Norman Jewison began his career as a film director with a series of light comedies that landed him a contract with Universal Studios. Worried that making back-to-back Doris Day vehicles might wind up tying him down to a particular genre, Jewison signed on to work with Steve McQueen on The Cincinnati Kid. From there he moved on to making In The Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier before re-uniting with McQueen for the original Thomas Crown Affair. Now an Oscar-winning director with his pick of projects, Jewison moved away from the crime genre and wound up directing Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most successful films of all time. Happy to ride his luck, Jewison moved straight onto an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar before his feet began to itch once again.
The 1970s was a time when science fiction was enjoying a moment of rare literary respectability. The collapse of the pulp magazines had forced the genre’s writers to shift closer to the literary mainstream and the institutions comprising that mainstream had rewarded this cultural obeisance with a market for short fiction that spilled from the pages of glossy magazines and out into the Hollywood hills. Perhaps sensing that science fiction was a genre on the up, Jewison secured the rights to a short story that had appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine and hired the author William Harrison to provide him with a screenplay. Despite Jewison having no experience directing action and Harrison having never before written for film, the pair managed to produce one of the most bewildering and influential works of 1970s science fiction.
Set in the (then) not too distant future of 2018, Rollerball introduces us to a world where warring nations and squabbling private interests have been brought to heel by the monolithic calm of corporate feudalism. Divvied up between corporate monopolies with names like ‘Energy’, ‘Luxury’, ‘Food’ and ‘Transport’, the cities of the world are ruled by a secretive executive class who keep their fellow humans distracted with sex, drugs and the supremely violent sport of Rollerball. A combination of roller derby, speedway and ice hockey, Rollerball was designed to serve as a lightning rod for humanity’s destructive urges and to send a message that individuals cannot make a difference. The problem is that Houston’s star player, the world-famous Jonathan E (James Caan) is starting not only to make a difference but also to become an individual. Dominated with the clash between violent, irrational individuals and calm, deliberate institutions, Rollerball is a film that is defined by its moments of chaos and order:
Chaos – Shot against the breath-taking futurist architecture of the 1972 Munich Olympics, Rollerball also benefited from great advances in sports cinematography as techniques and technologies developed to help bring the Munich Olympics to a global TV audience were used to bring a brutal futurist sport to the silver screen. The film’s narrative spirals around three surprisingly long and astonishingly brutal games in which teams of 20-stone stuntmen hurtle round a track at 35 miles-per-hour before either colliding with each other or the walls. Rollerball was one of the first Hollywood films to credit its entire stunt team and the rising brutality of the games stands as a monument not only to their bravery but also to the visceral spectacle of humans putting themselves in harm’s way for others’ entertainment.
In the world of the film, Jonathan’s lengthy career and rising popularity are beginning to worry his corporate masters. Rather than chanting the name of their city and corporation, the crowds are beginning to chant for Jonathan and that seems to cut across the sporting rivalries designed to keep populations resentful of each other rather than the executive class. Concerned that their carefully-constructed system might be disrupted by a charismatic man with the power to lead as well as inspire, the world’s corporate overlords begin pressuring Jonathan to resign. Confused and reluctant to abandon his teammates, Jonathan refuses to step down and so the corporations begin changing the rules of the game in the hope that the violence of Rollerball will rid them of this turbulent jock. Arguably the film’s greatest single achievement is the way that it shows the game getting progressively more violent. The first game between Jonathan’s Houston and the city of Madrid is already quite terrifying but the semi-final game against Tokyo shows the violence slowly getting worse as the removal of penalties and substitutions encourage players to take more risks and pursue vendettas until the final game against New York turns into nothing short of a blood-soaked battle. Despite being nearly forty years old, Rollerball’s action sequences remain a masterclass in both practical stunt work and visual story-telling.
Order – The second a match concludes, Jonathan and his team return to the monolithic tranquillity of a feudal world in which nobody raises their voice or allows themselves to lose control. Coupled with the characters’ tendency to obsess about sex and pills, this need for tranquillity results in a bizarrely stilted world in which some people get high and sit listening to classical music while others pursue sexual partners only to fall asleep fully clothed. When the head of the Energy corporation (John Houseman) first approaches Jonathan about the possibility of retiring, he does so in the perfect tranquillity of a room set aside for private meditation. This sense of oppressive and unnatural tranquillity is revisited throughout the film as Jonathan’s refusal to do as he is told results in ugly passions rising to the surface. Particularly impressive is a sequence with Ralph Richardson in which Jonathan travels to the world’s central databank only to ask an awkward question that causes both librarian and library to be consumed by irrational anger.
While the film’s chaotic Rollerball sequences remain absolutely breath-taking, its ordered interludes are somewhat less impressive. The root of the problem is that Harrison’s original short story is about a hulking, corn-fed athlete who is roused from a pleasurable stupor just long enough to wonder whether there might not be more to life than girls, pills, and the cheering of a crowd. Obviously, Hollywood could not make a film about the unexamined life not being worth living and so Jewison and Harrison tried to re-shape Jonathan’s act of existential rebellion. This resulted in something of a thematic mess.
Taking his cues from the story, Caan plays Jonathan as a big dumb ox who simply cannot understand why he would be asked to step down and retire. Unaccustomed to thinking for himself, Jonathan E allows his confusion to spiral outwards into a more globalised scepticism about corporate governance: If they’re wrong about getting him to retire, maybe they were wrong about breaking up his marriage and if they were wrong about forcing him to leave his wife, maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to run the world… I mean… who put them in charge anyway? Inexperienced as a screen-writer and forced to come up with a new motivation for his character, Harrison threw everything but the kitchen at his script in an effort to provide Jonathan with a set of motives that were both primal enough to be relatable and high-minded enough to give the film thematic heft. This resulted in a protagonist whose act of rebellion feels so hopelessly determined as to be effectively meaningless: Apparently Jonathan E is angry with the people who broke up his marriage, and looking to avenge the death of his friend, and start a rebellion, and embody the kind of radical individualism that is supposed to pose an existential threat to corporate governance. This all looks very good on paper but on the screen it comes across as more than a little muddled. Had Harrison managed to find a character arc that was both relatable and evocative then Rollerball would doubtless be hailed as a classic but instead he wound up writing a great science fiction film whose themes and imagery have inspired a generation of Young Adult novels. Not bad going when you think about it…
Arrow’s Blu-ray contains a host of fascinating bonus material including an interview with James Caan and documentaries about the construction of the track and the creation of the stunts, a fitting tribute to one of the most iconic films in American science fiction.