Very few sports movies seem to have ever captured the reality or the spirit of their chosen discipline, lacking the spontaneity, poetry or sheer physicality of athletes in action. Perhaps it is for this reason that Norman Jewison’s 1975 classic Rollerball, a hybrid sci-fi movie, manages to stand out, as the theatricality of a sport, extreme in its violence and constructed wholly as a media spectacle, focuses the issues away from the game, to instead unravel the minutiae at the heart of corporate power and ownership.
Similarly, while so many of its sci-fi contemporaries were concerning themselves with a nihilistic vision of the future marred by genetic mutation, technological meltdown or nuclear holocaust, Rollerball’s dystopian vision seems less fantastic and closer to home, grounded in the all too real world of conglomerate hierarchies and media ratings.
In his seminal text on the Western genre, film critic André Bazin, citing Claude Lévi-Strauss, muses that myths are seldom a commentary about the time in which they are set, but always a commentary about the time in which they are told; a theme superbly underlined in Brian Henderson’s reading of John Ford’s The Searchers and which can easily be applied in an analysis of Rollerball, made in an era where the now ubiquitous relationship between sports and media began to truly establish itself.
As the 1970s saw a dip in the popularity of the Western as the all-American genre, new frontiers, buoyed by the success of the US space programme, ushered in a host of spectacular, FX-based, science-fiction movies. Journeying beyond the stars became the staple of action-packed blockbusters towards the latter part of the decade, offering American audiences, in part, a modern-day interpretation of ‘Manifest Destiny’ (an integral theme of the Western), as the nation sought to re-establish its self-esteem heading toward the onset of the Reagan (a space cowboy if ever there was one) era.
However, a decidedly more dystopian vision of the future was projected in a number of Earth-based sci-fi movies earlier on in the decade, born largely out of American disillusionment and insecurity, as the first generation of baby-boomers came of age and felt increasingly disenfranchised from the ‘silent majority’. Films set in a not too distant or unrecognisable future, such as Soylent Green (1973), Westworld (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976) all call into question the social structures we live under and the ideological institutions which govern them, yet Rollerball, under the astute guidance of Jewison, emerges as the most prophetic of these films and arguably any film of its generation.
Focusing on the game’s star player, Jonathan E (James Caan), the film can be easily read as an individual stance against capitalist power structures, as Jonathan resists the pressure heaped upon him to retire by the Energy Corporation, owners of his Houston team. Rather like Maximus in Gladiator, his accumulating status/power as an individual stem from the game’s global popularity, undermining the role of the media (along with widespread recreational drug use) as a means of providing an overpopulated planet with the circus, if not the bread, to keep things in check.
The rules of the game are simple: two teams of ten (complete with motorbike riders) compete for the possession of a metal ball, projected at high speed around the rim of a circular track. The team in possession of the ball attempt to score by placing the ball into a cone-shaped goal, while the defending team try to prevent this at all costs. Houston play three games, in a global league, throughout the course of the film, against Madrid, Tokyo and finally New York, in a world where federal ideas of nationhood have diminished altogether, as each team is representative of a corporate city-state, recalling the Olympian clashes of ancient Greece.
While the rules and aesthetics of Rollerball seem to be an amalgam of the four major US indigenous sports (baseball, basketball, gridiron and ice hockey) plus the outlandish spectacle of roller derby, the layout of the track is arguably the most telling feature of the game. With a silver ball, shot around the perimeter, ready to be taken up by any one of the numbered players, seen from above, one cannot help but make the analogy with roulette, not a sport but a game of chance, gambling, with human beings as the currency.
With each game comes a further reduction of the already scant rules, in a vain attempt to dethrone Jonathan and up the TV ratings, until in the final game no rules or time limit exist at all. Refusing to back down, Jonathan, with a rapidly diminishing cohort of friends, still manages to stand firm against the system without ever succumbing to the kill-or-be-killed mentality that seems to be his destiny.
Despite Jonathan’s radical stance in the film, he nevertheless operates within the traditional patriarchal movie framework, an archetypal Hollywood hero, rebellious and outside the rules of the system, a loner like the cowboys of old (he lives in a ranch-style house and wears a Stetson and cowboy boots). Within this framework comes the film’s one weak point, as the complete absence of any positive female roles not only reaffirms patriarchal hierarchy, but the total commodification of all the female characters is never challenged, their only currency seemingly their bodies and their deceit.
Jonathan’s enhanced status, at the end of the film, as an individual against the controlling powers of the system, is to some extent reminiscent of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, utilising their success at the 68 Olympics in Mexico to highlight the plight of African-Americans at home within the full glare of the media spotlight. Filmed partly on location in Munich, only three years after the tragedy of the 72 Olympics hostage disaster, during the height of the Cold War sporting rivalry between the US and the USSR, Rollerball is a chilling reminder that not only do sports and politics mix, they are seldom ever separated.