Rollerball (1975 film)

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Directed by Norman Jewison
Produced by Norman Jewison
Written by William Harrison
Music by André Previn
Cinematography Douglas Slocombe
Edited by Antony Gibbs
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • June 25, 1975 (1975-06-25)
Running time
129 minutes[1]
Country United Kingdom[2]
United States[3]
Language English
Box office $30 million[4]

Rollerball is a 1975 British-American dystopian science fiction sports action film, produced and directed by Norman Jewison, and starring James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams, John Beck, Moses Gunn, and Ralph Richardson. The screenplay by William Harrison[5] adapted his own short story, "Roller Ball Murder", which had first appeared in the September 1973 issue of Esquire.[6]

Although Rollerball had an American cast, a Canadian director, and was released by the American company United Artists,[7] it was produced in London and Munich.[8][9]

Rollerball received mostly positive reviews.


In the film the world of 2018 (referred to in the tagline as "the not too distant future") is a global corporate state, containing entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston, which deals with nominally peer corporations controlling access to all transport, luxury, housing, communication, and food on a global basis. According to the tagline, in this world, "wars will no longer exist. But there will be... Rollerball".

The film's title is the name of a violent, globally popular sport around which the events of the film take place. It is similar to Roller Derby in that two teams clad in body armor skate on roller skates (some instead ride on motorcycles) around a banked, circular track. There, however, the similarity ends. The object of the game is for the team in possession of the ball to score points by throwing a softball-sized steel ball into the goal, which is a magnetic, cone-shaped area inset into the wall of the arena. The team without possession of the ball is defensive and acts to prevent scoring. The ball is put into play by being fired out of a cannon at the top of the track. Rollerball is a full-contact sport in which players have considerable leeway to attack opposing players in order to take or maintain possession of the ball and to score points. In addition, each team has three players who ride motorcycles to which teammates can latch on and be towed. The player in possession of the ball must hold it in plain view at all times.

Rollerball teams, named after the cities in which they are based, are owned by the various global corporations. Energy Corporation sponsors the Houston team. The game is a substitute for all current team sports and for warfare. While its ostensible purpose is entertainment, Mr. Bartholomew, a high-level executive of the Energy Corporation, describes it as having a "distinct social purpose": to show the futility of individual effort.


Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the veteran star of the Houston rollerball team. By virtue of his stellar performance over the years, he has become the sport's most recognizable player. After another impressive performance against Madrid, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), chairman of the Energy Corporation, announces that they will feature Jonathan in a "multivision" special about his career.

After the Madrid game, Bartholomew tells Jonathan that he wants him to retire. He offers a lavish retirement package if Jonathan so announces during the special, while emphasizing the benefits of corporate-run society and the importance of respecting executive decisions, never explaining why he must retire. Jonathan struggles to understand why while thinking about his former wife Ella (Maud Adams), who was suddenly given to an executive.

Jonathan later tries to access books but finds they have been classified, transcribed, and stored in a corporate computer bank. He comforts himself back at his ranch by watching a video of his ex-wife, soon discovering that Energy Corporation has sent him a concubine.

Rollerball soon degrades into senseless violence; the rules are made more dangerous in order to force Jonathan out. The semi-final game against Tokyo will be played with no penalties and limited player substitutions, yet Jonathan refuses to withdraw. A Houston instructor (Robert Ito) insists on teaching the team how to counter Tokyo's unorthodox martial arts skills, but they simply drown him out with multiple chants of "Houston"! The brutality of that match kills several players, including Houston's lead biker; while Jonathan's best friend and teammate Moonpie (John Beck) is left in a brain-dead vegetative state. Despite the violence, Houston emerges victorious.

The corporations hold an emergency meeting to discuss Jonathan's obstinate refusal to retire, deciding that the championship game between Houston and New York will be played without penalties, player substitutions, or a time-limit, in the hope that Jonathan, should he decide to play, will be killed over the course of the game. The executives' meeting reveals why they want Johnathan to retire. Rollerball was not conceived merely to satisfy man's blood lust but to demonstrate the futility of individualism. Jonathan's talent and longevity is threatening that purpose. Before the match, Jonathan has a surprise visit from his ex-wife, Ella, who reveals that the corporations ordered her to convince him to retire. Despite the obvious dangers, Jonathan decides that he will play.

The game quickly loses all semblance of order as the players are incapacitated or killed. The crowd, raucous and energetic at the beginning, gradually become more and more subdued as the carnage unfolds, devolving into a gladiatorial contest. It eventually gets to the stage where Jonathan is the only player left on the Houston team, while two remain from New York. After a violent struggle directly in front of Mr. Bartholomew, Jonathan dispatches one, grabs the steel ball, and raises it above the remaining New York player as if to kill him while the world watches in utter silence. With a moment's pause, Jonathan releases him, gets to his feet, painfully makes his way to the New York goal and deposits the ball inside, scoring the game's only point.

Jonathan begins to freely skate around the track in silent victory, and the coaches and fans of both teams start chanting, "Jon-a-than"! They do so first in a whisper, then in voices which grow louder and louder as Jonathan continues around the track. Mr. Bartholomew hurries to the arena exit, knowing that Jonathan E. has defeated the game itself. As the cheering becomes a roar, there is a freeze frame hold on Jonathan's blurred face, over which is played Bach's iconic prelude to Toccata and Fugue in D minor, as the film credits roll.



Rollerball's arena sequences were shot at the Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle. The then-new BMW Headquarters and Museum buildings in Munich, Germany appear as the headquarters buildings of Energy Corporation at the Olympiapark, Munich. A number of scenes were also filmed at Fawley Power Station, near Southampton.

Recognizing their contribution to the film's many crucial action sequences, Rollerball was the first major Hollywood production to give screen credit to its stunt performers.[10]


The film is noteworthy for its use of classical music: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is performed on organ during the opening title sequence; it is heard once again at the end of film's final scene and over the first section of the end credits, bookending the film. The Adagio in G minor by Albinoni/Giazotto, and the Largo from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 is also used to establish tone, mood, and atmosphere for certain scenes in the film.


Box Office[edit]

The film earned $6.2 million in theatrical rentals at the North American box office.[11]


Variety praised the film, calling the lead performances "uniformly tops."[12]

By contrast, Vincent Canby was unimpressed, and his review stated:[13]

"All science-fiction can be roughly divided into two types of nightmares. In the first the world has gone through a nuclear holocaust and civilization has reverted to a neo-Stone Age. In the second, of which 'Rollerball' is an elaborate and very silly example, all of mankind's problems have been solved but at the terrible price of individual freedom.... The only way science-fiction of this sort makes sense is as a comment on the society for which it's intended, and the only way 'Rollerball' would have made sense is a satire of our national preoccupation with televised professional sports, particularly weekend football. Yet 'Rollerball' isn't a satire. It's not funny at all and, not being funny, it becomes, instead, frivolous."

TV Guide gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, saying that "the performances of Caan and Richardson are excellent, and the rollerball sequences are fast-paced and interesting."[14] James Rocchi of Netflix said in his review that "the combination of Roman Empire-styled decadence and violence mixed with a vision of a bizarre, loveless corporate future is evocative and unsettling."[15]

On the other hand, Jay Cocks of Time Magazine posted a negative review of the film, saying that Caan looked "unconvinced and uncomfortable" as Jonathan E.[16]

The film has a 67% approval rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[17]

American Film Institute lists

In 1977 Caan himself rated the film 8 out of 10, saying he "couldn't do much with the character."[21]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ROLLERBALL (AA)". British Board of Film Classification. June 25, 1975. Retrieved June 20, 2015. 
  2. ^ "Rollerball". ArchiveGrid. Retrieved 27 September 2015. 
  3. ^ Vaughn, Stephen (2006). Freedom and Entertainment: Rating the Movies in an Age of New Media. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. p. 55. ISBN 0521852587. 
  4. ^ "Rollerball, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 22, 2012. 
  5. ^ "Rollerball (1975) Cast And Crew". Official website of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. 2000–2007. Retrieved October 3, 2007. 
  6. ^ "Contents Lists / The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 7". Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections, Combined Edition, by William G. Contento. 2003. Retrieved October 1, 2007. 
  7. ^ Cook, David A. (2000), Lost illusions: American cinema in the shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979, History of the American cinema, Charles Harpole, 9, Simon & Schuster, p. 243, ISBN 0-684-80463-8 
  8. ^ Booker, M. Keith (2010). Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema. Scarecrow Press. p. 66. ISBN 0-8108-5570-4. 
  9. ^ Vaughn, Stephen (2006), Freedom and Entertainment: Rating the Movies in an Age of New Media, Cambridge University Press, p. 55, ISBN 0-521-85258-7 
  10. ^
  11. ^ "All-time Film Rental Champs", Variety, 7 January 1976 p 46
  12. ^ "Rollerball Review". Variety. 
  13. ^ Canby, Vincent (June 26, 1975). "Futuristic World of 'Rollerball'". The New York Times. Retrieved March 5, 2014. 
  14. ^ "Rollerball". TV Guide. Retrieved September 27, 2013. 
  15. ^ Netflix - Rollerball review
  16. ^ Time Magazine - Rollerball Review
  17. ^
  18. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees
  19. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees
  20. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
  21. ^ James Caan's career hitting tough times. Siskel, Gene. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] November 27, 1977: e6.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Soylent Green
Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film
Succeeded by
Logan's Run