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The Tokyo team—yellow jerseys, black samurai headbands, motorcycle leathers—stands in the center of the arena, divided and angry with itself. "That was a cheap score," one player snarls. Another mutters, "We'll get them again, we'll get them again." The short man who dangles a bullhorn and looks like a coach is unhappy, too. "You got to get in there and play defense," he growls.
The next play starts with a cracking exhalation of compressed air. From a cannon mouth set high on the raked wall of the arena, a heavy metal ball six inches in diameter is discharged, whizzing too fast to be seen. It rackets around the rim of the circular stadium like a roulette ball, gradually slowing into visibility. Then, with the ear-shattering cacophony of an armored division roaring through the cobbled streets of a small town, motorcycle engines rev up to a screech and the hardwood floor of the bowl is hammered by the desperately accelerating roller skates of the unmounted players—seven in the orange of the Houston team, seven in the yellow of Tokyo, protected or menaced by three auxiliary cycle riders on each team.
The Houston catcher intercepts the ball, raises it high, then grabs at the steel tubing welded behind the saddle of a Houston cycle. The cyclist accelerates to 45 mph, hauling the catcher behind him. Other Houston skaters, clinging to the two other Houston cycles, form a wedge around the catcher, individuals breaking off to crash into the Tokyo defense as it forms to stop this first obligatory circuit of the arena before a score can be made. Bodies crunch formidably. A cycle skitters off course and crashes, its wheels spinning in air, the rider scurrying to safety. But Houston barrels on, and the second time around the man in possession of the ball is close to making a score, which is accomplished by hurling the ball into a magnetized tunnel. This time, though, the last-ditch Tokyo defensemen do a better job. The Houston wedge is shattered by a flurry of kicks and karate chops. Impeded, the Houston player hurls the ball wide. It goes out of play, and the Tokyo skaters still standing grab each other and scream with joy.
There is a story, no doubt apocryphal, that the great Russian director Eisenstein recruited several thousand Tartar tribesmen to work as extras in the battle scenes when he was making Ivan the Terrible, and that they were so carried away by the fighting that a number of Red Army tanks had to be called in to stop the all-too-real carnage.
No tanks were needed at the Basketball Stadium in Munich's Olympic complex last fall, when producer-director Norman Jewison was making his film, Rollerball, which is to be released by United Artists on June 24. But a kind of involvement similar to the one that fatally gripped the Russian tribesmen had clearly cast a spell on the muscular athletes—California Roller Derby pros, English roller-hockey players, battered stuntmen—that Jewison recruited to play the crunchingly violent game, a murderous amalgam of pro football, Roller Derby, hockey, judo and motorcycle racing, which is the centerpiece of his film. Four teams are involved: Madrid, Tokyo, Houston and New York. As Jewison discovered in the course of making the film, as soon as an athlete donned a colored jersey he strongly identified with his team and felt compelled to play for real. Hence such unfortunate lapses as Houston's failure to score when the script called for it.
Eddie Kubo, recruited from Santa Clara, Calif. to captain the Tokyo team because of his Oriental appearance, spoke for most of the players: "We want to skate the game," he said. "When we start up, everybody forgets the filming and we're competing for the ball. I certainly think this could be a viable game. You'd have to tighten up the rules to stop it being a bloodbath. There'd have to be a definite pattern for the cycles to follow. You'd have to play it Madrid rules. No coming up and chipping a guy from behind. None of that."
Madrid rules aren't an exotic Spanish variation of the regular ones. The film sprang from a short story by William Harrison, which postulates a society 40 years from now in which war has been abolished by a world government of paternalistic corporations. Society demands a war substitute, however, and this is provided through sport—more and more deadly sport relayed to audiences of up to 4 billion on a kind of super TV called Multivision. But the corporations are uneasy about a new development in the most popular sport of all—rollerball. Their philosophy does not allow for the emergence of a superstar, especially one who shows signs of rebelling against the system, as does Jonathan E, the catcher of the Houston team. In 2018, when the movie starts, Houston has reached the playoffs of the World Rollerball League for the third straight year and is competing against Madrid in the quarterfinals. In this contest the rules, while permitting a great deal of pummeling and body contact, are still those of a game, even though the electronic scoreboard flashes casualty lists as well as goals.
But Jonathan E (played by James Caan) has to be destroyed, the corporations decide. So in the next game against Tokyo the rules are amended so that the sport becomes still more violent, and in the final, in which Houston plays New York, they are virtually abandoned in favor of general mayhem.
Madrid rules, freewheeling as they are, make it just possible to play rollerball in reality, and last September in Germany, in the final week of shooting, the players were determined to put on a game for the public before the teams split up. The Basketball Stadium holds about 5,000 people; 8,500 turned up for the game and police had to be called out to turn away the unlucky ones.