I’m not sure how I managed to sneak into to see this one in the cinema as I would only have been a young teen… but we were all keen to see this film with its futuristic violence – a winning combination in the Seventies as now as Divergence, Hunger Games and The Maze Runner show.
The film was hard-hitting with the relentless aggression of the game leaving its mark but, watching this film 40 years on its not the most impressive feature of Rollerball. The future 2018 is one dominated by corporations who use sport as a distraction for the masses and also a constant reminder of the futility of individual action. The players work together but serious injury and death make retirement almost impossible.
We’re not quite in dystopia but we’re not far off… maybe even just three years.
Directed by Norman Jewison with a script from William Harrison based on his own short story, Rollerball features the story of one player who refuses to go gentle into the good night and starts to transcend not only his team but the sport itself: Jonathan E. (James Caan). Caan plays with almost too much restraint as the serial winner who, as he keeps on repeating, just loves the game: a very believable “jock” whose will to win is the spark for his rebellion.
Jonathan plays for Houston a team run by the Energy Corporation, one of the mega-conglomerates that run what seems like a post-political world in which capitalism has won and everyone is commoditised. Executives rule the game whilst women seem to be reduced as playthings with the most attractive offered to the most successful – one of the most shocking aspects of the film as it now happens.
|Pamela Hensley - every home should have one|
She is no longer around and this in itself is a hint of the Corporation’s ongoing attempts to contain their sporting phenomena. Soon Mackie is moved on as well to be replaced by Daphne (Barbara Trentham) – selected more for her loyalty to his employers than anything else.
|Barbara Trentham, actress, painter and later married to John Cleese|
The coaches try to prepare the team for the martial arts of their up-coming opponents but Jonathan and Moonpie ignore all of this and focus on the strength of their team unity: this is not the way the games is supposed to roll.
|John Beck and James Caan|
|Tokyo get taken down|
|Trees on fire|
Ella reappears, sent by the corporation, in an attempt to break Jonathan’s resistance: everything is controlled and even the love of his life was taken away and given to another man.
|Maud Adams and James Caan|
Dusty verdict: Rollerball feels slightly hollow after all these years and lacks the visceral thump of my viewing in cinema. That’s probably an indictment of cinema’s trend towards ultra-violence as much as any jadedness on my part…
|The gloves stay on in the murderous finale|
The film is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon... it's still a class act and a prescient view of our contemporary culture of submission to sensation.