James Caan gears up for a match. Image: Dr. Manhattan

One of the grittiest films of the 1970s – a decade noted for gritty films – is the dystopian sports movie Rollerball (1975).

This bleak sci-fi tale, directed by Norman Jewison and starring James Caan, looks at the age-old power struggle between the Individual and the State.

Rollerball presents a world where wars have ceased. Corporations are in control, and the men leading these organizations make All the Decisions. They decide who receives favour and privilege, and who does not.

They also decide when favours and privileges are to be revoked.

Individuals have little power, even in determining the outcomes of their own lives. The Corporation-as-State provides everything; individuals own nothing. “A few of us making decisions on a global basis for the common good,” the corporate leaders say. “Corporate society takes care of everyone.”

This includes easy access to narcotics, nicknamed “dream pills”. Characters in this film take a lot of dream pills, likely because it’s the only way to Cope.

Also: Books in this society have been digitized and filed on a computer in Geneva, and if they’re accidentally erased, too bad. Knowledge, we are to assume, is what the Corporations say it is.

Although the Corporate vision of World Peace reigns supreme, hatred and bloodlust have not been eradicated. The ruling class realize this, and allow the masses to channel this energy by watching the popular, but brutal, game of Rollerball.

The ball. Image: IMDb

The game itself takes place in a circular indoor arena, and teams on roller skates and motorcycles try to outmaneuver each other around the track. To start the play, a metal ball is shot out of a tube (at 120 mph!), and a goal is scored when a player slams the ball into a metal hole in the wall.

Many things are borrowed from sports we recognize today. Players wear football-like helmets and baseball-like gloves, yet the games feel like a cross between roller derby and hockey. (As a Canadian, we loved it when the announcers said, “He shoots, he scores!”)

It’s a fast, violent game; athletes are often injured and removed from the arena on stretchers. Yet you can’t take your eyes off the game. It’s fascinating.

However. The Fly in the Ointment is Caan’s character, a famous Rollerball athlete named Jonathan E. He’s no academic, but he is clever and tough, and somehow he’s become a globally-celebrated figure.

This is a No-No in the eyes of the Corporation, and that makes Caan a Dangerous person. “The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort,” says one CEO (John Houseman). It’s certainly not meant to glorify anybody.

As all oppressive rulers know, the individual must not be greater than those In Charge, lest that person incite an insurrection. It’s the only way to keep wars at bay.

Houseman pressures Caan to retire; bribes him, even. Caan refuses. Therefore, Houseman must find a way to eliminate him, and a match is organized in which there are no penalties and No Rules.

But Caan ain’t a celeb for nothing, and he will play for his Life.

Note the way Houseman is framed, as though he’s Satan. Image: Movie House Memories

Rollerball is not an empty cinematic experience. It’s philosophical and prescient, and could not be more cynical.

Then there’s the game itself. Thanks to the cinematography and the players’ skill, the game feels authentic, and in many ways it is. According to IMDb, stunt performers, cast, and crew would play the game between takes.

The film was shot in England and continental Europe, and the games were filmed in Munich’s Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle, host of the 1972 Olympic basketball games. Residents of the city were invited to participate as sports spectators, and IMDb says audiences liked the game so much there was talk of forming actual leagues.

Rollerball is the first major Hollywood movie to list stunt performers in the credits, and deservedly so. There were numerous injuries on the set, some of them requiring hospitalization.

Critics of the day gave the film mixed reviews. Some labelled it self-absorbed and vapid, while others thought it offered barbed societal criticism. Despite the lukewarm reception, it did inspire other dystopian sports movies, such as Death Race 2000 (1975).

Rollerball has its flaws, but it’s worth seeing. There’s an unmistakable 1970s’ vibe, but also some surprising elements we’ve not mentioned that are eerily familiar to us in the 21st Century.

This is a contribution to The FUTURETHON hosted by Cinematic Catharsis & Realweegiemidget Reviews.

Rollerball: starring James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams. Directed by Norman Jewison. Written by William Harrison. United Artists, 1975, Colour, 125 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

44 Comment on “Rollerball and Dystopian Sports

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