Jonathan in a room at the party mansion, outside the mansion a group of revelers is going to shoot a gun. At the crest of a hill stand seven tall, full trees. As Jonathan refuses to be swayed inside, outside, in the hazy light of a new morning sun, the partiers fire the gun and set the seven trees on fire one by one. Does each tree represent one of the corporations? I like to think so.

Each scene in the movie has layers. Take the one where Jonathan attempts to read about the Corporate Wars. He finally makes his way to Geneva, the only place where he can find the information, and meets with the Librarian (Richardson). According to the Librarian, all the information is in the tempermental computer named Zero that lost, "the whole of the 13th century." It's no big deal according the Librarian, "just Dante and a few corrupt Popes." Jonathan never gets his answer.

Where 1984 had, "War is peace," Rollerball gives us, "Comfort is freedom." This is scary stuff!

There's no CGI, which I appreciate. The Rollerball games were played on a real track built for the movie. It's been reported that the extras played Rollerball during the shoot as a diversion. I once read that the Rollerballers were so into the sport that the exasperated director shouted on at least one occassion, "The other team should have scored!"

What's bad about the movie? Some of the acting, for starters. Now I think that Maud Adams was beautiful in the 70s. She was James Bond's main love interest in not one, but two Bond films, The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy. She also had a brief cameo in a View to a Kill crowd shot. Only Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny beats Maud Adams for female appearances in Bond films. But Maud Adams isn't what I would call a great actress. Neither is John Beck as teammate and best friend Moonpie or Barbara Trentham as latest corporation supplied love interest Daphne. But Caan is perfect for the part and Houseman's only peer is Sidney Greenstreet.

The extrapolation of societal idealogies is excellent, but attempts to predict technology often miss the mark and date the film. Liquid computers like the movie's Zero have been abandoned. Home video tapes have been replaced by CDs. But the movie gets points for trying to show something different.

Some people think that there are too many slow spots in the movie. That's an opinion as worthwhile as any other and I suspect that people who feel this way are expecting an action picture. It's more than that. For me, there were only one or two times when the movie dragged a bit but I had to concede that the slow scenes were needed. They weren't there to add to the mood like Kubrick's slow scenes in movies do. In Rollerball they were needed to advance a plot point.

Take Jonathan being reunited with his ex-wife. It was a crucial decision point in Jonathan's life. Would Jonathan cave in the corporation's wishes in exchange for being with the woman he loved? This cross-road was needed for completeness. The writer/director team chose to depict it as it unfolded rather than have the audience just hear about it. I easily felt Jonathan's angst during this part of the movie even though nothing blew up and no one got bloody. Could it have been improved a bit? Possibly. Was it slow? A little. Did it detract from the rest of the movie? It added to it.

Did this movie impress me when I first saw it? I was so taken by the movie that I tracked down the final music at the end of film and as a result of finding that it was Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, started paying attention to classical music.

I can't remember if there's blasphemy or profanity. There's no nudity. It's an entertaining think piece that every guy should see at least once. Don't even bother with the 2002 version of Rollerball. Based on the plot description, the remake ignores all of the philosophy of the original.

If you're interested, the short story the movie is based on, "Roller Ball Murder" can be found at It's a lot like the movie in tone and ideas.

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