Hell on Wheels
December 11, 2013 | by James Hughes
During one of the most lucrative Thanksgiving weekends in Hollywood history, moviegoers hooked on the Hunger Games franchise once again embraced the vision of a populace preoccupied by blood sports. Millions more Americans stayed home and skirted family small talk while zoning out in the flat-screen glow of football coverage. Before NFL collisions in HD and murderous YA fiction in IMAX colonized our culture, a short story published in Esquire in 1973 anticipated the blitz on both fronts. William Harrison’s “Roller Ball Murder” forecasted a future where corporations have replaced all governments and world armies, and nationalism is exorcised at ultraviolent roller derbies. The games keep the people in line, so long as they’re tuned into what Harrison presciently dubbed “multivision.”
When I came across Harrison’s obituary in the October 30 edition of the New York Times—he passed away in Arkansas, at age seventy-nine—it was printed just below the obituary for the late Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Allan Stanley. Seeing the two notices printed in such proximity, the name that leapt to mind was Ontario’s own Norman Jewison, a lifelong Leafs fan and the Oscar-winning director of In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof. In 1975, Jewison adapted Harrison’s story for the screen and encouraged him to write the screenplay. The result was Rollerball, an underappreciated seventies curio that was revived briefly in the wake of a regrettable remake in 2002. The overlooked original still packs a punch.
Along with his production designer, John Box, a veteran of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Jewison faced the challenge of visualizing a sport that had previously resided solely in Harrison’s imagination. After months of experimentation, down to the creation of an ersatz Rollerball rulebook and a new typeface for uniforms and related regalia, Jewison’s crew managed to bring the game to life. The stadium, which was anchored by a massive, hardwood oval track, was modeled after architectural remnants from the Munich Olympics, an international competition haunted by terrorist infiltration. The Rollerball game itself, as depicted in the screen adaptation (there are slight modifications from the original story), revolves around brawlers decked out in spiked leather gloves who dodge gasoline fires and crashed motorcycles along the racetrack, all while protecting a steel ball and avoiding James Caan’s pterodactyl shoulders. Presiding over the carnage is the dispassionate CEO of ENERGY, the Houston-based behemoth at the center of the story, portrayed by the great John Houseman—an owl with skybox seats.
Though Jewison instantly recognized the cinematic potential of Harrison’s piece in Esquire, it was his experience as a hockey spectator that solidified his vision. “Around the time I read Bill’s story, I went to a hockey game at Chicago Stadium,” he told me over the phone last month. “It was a violent game, one filled with passion. All of a sudden, one of the players was hit and there was blood on the ice. The red blood against the white ice was so dramatic and compelling. The audience went crazy, like they were being fed by the violence. At that moment, I noticed all the police walked to the bottom of the aisle to keep watch.”
For Harrison, the impetus of the story was the belligerence he’d noticed taking place at international soccer matches, both on the field and off. As a Canadian, ice hockey was naturally Jewison’s analogue. “Hockey is probably one of the most violent games we have,” he said. “It used to be a game based on skill and wonderful skating, almost balletic, and now it’s based on violence. And it’s the same with American football.”
True to form, the NFL Roundup column in the November 19 Times, published the morning after Jewison and I spoke, read like Rollerball outtakes: a player suspended for ripping an opponent’s helmet off and head-butting him; league-appointed lawyers questioning the entire Miami Dolphins team to root out internal locker-room threats; charges being leveled against an unruly fan who slid from the third deck of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo and landed on an unsuspecting man below; a former linebacker crashing into an oncoming car on an Oakland highway while driving a hundred miles per hour, killing them both.
As potent as Jewison’s critique of competitive sports remains, it was not his primary target. “I was more interested in the political aspect of Rollerball,” he explained, adding that he bristled when a sportswriter at a major New York daily newspaper was assigned to review Rollerball upon its release instead of the resident film or culture critic. “I was interested in how political systems had failed—communism had failed, democracy had failed—and the world was taken over by corporate entities. The assumption was multinationals could solve all problems. So Bill and I broke down what society really needs—solvent energy sources, food, water—and we divided those needs into corporations. Each would have a Rollerball team, and that’s where the violent urges of the populace would be expelled.”
For all its thrilling depictions of centrifugal battle, where motorcycle stuntmen risked life and limb (only one was significantly injured during production, a broken leg—“Poor Brubaker,” Jewison winced), the most lasting images in the film unfold during a black-tie after-party, in which the rollerballers and their hangers-on pop pills and scroll through highlights of their most crushing body checks on wall-sized screens. “I had this feeling that privilege was given to the athletes, like in the days of Rome,” Jewison said. “Whether it’s Circus Maximus or the Stanley Cup, they’re like gladiators leaving the arena. The players are so exalted for their skill and for surviving. So we decided, well, there’s this kind of class society,” where the players enjoy the spoils of celebrity.
At the climax of the party, women in evening gowns slip away from the confines of the hillside palace and shoot trees with lasers at dawn, giggling and gritting their teeth as the trunks smolder. While laser blasts are the most sci-fi addition to Harrison’s original story, the situation feels vaguely plausible. Watching the scene again recently, I was reminded of the Australian tycoon fined by Canadian authorities last year for driving his yacht through the Northwest Passage during an alcohol-fueled party and allowing guests to hop off the boat and taunt native wildlife. According to the National Post, the drunken interlopers took photographs alongside muskox “in mock disco poses” while passengers on the deck shot paintballs and illegal fireworks into the pristine waters of the high Arctic.
And with the eyelash-singeing pyrotechnics of the Super Bowl only intensifying, I’m not sure I’d flinch if this year’s half-time show featured laser-assisted deforestation. Similarly, a debate has sparked regarding the location of the festivities, which will be centered at the taxpayer-funded MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Expecting a boon to the local economy, due in large part to the pageantry and nightlife surrounding the big game, townspeople and business owners in neighboring communities have objected to the sheer number of glitzy parties being hosted across the river, in the chic corridors of Manhattan. When the warriors and their charged-up fans tire of the velvet ropes that night, perhaps some will drift across the bridge to small-town New Jersey and torch the Pine Barrens. The nearby ticker-tape celebration could hide the evidence.
James Hughes is a writer and editor in Chicago.