Rollerball and European Art House Cinema

‘Rollerball’ — or why this film is the greatest European Art-House movie ever made.

Ever wondered what the Olivia Newton-John rollerdisco movie ‘Xanadu’ would be like if it was written by Franz Kafka and directed by Alain Resnais? Then Norman Jewison’s ‘Rollerball’ is the film for you!

The film is set a little in the future in which there are no nation states, no war or poverty but, instead, excess of privilege and meaningless decadence whilst society’s aggressive urges are sublimated through the ultra-violent sport of rollerball, functioning very much as the gladiatorial arena spectacles of ancient Rome did. In this world James Caan plays Jonathan E (told you it was Kafkaesque) and he is the captain of Houston’s rollerball team. They are powerful, mean and, above all, winners. They go out on the rollerball ring, smash in the heads of opposing players, break limbs, crash motorbikes into one another and are then pampered after and treated like rock stars. Because there are no nation states or governments it is the Corporations that are now in charge. They provide everything to society and all they ask in return is to not step out of line. They also want James Caan to retire from the sport. But why? He is the most famous rollerball player in the world. Millions of people love him and he is at the peak of his career. So why do they want him to stop playing? They offer him everything he could want, if he would just go on TV and announce his retirement. But he doesn’t want to and the more they push him the more he becomes determined to keep playing, as well as to uncover the truth. And as James Caan digs deeper so the Corporations start deliberately making the rollerball games more violent so Caan will be killed in the arena. By the end the final game is played with no penalties, no substitutions and no time limit. It will be last man standing and every opposing player is out to kill Jonathan E. It is the individual against the system. What will happen?!

‘Rollerball’ is a fantastic movie, it really is. Its intelligent (maybe a little too much at times for its own good), visceral and extraordinarily well directed. I can’t emphasise that enough. The rollerball sequences, of which there are three and each of increasing violence, are spectacularly done. Stuntmen crash, smash and careen into each other like crazy yet the action is always clear and there is a great sense of choreography to it all so you never feel lost or confused in the excitement. It all makes sense. Add on top of that some spectacular editing in which every beat and moment is just perfect, and some of the best sound design and use of sound I’ve heard in a movie and the result is that ‘Rollerball’ has some of the greatest action sequences of the 1970s. They simply roar with energy and the noise of the skates on the track, the motorbikes, the crowd and that amazing punctuating vroosh of the ball being fired out of its cannon just takes your breath away. And there is never any music underneath the rollerball sequences so the sound design can be even more impactful. As James Caan tells a young trainee rollerballer near the start of the film — “Use your ears.”

But ‘Rollerball’ might not be for everyone, and here’s why. When I would watch this film as a kid the one thing that would stick in my head almost as much as the action was the scene where some drunken party goers stagger out into the early morning light and start blowing up trees with some sort of insanely powerful gun. It results in some wonderful imagery as these giant burnt matches stand smouldering against a grey sky. It’s a remarkable image. As is the entire party scene. And when I found out that Norman Jewison had deliberately used ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ and Fellini as direct inspirations for this I was blown away. So THAT’S why it always looked so stylishly detached.
The composition of bodies, the men in tailored suits posing as though almost frozen in time, women in beautiful dresses moving with complete and absolute precision, every moment and gesture deliberate. It is then you realise that ‘Rollerball’ has more, much more, in common with ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ or even the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet than it does with any Hollywood action movie. And Jewison pulls it off brilliantly! The party scene is as flawlessly choreographed as anything going on in the rollerball ring. I love it. But this approach can slow the film down and if this kind of filmmaking isn’t to your taste it could easily take the heat out of ‘Rollerball’. But if it works for you it is pure heaven. And, for me, this slower pace and moments to breath mean that when the rollerball sequences do come they hit with even more power. The rollerball game against Tokyo practically pins me to the wall!

Add on top of that some fantastic production design (the use of the colour orange is just wonderful) and the fact that because they shot the film in Munich using the city’s modern architecture, it means that ‘Rollerball’, unlike a lot of 70s sci-fi, has aged incredibly well. This film has not dated and, what with its themes of corporate control, only feels more relevant. Also throw in a brilliant scene with Ralph Richardson and his impotent Oracle of Delphi that feels like it could have come straight out of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ and you realise there is a vast amount going on in ‘Rollerball’ and just how seriously clever and well made this film is.

Because of its sometimes slow pace and possibly perceived indulgence then ‘Rollerball’ could be seen as only a semi-successful film — great action and design but a little long and dull. However, if you watch ‘Rollerball’ for what it is, an European art-house movie that just so happens to have James Cann on roller-skates and covered in metal studs and smashing people’s heads in (one thing the films of Goddard and Renais don’t have), then you see it for what it is — an absolute masterpiece, and one that seems to just get better with age.