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Rollerball - DVD Review

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist... Published author ( & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published May 21st 2019
A truly great movie
My one-hundredth column here for Weekend Notes! That's actually saying something quite wonderful – first, that I've stuck at it, and second, that I have readers who seem to like what I write about, and maybe even the way I write. So, to celebrate, and because May and John have both asked me about this based on little hints from previous columns, I am going to do a DVD review of my very favourite film.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you: Rollerball!

First, this is the original film, from 1975, not the remake, which sucked the meaning and life out of the story and had only one redeeming feature: Paul Heyman as a commentator.

No, this is the classic movie starring James Caan.

Produced & Directed by: Norman Jewison
Starring: James Caan, John Houseman, Maude Adams
Written by: William Harrison

So, yes, this is my favourite film ever. I first saw it on TV back in the 1980s. It was one of the first VHS tapes I bought, and then I got it on DVD, and then I got the 2001 special edition on DVD. Of course, I did. In my first uni degree, I used it as the basis for a sociology essay (got a distinction). When I studied journalism, I used it as the basis for a piece on the future of sport (got a distinction). It's always there.

Now, I am not saying the film is perfect. Far from it. But it is my favourite film, and that is all that matters to me. I have seen better films – better made, better written, whatever. But nothing has grabbed me quite like this. The big thing, though, is that it is set in 2018 – as I write this, that's last year. And the world isn't quite as they envisaged it. However, I don't think that's a problem. Because there are three issues here that the film addresses:
1) sport being used as a catharsis for the nature, and becoming more violent (look at the rise of MMA in our world);
2) corporations dictating sport more than the sport itself (look at television channels saying when games are played, or sponsors demanding things of athletes); and
3) no one person can be bigger than the sport (and look at the way the media loves to cut down sportsmen and women who are doing well… especially social media).

The parallels are there and actually still hold true. But beyond the meaning and what the film is trying to say, it is still a damn fine action movie, with one man – Jonathan E (James Caan) – going against the system to continue playing, even when they try to force him out. And – oh, man! – I would love to play Rollerball the game…

The film. Spoiler alert!

The film opens with Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue' – the old Dracula music – played on an organ. And, to the credit of the film-makers, our opening scene is at a Rollerball game. No big reveal – this is it, this what the film is centred around. I love that. In ten glorious minutes, we learn the rules, about the brutality, and how the crowd reacts. Nothing much is said – doesn't need to be. Good film-making from the word go.

In the change-rooms, we discover how much of a champion Jonathan E is, and the adulation the players are held in. This, again, is done very well. The writing is tight. The corporation tries to talk Jonathan into retiring, but he refuses. They organise a TV special to look back at his career so he can announce it, but he refuses. So they decide to force his hand by taking away rules, piece by piece. In one game, his best friend is put in a vegetative state by the deliberate actions of another team, but that only makes him more determined. They even try returning the girl he loved to him.
rollerball, film, movie
Cliché no.37 – the best friend gets taken out.

We come to the final game – no rules, no substitutions. And it comes down to Jonathan against two opponents. There is no music, just the sounds of the arena. Even the crowd is silent. It is a stunning piece of cinematography and watching it again as I write this, it still sends shivers up my spine. This film is so wonderful.
james caan, rollerball, film, movie
And then there were 3…

And then we have the closing shot.

There are so many great scenes – the new recruits learning about the game and the tactics and what players need; the scene where his girl comes back to him and his reaction because he understands what's going on; the scene where the cathartic release of the people at the party through a flame gun is realised; where Jonathan is deciding what to do with his friend; when he erases the videotapes; the final game. I could waffle on for way too long.

The themes of the corporatisation of sport, the way knowledge and information is hidden and censored for the public, the way the audience wants more and more extremes – they are all so damn relevant today.

James Caan is fantastic as the understated hero. He shows that there is a very real intelligence behind the sportsman's veneer, and yet he does not go about blowing his own trumpet as the greatest. There is humility in him; he has as much as any non-executive could want, and yet what he wants isn't more riches or accolades, it's knowledge and his life to live on his terms. He stands up for what he thinks is right, even when the powers that be tell him otherwise.
james caan, rollerball, film, movie
The man himself – James Caan.

There are some things that do not sit well 40-plus years later. The main one is the way women are treated as commodities. This does grate at times; even looking back at the time in which it was made, women were making great strides towards equality. It's hard to imagine the 'Corporate Wars' obliterating those advances. And there is no way a film from the mid-70s could have foreseen the rise of social media, even if they did see that computers would be everywhere and books would be electronic. But that women thing… yeah.

What else would be different, apart from the computers and the treatment of women? The sale of players – players as commodities. Teams and fans berate players today for not staying loyal, but teams get rid of players at the drop of a hat. Also, the crowds would be so much bigger, both at the events and waiting for the players. Maybe the roller skates would be replaced by rollerblades (though I have read probably not because of the better balance and control of traditional skates). The drugs of choice are pills – and everyone pops pills in the film – and is that really any different? But I think the biggest difference would be the game would have become so watered down by complaints from assorted special interest groups that it would be hardly worth watching… or end up choreographed to a ridiculous degree. Every time someone is injured, there'd be committees and hearings…

This is definitely a science-fiction film; the world it portrays could never legitimately exist in our universe. Right?

So, the extras on the special edition. Standard commentary, from the director Jewison and the writer Harrison, both with some interesting insights into what went on in the making of the film, and the obligatory trailers.

But there are two interesting featurettes. From Rome to Rollerball: the Full Circle is the original featurette that came out when the film did. It's only 8 minutes long, but it really hypes the film well. "I think that's what it's about – people, and what they want from each other, what they demand from each other, and sometimes they demand blood." (Norman Jewison, director). Jewison is quite articulate about the film. James Caan is as understated as the character he plays. An extension of his own personality, maybe. It's the standard 1970s TV thing, but it is quite fascinating, seeing it as an extension of ancient Rome. "Let's hope that in a film like Rollerball, that we do make some sort of statement about the absurdity of violence and blood sport." (Jewison again) Yeah, I liked it.

Oh, I should point out that Jewison was also the director of the wonderful Jesus Christ Superstar.

But the main extra is a new documentary – Return To The Arena: The Making Of Rollerball. It looks at how close the film came to mirror modern society. Jewison is there again, and he and the writer (Harrison) talk about how at the time there was an increase in violence in and off the field in sports at the time, and about the rise in corporate power, and how the film was an extrapolation of both of those. They talk about the short story 'Rollerball Murder' upon which the film is based; fun fact – the writer of the story wrote the screenplay, and it was his first one. James Caan was their first choice for Jonathan, and he was a rodeo rider at the time as well as an actor! Then they had to invent the whole game – arena, everything. That talk about how they invented the game and changed it from the story (which involved rifles!) is the best part of this. The actors did a lot of their own stunts, they used Olympic camera-men who knew how to film fast sports action. Then they put it together. The choice of classical music for being timeless was a masterful choice. They talk about the differing receptions from Europe and the USA, and they finish with looking at how prescient they believe the film was. A very easy 25 minutes to watch. However, James Caan was not involved, which I found quite curious.
james caan, rollerball, film, movie, closing shot
That iconic closing shot...

And there you have it – my favourite movie. I know it is not everyone's cup of tea, and a number of my friends are still stunned that this is my favourite, but I hope I have at least inspired someone to give it a go. It's a film that is full of action and yet makes you think, and makes you look at the world around us and go, "Well…"

Rollerball – it's brilliant.

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Why? The original and still the best
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Your Comment
I have real almost all of your weekendnotes articles because you write so well. Your insights dazzle me often. Your range of knowledge is just awesome and your no apology attitude for your likes/dislikes is refreshing. Congratulations on reaching 100. I hope you can keep on keeping on for many more 100s, and thankyou.
by ivand (score: 1|26) 375 days ago
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