Rollerball: The Harmony Of Havoc

As a follow-up to our A To Z piece on Rollerball last week, friend of the blog and avid Rollerball fan Chris Rogers approached us with a piece that digs into the themes and visual style of the classic SF movie. We’re delighted to present it, in full Multivision.

ROLLERBALL: THE HARMONY OF HAVOC

BY CHRIS ROGERS

 

First Period

Everything was much simpler when I was a kid. We still had three nations. That was before the corporate wars, even before Rollerball. Before everything.

– Cletus

It’s like people had a choice a long time ago between… well, having all them nice things or freedom. Of course, they chose comfort.

– Jonathan E

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In the not too distant future there is no war, no poverty, no sickness. Nations and governments do not exist. The world’s cities are run by the Majors, six global corporations, each a monopoly supplier of one essential service – food, housing, transport, communications, luxury and energy. Everyone has what they need, and the Majors provide everything. That includes the game.

Teams of motorcyclists and roller-skaters fight at thirty miles per hour on a banked, circular track for possession of a steel ball, fired from a gas cannon and fielded by players wearing spiked gloves and body armour. Twenty players, three periods, two teams, one ball; the game. A game which attracts thousands of spectators and is beamed into every home in every city around the globe. The Majors’ sponsorship of Rollerball provides the only permissible outlet for the aggression and tension felt by citizens living this pleasured yet antiseptic existence, as their team battles that of a rival city. Satisfying and pacifying, its often lethal rigours are also a reminder to each citizen of their own insignificance.

And yet one man does stand out: one man who actually plays the game. Jonathan E, the most successful Rollerball player of all time. He is worshipped, adored, known. The personality cult that has grown to surround him now represents a threat to the purpose of the game and thus to the Majors, and they must act.

Of the many dystopian science fiction films released in the last third of the twentieth century, Rollerball is one of the most significant. Its uncompromising sequences of ferocious, dynamically-edited action carefully contrasted with passages of unusually elegiac character interaction are both highly effective even today, whilst aspects of the film’s futuristic backdrop (it is supposedly set in 2018 although there is no reference to or even hint of this in the production) have arguably arrived – how else to assess Rollerball’s depiction of the first decades of our current century, dominated as both are by innovative and pervasive telecommunications technology, the cultures of the Far East, the influence of global corporations and the media, the unstoppable commercialisation of professional sport and the latter’s sometimes unhealthy relationship with both those bases of power?

Throughout, director Norman Jewison’s elegant 1975 visualisation of screenwriter Bill Harrison’s own short story blends kinetic Hollywood convention with a Romantic European sensibility. Always popular, its critical reputation is growing and a fresh analysis seems timely.

The film began two years previously, when Texan literary professor and seasoned creative writer Harrison sold his latest short story to Esquire magazine. Appearing in the September 1973 edition and entitled Roller Ball Murder after a brutal mass-entertainment sport of the 2010s, it is a lean, forceful yet melancholic tale told in flashback by the game’s star player as he waits to lead his team out to the world final.

Compared to the film adaptation that would follow, the game itself is tougher and more casual in its attitude to death and injury, and these are more explicitly portrayed. Jonathan E demonstrates a cynicism absent in the cinemtaic version (“One ball flips out of play soon after being fired from the cannon, jumps the railing, sails high, and plows into the spectators. Beautiful.”) and is far more fatalistic. The death of his friend Moonpie is crueller – sickeningly so, in fact – than in the screenplay and yet is passed over with a brevity and lack of affect that is disturbing.

Harrison had been inspired by the outbreaks of violence he had seen at sporting events, where the audience had appeared more excited by conflict outside the arena than by the contest within. This grimness, though, is balanced by lyricism. Jonathan imagines his older self with looks “like the poet Robert Graves”, and his thoughts are poetic too: “The brown waving grass of the fields reminds me of Ella, my only wife, and of her soft long hair which made a tent over my face when we kissed.” The narration reflects these two facets of his life – “The hand which stroked Ella soon dropped all the foes of Houston” – and both come together where Jonathan notes that “I like a place with rolling hills. Another of my houses is near Lyons in France, the hills similar to these although more lush, and I take my evening strolls there over an ancient battleground.” This balance – mirrored in a phrase borrowed for the title of this piece – leavens the violence, and it is a quality Harrison was also able to bring to his script.

Noting that many large conglomerates were now wealthier than entire countries, he also began to see corporatocracy as a natural evolution of societal modes of organisation, a successor to feudalism and nation states.

Harrison’s story was read by Jewison who contacted the writer from London, where he was living. Jewison had, like Harrison, been concerned at the increasing appetite for violence on show in public, and a deal was quickly made for the Southern writer to join the Canadian director. Harrison arrived in Britain for the pre-production phase soon after.

Second Period

It’s a significant game in a number of ways, the velocities of the ball, the awful physics of the track. And in the middle of it all, men playing by an odd set of rules. It’s not a game a man is supposed to grow strong in, Jonathan.

– Mr Bartholomew

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Although almost all of the material from the short story made its way into the film, three crucial plot changes were made. All are typical of the differences between prose fiction and a screenplay. Jonathan becomes an active figure, working to change his destiny, rather than a passive one accepting of it; his popularity is shown to be a provocation for the corporations; and the successive rule changes to the game which in the short story were simply a cynical attempt to pander to the audience generally are now a specific response to this danger.

The many scenes and images taken directly from the literary source were adroitly incorporated by production designer John Box.

Retaining Harrison’s generic, functional company titles cleverly avoided the need to invent fictional names yet is also perfectly justified in plot terms, the short story explaining this as the ultimate result of various takeovers (Cletus’s filmic musing on which company controls which city echoes a similar point in the short story, with Jonathan musing on which Major owns which product: “Narcotic research is now under FOOD, I know, though it used to be under LUXURY”). The minimalist corporate identities assigned to each – a colour, a single initial letter – are of their time, aesthetically pleasing and cinematically practical, yet today we can also relate this to the importance of international brand recognition and the associated acceleration toward initials, logos and product names that require no translation for different territories – Apple is now easily identified by its eponymous symbol alone.

This level of care is also evident in the superbly realised Multivision concept, a home entertainment system in which a large central screen is surmounted by three smaller ones, the four together showing simultaneous, staggered or separate streams of broadcast or recorded imagery in a complex choreography. Combined with selective use of freeze-framing, an almost hallucinogenic effect is created that responds to every tempo in the film, from the high-velocity action scenes through the confrontational drama to the quieter, more emotional moments. In fact the sequences represented such a lengthy and complex editing task in themselves, especially given the need to complete them very early in the production so that they could appear in the background of scenes yet to be shot, that editor Anthony Gibbs asked Brian Smedley-Aston, another editor who had worked with him previously, to handle the task.

Filming on location in Europe is important to the overall tone of Rollerball. Two highly unusual groups of buildings in Munich, in what was then West Germany, not only suited the needs of the story but also appeared entirely alien to most American audiences, bringing a freshness and mystery that even today confounds and delights in equal measure and ensures Jewison’s vision of the future has not aged.

Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer had recently designed a vast new administrative campus for German automotive giant BMW that had, co-incidentally, officially opened the very year Harrison’s original story was published. The main building, a conjoined cluster of four circular towers nicknamed the vierzylinder, became the Energy Corporation’s headquarters, where Jonathan E meets Mr Bartholomew. The inscrutability of its repetitive silver window grid and its staring orange rooftop orb capture the impenetrable power of the vast conglomerate. Immediately adjacent is the BMW museum, like half an immense car tyre on its side; in the film its convex exterior represents the Luxury Centre visited by Jonathan and Moonpie. A bravura pull back as they walk away, revealing the unexpectedly sheared roofline, adds to the discomfiting feel.

Construction of the BMW site was planned to align with Munich’s hosting of the 1972 Olympics, the single most important event in Germany’s post-war history at that time. One of the many sporting venues built for those Games now provided a home for a very different sport, for it was in the circular basketball hall – designed by architect Georg Flinkerbusch and holding 6,000 spectators during the Olympics – that Rollerball would be played for real. Its shape and size were perfect for the game, the track erected within its confines. Every one of the five Rollerball games seen in the finished film was shot there (two of the games were staged solely for the purposes of providing footage for the Multivision sequences) and the rules of the game were tested and modified by the mixed crew of actors, stuntmen and real-life sportsmen playing the teams as they went along.

The editing of Gibbs, so prominent in the three ‘live’ Rollerball games, is just as effective in the quieter sequences. In the languid but highly charged party scene at Jonathan’s ranch, where Mr Bartholomew’s final attempts to persuade Jonathan to leave the game take place, two individual sequences, each complicated and legible in themselves, also reinforce each other. As the revellers enjoy their firey destruction in the grounds, an awful prefiguring of what is to come in the arena, the terrifying intensity of expressions on their faces is matched by the anger on Bartholomew’s and the impassiveness on Jonathan’s, in a series of alternating tight close-ups. The flames of the burning trees and the blurred collisions of the Rollerball track on the Multivision screens behind Bartholomew form a backdrop. The power of the scene is enhanced by the moments of tranquillity found immediately before and immediately afterwards, with the sated guests listlessly disporting themselves around the ranch house and the sad, skeletal remains of the trees silhouetted on the skyline.

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Many subtle details helped support the portrayal of Rollerball as a genuine conceit, including the player’s strips, realistic Multivision commentaries and the fanatical audience corralled behind chain-link fence and Perspex barriers. Colour is subtly and well used, with goal mouths, scoreboard and crowd banners matching the relevant team’s sponsoring corporation’s identity.

The somewhat lurid pulp-style illustration that accompanied publication of Roller Ball Murder may have inspired the famous poster for the film, painted by legendary artist Bob Peak. Showing only the helmeted head and spiked fist of a player and the dream-like party scene, it is another reflection of the story’s duality. Peak’s distinctive style, with its metallic sheens counterpointed by a flowing, almost ethereal quality, captures this perfectly.

Much has been written of the portrayal of women in the film, with models rather than actresses cast in two key roles, but this misses important truths of the story and conveniently ignores the fact that one member of the Executive Directorate, the decision-making body comprising the heads of all six Majors, is female and several female executives are seen at the various games. The roles of Ella and Daphne exist to counterpoint Jonathan’s life in the most extreme manner possible – they are possessions of the Majors, not people, and so casting models was entirely appropriate – as Jonathan says, Daphne is “part of the furniture”. Harrison has also noted the slight effeminacy of voice and manner in Mr Bartholomew and the off-screen ‘stats freak’ (voiced by British actor John Normington) at the Multivision approval session, which he describes as deliberate attempts to emasculate the hero (interestingly the under-rated Normington actually appears on-screen during the party scene, albeit with no indication as to whether the actor is playing the same character, and went on to play a futuristic corporate executive of almost Shakespearean ruthlessness in the highly-regarded Dr Who story The Caves of Androzani nine years later).

The soundtrack to Rollerball is also one of its most striking features. From the collapsing cadences of Bach’s Toccata in D minor (here shorn of its fugue) to the poignancy of Adagio for Strings and Organ in G minor by Albinoni, via the chilling corporate hymns specially composed by André Previn, music plays a vital part in establishing and maintaining the dual moods of the piece. The opening scene is astonishing in this regard; not since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has a single piece of classical music been so identified with a speculative fiction film sequence, and not until use of Siegfried’s funeral march from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung in John Boorman’s Excalibur six years later would it happen again.

Third Period

They’re afraid of you, Jonathan. All the way to the top, they are.

– Cletus

What are they afraid of me for?

– Jonathan E

rollerball6

The Rollerball games that punctuate the film form a framework for Jonathan E’s struggle, and occur as the very first and very last scenes in the film and at a crucial point in the middle. This last is when Jonathan’s friend and co-player Moonpie (a terrific performance from John Beck) is deliberately brain-damaged to pressurize Jonathan into retiring – still a particularly shocking and brutal sequence that, alone, ensures its reputation for toughness is deserved despite the lack of gore in the film. The games also represent the altered states of those participating and watching (and manipulating), as the players prepare for the World Championship Final, gradually realising the truth, as Jonathan starts to fight for his beliefs, his freedom and finally his life, and as Mr Bartholomew acts to remove the perceived threat to his power.

Overall, Rollerball succeeds in combining the bewilderment of the lone figure lost in a Kafka-esque maze of malign bureaucracy (where Jonathan E is an analogue of Joseph K.?) with a clear updating of the brutal pleasures of the Roman arena. Indeed the theme of the film has a number of parallels to that of Spartacus. Both stories tell of one man’s fight to be free to live his life against the wishes of a decadent ruling class as the masses are pacified by a brutal spectator sport, and in both his opponent bends vast forces against him merely to prove a point. The central figure in Spartacus is fighting to escape this arena, whilst in Rollerball Jonathan E is fighting for the right to continue to participate, but both are seeking release, and who is to say which is the more desirable? Certainly Jewison’s final frame embodies an ambiguity absent in Kubrick’s classic.

Anticipating by some years the cyberpunk movement in its near-future environment of individual struggle against corporate power, Rollerball the film, like the short story which inspired it, is a work of great intelligence, depth and feeling, and is highly rewarding to those who come to it with an open mind.

Everybody’s an assignment. Life’s an assignment.

– Jonathan E


Chris Rogers is a writer on architecture and visual culture. You can find his work at www.chrismrogers.net 

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Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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