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 dates
  • 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. A remake of the film, directed by John McTiernan, was released in 2002 to overwhelmingly negative reception.


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 to score points by the offensive team (the team in possession of the ball) 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. It 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 a sport designed 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, Jonathan has become the most recognizable Rollerballer in history; everyone recognizes him on sight. After another impressive performance in Houston's victory over the Madrid team, Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), chairman of the Energy Corporation, announces that they are running out of ways to reward their champion and will feature Jonathan in a "multivision" special devoted to his career.

Mr. Bartholomew later tells Jonathan that they want him to retire. He offers him a lavish retirement package, including special "privileges", if he announces his retirement on the televised special. Mr. Bartholomew emphasizes the benefits of corporate-run society and the importance of respecting executive decisions, but does not explain why they want Jonathan to retire. It is revealed that Jonathan was married to Ella (Maud Adams), which ended when she was promised to an executive.

Jonathan struggles to understand why he must retire while relaxing at his ranch. Later, he tries to access some books from a library, but to his disappointment, he finds that they have been classified, transcribed, and stored in one of the corporate computer banks. Jonathan comforts himself at his ranch by watching a video of his ex-wife, and finds that the corporation has sent him another concubine, Daphne.

Rollerball soon degrades into senseless violence; the rules of upcoming games are made more dangerous in order to force Jonathan out. It is announced that the semi-final game versus the Tokyo team will be played with no penalties and limited player substitutions, yet Jonathan refuses to yield and intends to play. An instructor (Robert Ito) insists on teaching the Houston team how to counter the Tokyo team's unorthodox martial arts skills, but the team, brimming with confidence, drowns him out with chants of "Houston"! The brutality of the match claims the lives of several players, including Houston's lead biker, Blue; it leaves Jonathan's best friend and teammate Moonpie (John Beck) in a persistent vegetative state and brain-dead. Jonathan defies the Tokyo hospital and insists on keeping Moonpie on life support and transporting him elsewhere for medical care.

The corporations hold an emergency meeting to discuss Jonathan's obstinate refusal to retire, and decide that the championship game against the New York team will be played without penalties, player substitutions, or a time-limit, in the hope that Jonathan will be killed during the course of the game. The executives' meeting reveals why they are demanding Jonathan's retirement: Rollerball was conceived not merely to satisfy man's blood lust, but to demonstrate the futility of individualism. Jonathan's singular talent and longevity in the sport defeats the intended purpose of Rollerball. Before the match, Jonathan is visited by his ex-wife, Ella, who reveals that she has a son with her new husband and that the corporations had ordered her to visit him to convince him to retire.

After continued personal introspection, Jonathan decides to play in the final game. It quickly loses all semblance of order as its players are incapacitated or killed. The crowd, raucous and energetic at the game's beginning, gradually become more and more subdued as the carnage builds, finally becoming a gladiatorial "last man standing" event. Jonathan is the last Houston player; two players remain from New York. After a violent struggle, Jonathan dispatches one of them, gets the steel ball, and grabs the last, helpless New York player. He is about to kill him with the ball as the world watches in complete silence. With a moment's pause, Jonathan releases the player, slowly gets to his feet, and painfully makes his way to the goal; he scores the only point of the game, the final score: Houston 1, New York 0.

Jonathan immediately starts 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 their voices gradually grow louder and louder as Jonathan continues to circle the track. Seeing his worst fears realized, Mr. Bartholomew hurries to exit the arena in blind panic, knowing that Jonathan E. has just defeated the purpose behind the game. As the cheering reaches its climax, there is a freeze frame hold on Jonathan's blurred face, against which is contrasted Bach's iconic music 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]

  • IJK Software based its Commodore 64 game Rocketball (1985) on Rollerball.
  • In the cyberpunk manga Battle Angel Alita, "Motorball" is a popular, bloody sport based on Rollerball.
  • German rock band Scorpions (Band) began writing their band name in all official artwork in the same font as that of the Rollerball title on the movie poster; this has been their official logo ever since.

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