Films such as The Hunger Games (2012) and Battle Royale (2000) featuring dystopian societies playing future sports that are fought to the death may well have been quite landmark flicks of more recent times, as well as naturally were the books that led to their adaptation, but if we go back to the mid 70’s it’s really here that things began and paved the way for such a concept. Two landmark films both arrived in 1975 and both have been firm favourites for those that grew up with them and both have been deemed still fresh and worthy enough to spur recent remakes. The less said about these terrible attempts at rehashing past glories the better though. The films in question are Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 where a big road race full of whacky cars annually competes across a futuristic fascistic America and points are gained not just for actually winning but also for running over as many pedestrians as possible. The sick humour of the film shines through especially when you consider that more points are earned killing children and babies and it’s a delirious and somewhat sick humourist scenario that badly needs the Blu-ray upgrade treatment. Whilst we keep fingers crossed that this may well one day come, focus falls on Norman Jewison’s in many ways parallel, bigger budget feature Rollerball, which has now got just such a well-deserved upgrade courtesy of Arrow Films.
The game itself is played in a big circular velodrome with the participants on roller skates and motorbikes. Points are scored by getting a big weighty steel ball, which is fired at high speeds into the playing area, into a circular goal hole. As for the rules, well there are not many of them and the worse a player will get for infractions are 3 minutes time out. Fighting to the death is one of the main spectacles of the game and fans of it revel in the bloodthirstiness of it all. Players wear big studded gauntlets and are encouraged to punch, kick, maim and bludgeon their opponents into bloody pulp and you definitely need to have eyes in the back of your head to be successful and survive at this sport. The action starts quickly with a match between Houston, led by national champion Jonathan E (James Caan) a ten year veteran, against Madrid making it clear this is very much an international and worldwide spectacle. The action scenes here are fast, furious and bloody. After the mayhem the plot unfolds and we gain an insight into the strange world that demands such entertainment. There have been corporate wars and society of 2018 when it is set, is now governed completely by the corporations. Poverty and wars are all things of the past, everyone is healthy, buildings are all clean and somewhat futuristically polished and we get the idea that all of our contemporary ills such as crime and violence away from the accepted sporting kind are eradicated. The problem being that Jonathon has got so big in status and fame the corporations want him to retire.
The long scenes between the three featured matches making up the 125 minute running time of the film are a bit long winded but they are also quite fascinating with it as Jonathan looks for answers and tries to get further insights into what is driving both society and the corporations. At a party held in his honour we see that it really is all about the beautiful people in the world, they have very strange ways of dancing and also have guns that they use for decedent leisure, firing one shot and pretty much destroying a whole massive pine tree (there’s very much a social message here). Jonathan’s nemesis throughout this is Corporation honcho Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) and in one unforgettable moment he enlightens us with the words “Rollerball was created to show the futility of individual effort in a corporate run world.” Jonathan has obviously gone completely against the grain though and the question is will he be an anarchist and go against the corporations or bow down to them?
Although you need to get embroiled in all this it is the matches that bring the action to the screen and as they progress through Houston vs a martial arts trained Tokyo to the grand final of Houston vs New York. The rules go further and further out the window and things get bloodier and ever more spectacular leaving the screen strewn with carnage. It really is quite breath-taking to watch and I’m sure most people viewing this would secretly lust after the sport becoming a reality, especially when what we get today is highly pampered prima donnas falling over and crying in the penalty area as our hero worshipped athletes! There are plenty of parallels between this and the aforementioned Death Race 2000 as well as further forays into other similar visions. The Italians were bound to get in on the action with films like Joe D’amato’s Endgame (1983) and of course the Stephen King penned The Running Man (1987) is another classic.
Rollerball is in my opinion the granddaddy of them all though and it was all the more odd coming from the director of Fiddler On The Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) prior to it. This probably explains why it got the budget it did, much bigger than most others of the sub-genre and why it was so widely distributed by United Artists. Although only seven when it came out, I do remember its eye catching poster displayed on cinemas and the underground as well as catching TV ads for it at the time. I probably wasn’t the only one to use imagination in the playground and devise a game based on what we thought the film would be like either. Thankfully TV screenings in the future and home video finally gave me the chance to see it fully and this is a film that scenes have stayed well in the subconscious even if it has been a good decade since I last saw it. Another thing that should be mentioned about the film is its brilliant use of classical music as the soundtrack. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue In d minor makes the opening and closing of the film all the more austere and powerful and the likes of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky are also remarkably used.
Right, on to the extras. First for those that want complete immersion into this world there’s commentary tracks from the director as well as writer William Harrison who adapted it from his own short story ‘Roller Ball Murder.’ Then there’s the soundtrack isolated music and effects track in 2.0 surround sound. Moving onto the features themselves 1st is an MGM making of segment with the makers and some actors talking about the film, from developing the script through to United Artists unexpected excitement at such an original idea and through to the impact it made. Certain things such as the reliance of pills that are popped throughout the film and the role of women in this society are discussed and it gives a lot of further insights into how everything was realised contextually. One thing that is very true about it is just how relevant the film is now, even more so perhaps than it was at the time. This was something I had picked up on in Jonathan’s mansion and the party scenes with the way technology had grown from then to what we have now. Sure they may not exactly nailed down the idea of computers but a lot of the other aspects were very prescient. The fact that many of the cast were stuntmen who had to learn not only how to skate and learn to play a game that was continuously being developed in this huge arena actually built on a basketball court in Munich is discussed in detail. It’s pretty impressive how they did it as is the fact that nobody actually broke their necks. Apparently nobody was “seriously hurt.” The film was loved in Europe on release and in America everyone wanted to play the game, something I can clearly understand and wish they did as we only have the three featured matches for now….
All new features from Arrow include a recent short chat with Caan ‘Blood Sports’ and the surprise revelation that a sequel was talked about with his character being hidden away from the corporations leading to an uprising; sound familiar to Hunger Games? Unfortunately he does not know what happened to the idea and although one still wouldn’t mess with Caan, it’s a bit late in the day to do it with him now. There’s a look back at the Munich settings that were used in the film by unit manager Dieter Meyer. The race track was the only modern one available worldwide that they could find built for the 1972 Olympics. Nice that it got used for something useful and memorable compared to the places England wasted all our money on with ours! He and Jimmy Berg the Houston team rookie in the film have plenty of interesting anecdotes about their time on the movie. Then there’s a feature on all the bike stunts on the film which is narrated by Craig R Baxley who was picked for his work as one of the top ten (and the youngest) stuntmen in the world. It’s all pretty exhaustive and finished off by an original short EPK, trailers and TV spots. One rather cheeky thing that doesn’t get a mention is that a couple of years after the film came out popular comic 2000AD came up with a series called Harlem Heroes, if you remember it there’s no denying its influence.
As per usual Arrow have gone balls out here and provided the best quality available ever for this cult classic with all the extras you could possibly need. It looks and sounds great, what’s not to love? Grab a ticket for the game at the following link; you too could be a hero!