Friday, May 22, 2009

Film Friday: Rollerball (1975)

Today’s film is an unloved gem from 1975 called Rollerball. Before you dash for the exits, let me tell you that Rollerball is not, as liberal film critics like to dismiss it, a meaningless bit of 1970’s schlock about the American penchant for violent sports. To the contrary, Rollerball has a very interesting conservative theme. Believe it or not, Rollerball is a surprisingly nuanced and intelligent film about the threat that individual achievement poses to the brainwashing of collectivism. Seriously.

** spoiler alert **

Let’s start with the plot. The year is 2018. Corporations have replaced the governments of the world. People live in relative luxury. War, suffering and hunger are all things of the past. The most popular sport happens to be a grisly blood sport called rollerball, which involves players moving around a circular track on roller skates or motorcycles as they try to put a heavy metal ball into a small goal. Violence is part of the sport.

The story begins with a match that highlights the skills of Jonathan E (James Caan), the star player for the Houston franchise. Indeed, he is the best player in the sport. For reasons that become clear as the movie unfolds, the corporate elite want Jonathan E to retire. Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), who manages the Houston franchise (and Energy Corporation, which runs Houston), is tasked with making this happen. The powers that be attempt to persuade Jonathan to retire by co-opting his girlfriend. When that fails, they try to bribe him by letting him see his former wife, who has been taken from him by a corporate executive -- giving you a hint of the true power these executives have. When this fails, they start changing the rules of the game itself. Initially, they eliminate penalties, which leads to Jonathan's best friend and teammate ending up brain dead after he is attacked by the Tokyo team while unconscious. Finally, they remove the game’s time limit. In other words, the final game is to run until one team entirely eliminates the other.

The critics hated Rollerball because they misunderstood the film. Indeed, most reviewers are liberals who can’t look beyond their own biased political beliefs. Thus, they assume Rollerball is making two points: that corporations are evil and that Americans love violence. Since neither point is made all that well, in their opinions, they dismiss the movie as uninteresting. But the movie isn't making those points. It's actually making a very conservative point about the evils of collectivism.

Sure, corporations are the film’s bad guys, but this is not a capitalist, conservative world. It is a liberal, collectivist world. That the government consists of corporations rather than departments is irrelevant. Moreover, Director Norman Jewison's (Jesus Christ Superstar) use of “corporations” is a means of stripping any questions of ideology from the film. By replacing governments with generic, undefined “corporations,” Jewison eliminates all questions about what type of government would act this way. This allows viewers to abandon their preconceived notions of political ideology and instead focus solely on the battle between Jonathan E and the powers that be. That's what this film is about, the struggle between the individual and the collective. This is reinforced several times as the audience is told the form of government is irrelevant and as each of Jonathan’s attempts to understand the nature of the corporations is frustrated and soon forgotten by the film.

Nor are these liberal reviewers correct that this film is an indictment of an American love for violence. This is probably the most commonly expressed view of the film, and it is absolutely backwards. Most critics will tell you that the evil corporations use rollerball to entertain the masses; some will even mention “bread and circuses” to let you know that they are historically savvy, and they assume the audience must represent modern America. But it doesn't. It represents an America where the people have been turned into a collective mass by a corporate government that suppresses individuality by handing out goodies. Violent sport is one of those goodies.

Moreover, while the crowds cheer the violence early on, as the violence ratchets up to the point of becoming pure murder, the audience grows disturbingly quiet. They are shocked and horrified, not thrilled. At that very point, Jonathan is given a chance to kill his last opponent, who is at his mercy. The audience waits in stunned silence as Jonathan prepares the fatal blow. It is only when he chooses not to kill the opponent, and instead puts the ball into the goal, that the audience erupts. They cheer his mercy and his victory over the system, not his violence. Thus, the message is not that Americans love violence. If anything, it is that Americans have limits on what they will accept.

Our liberal reviewers are simply reading their own criticism of America into the movie rather than telling you what the movie is saying.

Rollerball's real target is the evil of collectivism. It is about the struggle of the collective to suppress the individual. That's why the entire movie focuses on the question of why Jonathan E is being forced to retire. Jonathan E must retire because he has excelled too much at the game. He has become a star. He stands out from the crowd and that is unacceptable. As Bartholomew tells him, “no player may become greater than the game.”

Why is this? Because rollerball is not just entertainment. It was specifically designed to be a game at which “man was never meant to excel.” Rollerball is meant to reinforce to the populace, that individuals cannot succeed, only the collective can. Sound familiar? Have you ever heard liberals talk about how children’s soccer teaches the superiority of group effort over individual effort? How about when they bemoan the fact that allowing more capable kids to stand out at school is bad for the self-esteem of the other kids? Same thing. Jonathan E has excelled. He has become greater than the game. His example highlights the lie that individual achievement is not possible. Therefore, he must retire before he endangers the collective.

But he refuses to retire and he prevails against an increasingly stacked deck. Thus, the message of Rollerball (the message liberal reviewers try to ignore) is that the human spirit will always find a way to succeed, and it is evil to attempt to suppress the individual in favor of the collective.

Rollerball also tells us something interesting about the nature of evil. True evil can be banal and it often doesn't even recognize itself as evil. Bartholomew is not maniacal, nor is he power hungry. He is not a particularly bad man, nor is he even uncaring. To the contrary, he genuinely cares for his players and he takes his duties very seriously. Indeed, even though he seeks to crush the human spirit, he genuinely believes he is acting for the good of society and for the good of Jonathan E. In many ways, this makes him a much more chilling villain than anything offered by Hollywood today. Indeed, his obliviousness calls upon the audience to re-examine their own actions for similar blind spots.

Moreover, the movie constantly hints at the abuses that arise when a select few are given the power to control society. As noted, an executive takes Jonathan’s wife, and Jonathan is powerless to stop him. Rules can be changed as needed and lives endangered to enforce the will of the elite. Their parties are decadent and destructive. Knowledge is suppressed. People are bought off or frightened into silence, and behind the scenes power plays are hinted at throughout the film. But even worse, all of this happens out of sight of the viewer. In this world, your life is controlled by people you will never meet. Again, this is much more chilling than typical Hollywood evil because of its believability, its banality, and the creeping sense that we only see the tip of its true extent.

Rollerball is a much more interesting movie than you’ve been led to believe. Give it a chance.


LawHawkRFD said...


That movie was always a favorite of mine. Your analysis is going to send me to NetFlix to watch it again. I viewed the movie in much the same light as you. But even this preacher of Hannah Arendt's concept of the banality of evil missed that side thread. Indeed, Houseman was the perfect choice to represent that concept.

Note to other readers: Do NOT mix this movie up with the more recent version with the same name. The new version actually is the liberal view that Andrew dismisses so well in his review of the original.

Anonymous said...

That's a really insightful take on this movie. I saw "Rollerball" years ago and I didn't get all this when I saw it, but now that you lay it out, I totally see it.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, thanks for pointing that out. The remake stinks. Avoid the remake.

Anon, thanks, glad to hear you thought this was worthwhile. As I said, to me, this is actually a very interesting movie, but it's been largely forgetten because it was (intentionally) misrepresented by the media reviewers.

And whether you are interested in the film itself or not, it does provide an interesting take on the nature of evil. And that's something that modern Hollywood should consider.

PikeBishop said...

I watch this one about once a decade or so, and can really enjoy the quality of the film, Makes me think that perhaps our memories of certain films are clouded by only getting to see them edited to hell for network tv or, if lucky on HBO or Showtime, but on 70s-90s quality televisions, which were nowhere near as good as what we have today, unless you bought the dvd of something.

Watching it again and one nice little touch I never noticed before. Notice the fans don't wear tee shirts with the city's name on them, they all wear the same design shirt that just says "Rollerball" but in their individual team colors. Nice, subtle little point about the "group mentality" of this society.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Nice catch! I hadn't thought about the group mentality aspect of the shirts.

This certainly is a fascinating movie and it's very high quality. I agree with you that we probably are biased against many of these because we only saw them chopped up on television. Plus, without the letter boxing a lot of these films, which were beautifully shot, become very small and generic.

PikeBishop said...

Ok, finished my once a decade watching (posted yesterday after watching the first 40 minutes or so)

1. Back to my tee shirt observation. Yes that held true in the Madrid and the Tokyo matches, but by the New York match you start to see different shirts and even some "Jonathan E" designs on people. Hmmm. things are changing? Kudos to the art director and the costumer for this one.

2. The pacing of the slow scenes seems very languid to my eye. I think that was a deliberate attempt by Jewison to show how ordered and structured the society was, and how it relied on Rollerball to keep the masses happy, and of course stoke the ID that is bubbling just beneath the surface. Long slow scenes punctuated by the fast-paced, quick cut mayhem of the three matches.

3. Speaking of ordered and structured, the party scene shows a lot. Everyone is elegantly dressed and behaving appropriately, and speaking civilly. No one is drunk or disorderly. You don't see women going topless for no reason. There is a subtle hint about the drugs they take where they just show couples dancing close and touching each other's hands. No groping or even kissing. I think they have a sensate drug, kind of like ecstasy would be today. Just think of how most other R rated 70s films would have handled the party. You'd see Moon Pie in the hot tub with three naked females, people breaking things and acting out of control, guys doing coke off of the girl's nipples, stuff like that! Even the destruction of the trees is done in a rather low keyed manner.

4. There are a few scenes that just puzzle me. Jonathan's interview and the scene where he wastes a trip to Geneva to watch the super computer programmer of the world's greatest computer get into an absurdist dialogue with a machine, reminds me too much of HAL or, worse the "From Agnes with Love" episode of the Twilight Zone with Ronny Cox.

5. I thought the movie got a lot of things eerily right about the future of media in 1975. They had VCRS, multi screen set ups, and multi camera set ups at the center of the Roller Ball arena to catch all angles. I think the NFL was still using only 3 cameras on a broadcast at that time. Jonathan ERASES his wifes' videos and let's be honest, the big tv special on Jonathan, is nothing more than a precursor of Big Brother and Keeping up with the Kardashians.

6. Letter box makes things so much better. There are action shots where on pan and scan tv you only saw close ups of Jonathan and/or Moonpie and totally missed the action of the game behind them. Its so much more vibrant in letterbox.

PikeBishop said...

Oh yes, and one more point:

7. How about the most understated, locker room scene in history! The film shows the team before the final match, quiet, subdued, no more of the rah-rah Houston-Houston stuff that Moon Pie had used to motivate them and disrupt Robert Ito's presentation before the Tokyo match earlier in the film. Those men are resigned to their fate and they quietly look up as Jonathan skates in. They know that they are going to die, or be carted off that track injured and unconscious at best, and they know the reason for that is skating right past them. However, they look up to him, they respect him and they will go to their (probable) deaths for him. That is what "team" stands for, not Moon Pie's empty boasting about "little men." Not a word is spoken, but it says so much!

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Excellent observations!

1. I am ashamed to admit that I never noticed the Jonathan E t-shirts. That's fascinating though because it shows how he (one man) has warped the message that you can't succeed outside the collective. That right there is what Houseman is worried about when he tells Jonathan that no man can be greater than the game.

2. Agreed. Rollerball is the outlet for the "human instinct" side of society, otherwise they would get rid of it -- it's where they release their stress. And they've set it up to send the one message, but Jonathan E is blowing that apart.

3. The party is fascinating. It seems so civilized, but look beneath the surface: (1) corporate intrigue resulting in the destruction of an executive... a nickname "the crocodile" because of the false tears, (2) the drug use, (3) the woman who breaks down and cries because she's so unhappy despite being at the center of all that is supposed to be happy, and then she destroys the trees in an act of destruction that suggests how close to the surface violent revolution remains, (4) his black friend who can't even remember the history of his own life and finds that he's been blackballed for being Jonathan's friend, and (5) the odd mix of guests where the executives are just as important (and as good at getting women) as the world's top athletes. A lot of messages there.

Yeah, today the party would look like a frat party and it wouldn't fit at all with the warning about this supposedly perfect society.

4. The interview is where Jonathan realizes that his girlfriend is in on the whole scheme to make him quit (meaning he can trust no one) and it shows for the first time how his resistance takes the shape of a near-violent outburst.

The computer visit was meant to show how easy it is to lose our knowledge and independence when all knowledge is given to once source to control (the corporate computer). It also suggests that Jonathan can't restore the world, so it kind of limits the focus of the movie to where it needs to be -- Jonathan providing a spark to destroying their society, not Jonathan overthrowing everything and restoring our world. Without that, I suspect the film might have needed him to go further in terms of changing society... something his character is not equipped to do.

5. The film does suffer from much about 1970s sci-fi in terms of missing how small and nearly invisible technology would become, but it definitely did foreshadow a lot.

6. This film sucks in pan and scan. It has to be seen in letterbox to get the feel of it.

7. Totally agree about the locker room. These men know they may die to stand with Jonathan, and yet they rise to the occasion once he does. It's an inspiring moment that sends a chill down your spine.

Post a Comment