“The year is 2018. There are no wars. There is no crime. There is only The Game.”
In a future world where all-powerful corporations rule and no one asks questions, all problems, including hunger, war and crime have been virtually eliminated and the vicious and barbaric gladiatorial game of Rollerball – a vibrant display of speed and violence – satisfies the impulses of the masses.
Tuned to their televisions, billions of people watch the sport – a brutal mutilation of hockey, roller derby, motocross and gladiatorial combat – where dozens of men in uniforms and crash helmets hurtle around a circular track on roller skates and motorbikes, ducking and weaving, flailing at a rival team of skaters with black-gloved fists studded with steel spikes.
Jonathan E (James Caan) is the champion Rollerball player – a man too smart for his own good.
The Energy Corporation has taken away the woman he loves (Maud Adams, fresh from The Man With The Golden Gun) – because a bureaucrat wanted her – but they can’t take away his spirit, even though the diabolical corporate head, Bartholomew (John Houseman) is insisting he should retire.
The Corporation cannot tolerate heroes. Nobody is meant to be bigger than the game itself.
The technical achievement of filming the rollerball games was astonishing. The action is continuous and bruising, with each game more urgent, anarchic and dangerous than the one before, and audiences flocked to see the futuristic extravaganza when it debuted in late June 1975.
But there were also a few critics who claimed that Rollerball crossed the thin line between anti-violence rhetoric and the type of exploitive entertainment it ultimately denounces.
Director Norman Jewison (whose other forays into the controversial included Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Dogs of War and Agnes of God) found himself defending the film: “There’s not one piece of gratuitous violence in the film,” he told Boxoffice in 1975. “The statement of the film is surely against the exploitation of violence . . . I would ask how you make a statement about violence without showing any violence”.
The film was inspired by a short story entitled Rollerball Murder which had been published in Esquire magazine.
Jewison was so impressed with the story’s possibilities that he personally championed its conversion to celluloid. Every studio he approached said it was a great story but impossible to film.
Finally, he bought the story himself, hired the author, Bill Harrison (who taught English at the University of Arkansas) to write the screenplay with him and made a deal with United Artists.
The cast and crew spent 17 weeks filming – including studio work at Pinewood Studios in England, location shooting at Fawley Power Station in Hampshire, and eight weeks in Munich, filming the games at the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle (also known as the Audi Dome) – one of the five largest circular arenas in the world – built for the 1972 Olympic basketball events.
English players of roller hockey, 12 players from America’s bump-and-shove roller derby, six top-flight motorbikers and 11 hardcore stuntmen from England and Hollywood – along with James Caan and John Beck (Moonpie) who did much of their own playing – were taken to Munich to play the game
The game itself was so popular with the stuntmen working on the film that they would play it even when the cameras weren’t rolling – and often forgot that the action was meant to be scripted when the cameras were!
The ball was shot onto the track at 120 mph – and the speed of the skaters slinging themselves from moving motorcycles was often in excess of 40 mph.
Rollerball survived its initial controversial reception and eventually scored over $30 million in box office receipts – an impressive number in 1975.
A visually stunning film, and a thousand times – make that TEN thousand times – better than the 2002 remake which has since (deservedly) slipped into obscurity.
The Houston Rollerball team share colours (orange and black) with hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers, who were once known as the “Broadstreet Bullies” for their extremely aggressive rink tactics.
The Japanese symbol on the Tokyo teams’ headbands translates as “wind”.
The voice heard commenting on the events on the Rollerball track was Bob Miller, the announcer for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team at the time the film was made.
“I have never seen anything like this game. Three guys are already out of the picture and in hospital right now and it wouldn’t be too difficult to get yourself killed on this set”
James Caan on the making of Rollerball, August 1974