Rollerball – A Love Letter

It was the 15th April 1985 at five minutes past ten o’clock and I was a fatherless 14 year old grown up on a diet of science fiction and pulp novels. It was late, and even though I knew I had to get up in the morning and my tired eyes were heavy I knew that it was going to be a few more hours before I would get any sleep.

I heard the Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor begin to play and saw the image on the TV screen fade in to an oval track. Moments later two teams filed out onto the track and the film I had waited up for began.

This was the first time I had seen Rollerball, and though I had read many of William Harrison’s short stories Rollerball Murder had been one that had always evaded me.

I had no idea what to expect.

Over the next two hours I was taken into a world of corruption and violence where the brutality of the titled sport itself paled next to that of the executives who ran it. I watched as tough-guy Jonathan E was powerless against much weaker foes, and I felt my heart rise into my throat as the final match was played.

I always wondered what happened to Jonathan E after that final freeze frame, his face cast in defiance. I always hoped he went on protected by the love of those who watched him, people just like me, but the rage on Mr. Bartholomew’s face suggests otherwise.

By 1985 I had my own video recorder and that recording of Rollerball was played many times until replaced with an ex-rental Warner Home Video release of the film. Later came an MGM widescreen release, then MGM’s DVD.

The in May 2015 Twilight Time released the film on Blu-ray; and I was one of the first on the pre-order list.

Then Arrow Films released a UK edition almost a year later and I added this to my shelf too.

Rollerball is 40 years old as I write this, the Arrow edition could just as easily been the 40th Anniversary Release of the film as the film could not have been presented any better. Its a film that I have lived with for thirty years, and I’ve never been without a copy in all that time. The joyous faces of the assembled crowd at Jonathan E’s TV special still strikes me with a dull horror and I still want to chant “Jonathan” as the credits roll.

The conflict presented in the film itself is no more than the conflict felt by the films audience. We are drawn in my the violence as much as we are repelled by it. For me, a boy who grew to a man partially created by the obsessive viewing of these films, I wonder how much of me was inspired by men like Jonathan E.

I wonder how much of all of us are influenced by what we see.

I read the reports that state that violence in film creates violence in reality, some think that our agency as individuals is so weak. But if, for the sake of argument, this is true then why can’t the opposite affect be equally true?

Jonathan E is wilfully individual, he is brave and he is strong, He rallies against those who would control him, he defies those who are unjust.

I think if we take any values from these films it is these.

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