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.

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Unknown 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.

G_Man2002 said...

I totally concur. My favorite quote from Johnathan E: "People had a choice a long time ago between havin’ all them nice things and freedom... of course they chose comfort."
How appropriate is that statement for the times we live in.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best on-point reviews of this film that I have seen. Yes, it's violent but also very smart. The closing scene with the crowds chanting "Jonathan" always gives me chills.

There's also a great scene involving a global supercomputer called "Zero" that simultaneously collects, assimilates and erases all records of human history. Google, anyone? Thanks for the insightful review.

vmax71 said...

Your review of the movie is EXCELLENT. well stated. Every salient point you brought up is occurring today. cheers

Unknown said...

I saw this movie at the theaters when it came out and I was very young at the time but even I could understand that there was an evil undercurrent trying to get Jonathan to retire... at the time I didn't understand that it was about the collective against the individual but having read your review it makes absolute sense and I will put this movie in there with my classics with Apocalypse Now and Gladiator

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