“I thought that violence for the entertainment of the masses was an obscene idea. That’s what I saw coming and that’s why I made the film.” – Norman Jewison
For many years now, professional sports have been all about money. Superstar athletes earn huge salaries for their exploits while also enjoying lucrative endorsements. Meanwhile, wealthy businessmen and corporations make millions with ever-increasing ticket prices and merchandising. Hell, even the places where people gather to watch sporting events have become corporatized. Gone are the Maple Leaf Gardens and the Boston Garden, replaced or renamed Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens and TD Garden respectively, which will last only as long as that corporate entity owns it to be renamed by the next corporate behemoth.
Director Norman Jewison’s Rollerball (1975) saw this coming. Set in the future, it features a world where the purity of a sport known as Rollerball (think roller derby meets hockey) is becoming increasingly tainted by the influence of corporations. He wisely starts things off by showing a match from beginning to end, which lets us see how it works – the rules and the dynamics of the game – and he thrusts us right in the middle of the mayhem, conveying the speed and brutality of the sport. Most importantly, it introduces us to the sport’s most popular player Jonathan E (James Caan), the captain of Houston’s team.
It’s a tough game with plenty of injuries. Much like with hockey, Houston has an enforcer named Moonpie (John Beck) whose job it is to protect top scorer Jonathan and provide the occasional cheap shot on an opposing player. Jewison sprinkles several little touches here and there that establishes the atmosphere, like how the corporate anthem is played before the game starts instead of a national anthem. There are no nations any more. There are no more wars. Corporations run everything.
The game plays on while the corporate overlords, as represented by Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), observe from on high and afterwards visits the team in the locker room, applauding them for the victory in his own benign yet smug way of a man that knows how much power he wields. Jonathan is a highly decorated player and as Bartholomew points they’ve run out of accolades to give him. As the team leaves the stadium we see how popular Jonathan is as a large group of fans chant his name, clamoring for his autograph.
The next day, he meets with Bartholomew who wants him to announce his retirement on a television special dedicated to his long and illustrious career. The executive offers him a cushy life with all kinds of perks but the athlete is still bitter over the past. An executive took his wife Ella (Maud Adams) away from him. Bartholomew doesn’t understand Jonathan’s reluctance to retire as he doesn’t know what it’s like to be on a team that has its own unique dynamic and way of playing. Everybody depends on each other and Jonathan doesn’t want to give that up. He has everything he could want but when the powers that be want to take that away from him he decides to push back. The rest of Rollerball plays out with his quest to find out why they want him to quit.
Jewison portrays corporate executives as pretty, shallow people that attend lavish parties and take high-end drugs. At one such gathering they take their escapades to the next level, mindlessly shooting and blowing up trees for fun. The idle rich are horribly drunk on destructive power. The image of a row of trees burning on a hill is a powerful one and makes us want to see Jonathan succeed even more.
The film also shows how the corporate machine tries to crush any kind of resistance to their edicts by changing the rules of the sport for the last two games to make it more dangerous. If Jonathan doesn’t quit, he’ll either die playing the game or his teammates will. The semi-final against Tokyo ups the stakes in violence not only among the athletes but in the stands as fans become increasingly hostile to the point where when their team loses they turn into an angry mob. Their rage spills out onto the track as they mix it up with the players. The game has gotten out of control with very few rules. The final championship game features no rules in a final desperate attempt to eliminate Jonathan.
Rollerball was part of a fantastic run of films for James Caan in the 1970s. Starting with The Godfather in 1972, he delivered strong performances in Cinderella Liberty (1973), The Gambler (1974) and Freebie and the Bean (1974). He does an excellent job conveying Jonathan’s gradual self-awareness that starts simply: why is he being forced out of the game he loves? In a world where no one is supposed to ask questions, this makes him a dangerous person. He is no longer following the corporate script.
Caan’s on-screen presence demonstrates why Jonathan is such a charismatic player. He is loyal to his teammates and is a dynamic athlete that can make those clutch plays that win games. He is not particularly intelligent but is self-aware of this fact and has an innate instinct for what’s wrong and goes with his gut as he begins to question things. The actor also shows Jonathan’s vulnerable side in a scene where he gives a heartfelt speech to comatose teammate Moonpie on the eve of what might be his final game. Up until now he’s always been there to watch his back and for the first time Jonathan is going to have to go it alone.
John Houseman is excellent as the benevolent executive that speaks in a wonderfully condescending, cultured voice while also capable of stern, icy glares directed at the increasingly disobedient Jonathan. At one point, he finally lays it out for the star athlete: “No player is greater than the game itself…It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan…You can be made to quit. You can be forced.” Of course, this makes Jonathan even more determined and defiant.
John Beck plays Moonpie as a racist good ol’ boy with little self-awareness. He understands his role on the team – to protect Jonathan and mess up players on the other team – but little else. He’s the kind of player that exists in all kinds of professional sports and the actor nails stereotypical enforcer, especially in the scene where he gives his teammates a rousing pep talk while a strategy coach (Robert Ito) tries to prepare them for the upcoming game with Tokyo.
The final match doesn’t feature a traditional pre-game pep talk as we’ve seen before – just grim determination as Jonathan goes out first while the crowds chant his name. Not surprisingly, this is the most intense and violent one yet as he survives, scoring the only goal in defiance to the corporation. Battered but not beaten he has become what they feared – bigger than the game and bigger than the corporation.
William Harrison was a professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas and found himself obsessed with what he felt was the unsettling social and economic changes occurring in the world. He also witnessed a violent fight at a university basketball game. These things inspired him to write a short story called, “Roller Ball Murder,” which was published in the September 1973 issue of Esquire magazine.
Around the same time, filmmaker Norman Jewison had gone to a hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers, which turned into an ugly mess: “There was blood on the ice and 16,000 people were standing up and screaming.” This led to him contacting Harrison. Both men were living in London at the time and the writer’s agent told him that Jewison was going to offer him $50,000 for the short story. He decided to ask for more money and an opportunity to write the screenplay. Six weeks went by and Harrison assumed that he had blown the deal but received a call from Jewison’s assistant who told him that all his demands had been met and they were in pre-production. When the two men finally met at Pinewood Studios they immediately bonded and spent all summer in London working on the script together.
When it came to designing the track for rollerball, Jewison and his crew decided that it had to be circular because of the roller-skaters and the motorcycles. British production designer John Box built a scale model of the track. Working with the art director and the track architect, they took a little ball, put a spring behind it and shot it around the track so that they could figure out the moment of gravity pull. The next step was to find a place to recreate the model. They found the Olympic basketball stadium in Munich. The production spent a large amount of the film’s budget building the track, complete with a banked surface of 40 feet and a total circumference of 190 feet.
When it came to casting for the pivotal role of Jonathan E, Jewison knew of James Caan’s love of “physical confrontation” and offered him the role. The actor liked the script but “I was really persuaded to get involved by the jock in me.” For team extras, Jewison recruited California roller derby athletes, English roller hockey players, and, of course, stuntmen. Caan and his teammates were sent to a California arena for four months before shooting to learn how to play the game. He said they skated seven times a week until they were good enough.
The actors thought they were ready to go until they arrived in Munich and saw the banked track they would be filming on. They had practiced on a flat track in California and had to learn how to skate on this new one. They quickly adapted and Jewison let them play for real, soon regretting it when a stuntman got injured and ended up in the hospital. Once they put on their uniforms, something changed as one extra on the Tokyo team said, “We want to skate the game. When we start up, everybody forgets the filming and we’re competing for the ball.” The director was concerned for the players’ safety: “There is a gladiatorial aspect to rollerball that frightens me. I keep cautioning the boys about it. They are all athletes…and they love body contact, they love playing with the ball, they love the speed and agility, and there is an enormous amount of skill involved.” Caan insisted on doing his own stunts and separated a shoulder and damaged a rib. He was less enthused about the non-rollerball scenes or, as he called them, “all the walking and talking shit,” because he had to play “a guy whose emotions had basically been taken away from him.”
The extras got so into the game that on the final week of shooting they put on a game for the public. Even though the stadium only held approximately 5,000 people, 8,500 turned up and the police had to be called in to turn away those that couldn’t be let in. According to Caan, gameplay never lasted for more than 25 or 30 seconds: “It was just one fight after another.”
The irony of Bartholomew’s reasoning – that no one player is bigger than the game – is exactly what happened. Jonathan is an icon thanks to corporate machinations and his own natural talent. Most sports are designed to be all about teamwork. It is all the things outside of the game – the merchandising, pundits, corporate puff pieces, and so on that puts an emphasis on the individual player, elevating them to heroes in the eyes of their fans.
Rollerball is a classic man against the system film. It features a man who has it all but when he refuses to do what he’s told, is pressured in all kinds of ways, from changing the rules so that he’ll either quit or be killed, to reuniting him with Ella – a bittersweet experience as she admits to being told to try and convince him to quit. These tactics only strengthen his resolve, making him even more dangerous because all that ever mattered to him was the game. At the end of the film he transcends it to become something else.
Delaney, Sam. “When It Comes to the Crunch.” The Guardian. April 20, 1999.
Gammon, Clive. “Rollerball.” Sports Illustrated. April 21, 1975.