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Rollerball – 1975
In the not-too-distant future, wars will no longer exist…
Norman Jewison

William Harrison

James Caan
Ralph Richardson
Moses Gunn
John Houseman
Maud Adams
Shane Rimmer
John Beck
Pamela Hensley

Review by Noel Baily

As remote from the average film-goer’s awareness as 2001: A Space Odyssey
In deference to Stanley Kubrick himself and the wondrous achievement that 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is, was and forever will be, I do not speak of ROLLERBALL in the same breath. Having said that however, here is a film that although lacking the scope, budget and monumental depth of its compatriot, is a totally brilliant piece of film-making, equally awesome in its implications and social comment.

Norman Jewison created a masterpiece with Rollerball – understated, misunderstood and undervalued both at the time of its release and later. Perhaps ultimately to its its greatest benefit – the release of the plebian 2002 re-make which will stand for all time as the most nauseatingly insulting and tastelessly gratuitous reminder to recall the original with perhaps more relish than might otherwise have been the case.

No purpose in re-hashing the plot – anyone reading this will already know it. Suffice to say, James Caan’s Jonathan E stood for that most basic of human principles – the rights of the individual! As John Houseman, the corrupt and ubiquitous head of the all-powerful Corporation that owns and operates ROLLERBALL inc worldwide, tells Jonathan at one point,

“Rollerball was meant to demonstrate the futility of resistence, no man was ever intended to become bigger than the game.”

This was a society (set in 2018) with media censorship in place to such a degree a centralised computer stores the worlds’ entire literary knowledge (physical books being a thing of the past as in FAHRENHEIT 451 (another futuristic look at social oppression and rumored to be the subject of a remake in 2003 by Mel Gibson).

Marvellous interspliced sequence with Sir John Gielgud as keeper of the world’s centralised computer to which Jonathan is drawn, seeking answers to questions he was never supposed to ask. You have to really watch and LISTEN to ROLLERBALL to EXTRICATE from it, what the makers are offering you in terms of reflective contemplation. So many saw the film’s middle section as “boring!” So is looking at the sky if you have no knowledge of cloud formation, atmospheric beauty or even indeed WHY there IS a sky and what it means in the grand scale of things!

Caan’s gradual self discovery as to his own identity and purpose is hand-crafted for you during these middle scenes – THIS is what the film is about..not merely the superb action sequences which are so richly photographed and presented in that gladiatorial arena, a colosseum for the new millennium, no more no less!

The highlight of the film, if you are able to see it, is the party for Jonathan E, supposedly to mark his resignation but which in fact might be seen as the Energy Corporation’s Last Supper! The scenes of the amphetamine-fed yuppies, destroying the trees with the flame-gun has always made me cry, not because I’m a wimp, a greenie or even an anti lobbyist for hand guns, but because of what those terrible scenes stand for and bring to my own emotional recognition…a directionless society that we are right now so unerringly headed for. Look at the expression on the face of Jonathan’s ex-wife as she comes to realise where its all gone wrong – not just for herself but for them all. Now tell me this is boring!!!!

As has been recognised by some fellow critics, the absolute last scenes of the movie are perhaps the greatest. The point being less subtly made as we see Houseman staring through the glass at Jonathan E, the last man standing, his corporate outline encircled by the reflected flames on the track – hello? does anyone understand this?

One of the greats! Watch this film…don’t just see it!

Rollerball (1975)

Review by Wayne Malin


In the future the world is run by corporations. Violence is outlawed and the only outlet is Rollerball–a VERY violent game sort of like roller derby where men try to kill each other to score. The star of the game is Jonathan E. (James Caan). After 10 years the Corporation wants him out with one of their heads (John Houseman) telling him. But Jonathan doesn’t want to leave and the Corporation gets angry…

The film LOOKS great with some stunning set designs and costumes. It’s also well-directed by Norman Jewison and has a great soundtrack. The acting is very good also–Caan and Houseman are just great in their respective roles. And the games (three are shown) are exciting, fast and very violent (this film got an R rating just for the violence).

But I don’t like this movie. I saw it when I was 13 in a theatre–I was confused and bored and just thought the best parts were the games. Seeing it now my feelings haven’t changed much. The story is muddled with many unexplained events and actions. With the sole exceptions of Caan and Houseman no characters are given depth or motivation. Also the film is slow (this doesn’t have to go over 2 hours) and depressing. Sc-fi fans might like this. It’s too bad–the premise here is interesting and the film looks fantastic but it’s badly done.

However I heard this is a masterpiece compared to the 2002 remake.

Trivia for Rollerball
• Norman Jewison said he cast James Caan as Jonathan E, the champion Rollerball player, after seeing him play Brian Piccolo, the real-life Chicago Bears running back in Brian’s Song (1971)

• According to the author, William Harrison, Rollerball was inspired by an Arkansas Razorback basketball in Barnhill Arena during the era of coach Eddie Sutton.
• The game of Rollerball was so realistic the cast, extras, and stunt personnel played it between takes on the set.
• There was only one “Rollerball” rink. It was redressed to appear as different cities.
• During the Tokyo-Houston game, the Tokyo fans are chanting “Ganbare Tokyo!”, which translates into “Let’s Go Tokyo!”
• Contrary to rumors, no one died during the filming of any of the stunts.
• Some of the other “rollerball cities” mentioned in the movie: Madrid, Manila, Rome, Pittsburgh.
• In the liner notes to the Region 2 DVD, director Norman Jewison is quoted as being influenced by Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). The influence is most obviously seen in the repetitive use of zooms, classical music and modern (i.e. concrete and glass) architecture.
• This was the first film to give full screen credits to the stunt performers. Normally their work would go uncredited, but the director was so impressed by their work, he felt moved to include their names in the closing credits.
Ever since, stunt performers have received screen credit for their work.

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70s Films

A tour through the great and not so great films of the seventies The seventies saw a huge change in styles and genres from the advent of the slasher horror movies like Halloween and the blockbuster summers films started by Jaws. More...

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