Jewison's Sporting Effort
Rollerball (1975), which smashed into theaters 42 years ago yesterday with its then-futuristic vision of a violence-soaked sport that’s a tool of multinational corporations to mind-numb the masses, still hits hard. In his 2004 memoir This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, producer/director – and Canadian hockey fan – Norman Jewison mused: “To this day, I don’t understand why people love blood sport, what makes them run wild in the streets after soccer games and bash one another’s heads in, what makes them howl for more when there is blood on the ice. But I have tried to grapple with it, tried to see it for what it is. That is one reason why I made Rollerball. It was my way of trying to understand violence and the high stakes involved in promoting violence – whether it’s the emperor of ancient Rome, the owner of a sports franchise, the corporation that markets violent video games for kids, or films that glorify bloodshed, gore and murder. The way we showed people’s faces, their obvious delight in the blood, their almost sexual pleasure when they watch….I wanted to make the audience think about that when they saw the movie.” Another reason stemmed from the central character at the heart of the William Harrison-penned original short story and screenplay adaptation. Jewison writes: “Jimmy Caan was the perfect choice for the great jock hero [Jonathan] who tries to stand his ground, who misunderstands the larger focus of those who can buy and sell him. When Jonathan faces off with the corporate leaders, I was showing the individual standing up against the pressure to be bought off by the comfort of not having to think about himself.” Devising the sport itself, incorporating a metal ball, speed roller-skating, motorcycles and no-holds-barred hand-to-hand combat, proved a mighty undertaking: “We worked out the whole game with tiny figures on a scale model of an arena, and ended up building the set on the site of the Munich Olympic Stadium. We found a German architect who had designed the bicycle track for the Olympics, and along with John Box, one of Britain’s top production designers, he constructed the perfect blood sport played for high stakes for the entertainment of the masses.” The faces of the establishment were brilliantly cast with John Houseman as the sinister front man of the corporate consortium and Ralph Richardson as, in Jewison’s words, “the enigmatic keeper of the world’s knowledge, which was stored in a giant computer in Geneva;” also adroitly cast are John Beck as an ill-fated fellow athlete and Maud Adams as Jonathan’s still-devoted ex-wife, key characters who stir Jonathan’s conscience toward a higher purpose. Proud of his work, Jewison was nonetheless quizzically philosophical about its reception: “When the movie was released in Europe, the reviews talked about the story, about the ideas Bill Harrison, [co-producer] Pat Palmer and I were trying to convey about a future society. In the United States, moviegoers were excited about the violence in the game. How is it played? they asked. Can we open a franchise? Most American critics missed the point of the story. In 2002, a remake of Rollerball…left out the central political motivation of the story. It turned into a chaotic action picture. We pleaded with them not to proceed with the project but to no avail. It was an expensive failure.” Not so the prescient and still remarkably timely original Rollerball, thrillingly arrayed with a formidable arsenal of terrific special features on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.