I was watching Rollerball this afternoon. Great movie. A dystopian classic from the 70s starring James Caan. Violent but thoughtful. A social commentary but also an ode to the individual human spirit and its irrepressible nature.
But there was a really interesting and dark moment which made me go back and watch it again after the film was concluded. It involved the death of a friend, reaction and revenge.
James Caan plays Jonathan E. He is the most famous player in Rollerball and also the longest survivor. Rollerball is ultra-violent. People get killed often enough that it is considered part of the game. It is done to keep the people entertained while also teaching them that the individual can never rise above the collective. It is a team sport, and yet Jonathan E. has become a superstar.
Alongside him is Moonpie, played by John Beck. Moonpie is a young star for the Houston team, idolising Jonathan while also being a good friend. He enjoys life and talks big. He seems to be the team hatchetman, as we Brits would call it. A player who goes out there to hurt the opposition. He is big and strong and brash and brutal. We see him smash down other humans and cheer about it, and yet he seems a likeable person. It is all part of the game.
That’s why we feel bad when he gets taken out in a match later on in the movie. While playing Tokyo, in a even more violent than usual game, Moonpie is targeted by three players and punched in the back of the head. He is in a coma for the rest of the movie.
Lets be honest, he deserved it. They all do. They play a barbaric sport and live by the code – you dish it out, you take it, just try to dish it out worse than you take it. But you feel bad for this young man who could have lived a rich life.
Jonathan sees Moonpie attacked, and we see him take this the same way we do. His young, brazen friend is hurt bad. This could be it. He has paid the price for playing Rollerball.
And yet Jonathan doesn’t let out a mighty Noooooooo!!! He doesn’t drop to his knees and weep. He doesn’t run out there and pull Moonpie to safety, where he is sat in the ring’s centre.
He watches as Moonpie is pulled in. He ties his bootlaces. He glances over occasionally. He gets ready to go back out there. He seems unconcerned. It is almost as if he has just accepted it and moved on. Perhaps playing this game for so long has left him cold inside. As he gets up and leaves, his foot hits one of Moonpie’s limp legs. He is almost stepping over his fallen comrade.
But then he goes out there, picks out one of the attackers (I made sure of this, it’s definitely one of the three) and plans with a team-mate. They corner this man. He knows what is happening but can’t escape. Jonathan attacks him, swipes his helmet off and smashes him over the back of the head. Even though it isn’t clear, I think we can safely assume the Tokyo player is dead.
Jonathan pauses. The team-mate looks at him with a measure of shock.
You see, this was different. That wasn’t brutality as part of the game. That was murder. Jonathan picked the man out, trapped him and coldly executed him. He knows it too. He wanted revenge.
The whole thing is an insight into Jonathan and into the story as a whole. He is a quiet and controlled man, but inside he is a striver for more and an independent spirit. When he sees a friend taken out in a game where this happens a lot, he chooses to get his revenge. He seems matter-of-fact. He is likely hardened by the violence and losses inside, just as he carries numerous scars on the outside. He appears to shut down any emotion. But he hasn’t, and so when it comes out, it is an act of murder. We see this again at the end when he breaks a man in front of the executives trying to force him to retire.
This is where I have to pay tribute to James Caan. I’m a big fan of his anyway but he is great in this role. He has that kind of handsome but rugged look to suit a superstar in the bloodsport of the future. He looks tough enough to be Jonathan E. But he is also able to carry quiet power and inner strength. He’s as mean as they come. He loves the game. He lives for it. He carries resentment inside due to things in his past. Caan is able to convey all of this. He is a brooding menace.
When first told of the decision for him to retire, he asks why. That’s all. No tantrums. No threats. He just wants to know why. This might not seem much, but people aren’t meant to ask why. The society of this film is about acceptance. Jonathan is used to taking orders, having choices made for him. He is used to fighting and to winning. But he questions in his quiet manner. Throughout the film he keeps questioning. He starts to resist. More and more, he sees control around him. He refuses to do as he is told. When his lost love tries to get him to comply, it is the final straw. He won’t quit but he has nothing to fight for any more.
He goes out and fights anyway. That’s what he is. He is a champion the corporations made and now he is out of their control. The people love him too much.
So earlier, when he sees Moonpie go down, taken out by the opposition, it is fascinating to watch him. He is too used to complying. He goes through the motions. But inside he is already out for blood. He can’t be stopped. He won’t be. He goes out and does what he does.
PS: Funnily enough, just seen that James Caan gave the movie 6 out of 10, saying he couldn’t do much with the character. Hmmm, maybe I read too much into his performance. Maybe I just see more in it than he does. I still think he plays it really well and trying too hard would have been a lost worse.