I have gone back and forth on this movie just about every time I saw it. The first time was in June 1975 with my friend Dan Hasegawa. I think we saw this without Art because he had just left for the Army. Either that, or Art was still trying to make time with Laura Charca and he did not have time for us. My guess is that if Jaws had not opened a few weeks later, this would have been the big picture of the summer and my favorite movie that year. As it was, I remembered it, but I did not have much loyalty too it. Second viewings reveal a lot of problems with the story and the film making. I still think it is a pretty good movie, but I look at it much more realistically now then I did then.
We saw it initially at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood on Sunset Blvd. The screen there was curved to accommodate films shot in cinerama, this one was not and it was simply blown up to fit the screen, which it did quite nicely. I don’t remember noticing the importance of sound in a movie much before this. Maybe “The Exorcist” impressed me, but I don’t think it was the stereo system that did it. This movie on the other hand, is much more impressive seen in a big theater with an immense sound system. At the dome, the opening segment with the Bach toccata was amazing. When the teams did their warm up laps on the Rollerball track, the rumble was impressive. Most of the hits, grunts and crowd noise was enhanced by simple volume. At the end the chant of Jon-na-thon, was almost hypnotic.
It’s funny that sound is one of the big things I remember from the movie because it is also one of my biggest criticisms of the film. James Caan appears to have been directed to underplay every scene except the Rollerball matches. I suppose this is to show that he is not a crazed individualist out to take down the system, but just a guy who is really good at his job and doesn’t understand why the corporation wants him to stand down. That is the essence of the conflict in the story, but Caan mumbles so much in the film, that it is hard to have a take on what his point of view is. His vocal delivery is low key and in many instances inaudible, and when you can hear him it sounds a little bit like the slow parts of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, where Kurt Cobain is inarticulate and gave Weird Al Yankovic an opportunity at an easy parody.
The look of the film is supposed to be futuristic, the key components of that are the Stadium itself and the architecture of the corporate world they live in. The plastic in the board rooms, and the odd shapes of buildings and hallways, are a quaint effort at a futuristic vision. The other thing that gives it away is the costuming. On the track, the players look like they could be competing in a real game set in the future. Off the track, they look like models from a Sears catalog in 1977. Leisure suits are not futuristic, they were fads. The corporate guys are still wearing suits so that part worked, but the non-executives look like they are dressed for a part in the chorus of a Cher concert. James Caan has the stupidest hat, it looks like a Spanish caballero hat with a ten inch brim. He tosses it into the crowd a couple of times, but every time he changes one of his leisure suits, there is another hat with material to match the suit. Having everything provided by your corporate masters does not guarantee good taste. The element that is accurate about the future is the video display. Big Screens for home viewing, with three alternate views on the top. You can’t quite tell what the programs and pictures are recorded on, maybe small tapes, maybe disks but the effect is a lot more accurate than most of the other things in the movie.
The themes of the film are power and individualism. It is never quite clear why Johnathon is such a threat to the corporate order, but that ambiguity works toward making things a lot more ominous and believable. At one point, John Houseman’s character explains how the corporations took over when the governments were all bankrupted. Maybe they were anticipating a world where the U.S. would triple it’s debt in one year and spend itself twenty trillion dollars in the hole in a very short time. The vision of the corporations as evil overlords would be darker, if everyone on the movie wasn’t so beautiful and happy. Hey, there is a side note that suggests that people in the future were medicating themselves into happiness. This looked like a pretty good criticism of the “if it feels good do it” attitude of the times, but I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers intended.
John Houseman made his last years very comfortable, by playing corporate types like this. In fact Smith Barney, an investment company that I don’t even know still exists, built their image on his answer to the question how Smith-Barney customers get their wealth? “They earn it”. Ralph Richardson appears in a scene that is basically unnecessary, just a little extra dig at the corporate future. He is as always, charming and there are two or three big laughs in this segment. An actor everyone will recognize but I will bet no one knows by name, plays the Coach-Executive in charge of the Houston team. This may be the biggest part he had in movies, but you will see him in two or three Superman films, at least three James Bond films, and even the first of the Christian Bale Batman movies. His name is Shane Rimmer, he is an American that ended up living in England, so all those movies produced at Sheppardton Studios that needed an actor with an American accent typically sought him out.
Like I said, I run hot and cold on this movie. There have been plenty of times that I thought it was a ponderous and pretentious movie that would benefit from being trimmed by half an hour. There are other times when I look at it and admire the 70’s sensibility, that movies ought to be about something. Rollerball is supposed to be about the loss of individualism and the evil of corporate thinking. Or maybe it is about how the citizens will be satisfied with bread and circuses as in Roman times, entertained and distracted by a violent sport while the powers that be control their lives. But if you ask me what it’s about I’ll tell you it’s about two hours.