Jewison, who directed The Cincinnati Kid and Fiddler on the Roof, was delighted that the game devised for his film turned out to be one that can be played in earnest. "It can be played, if it's played with very strict rules, Madrid rules" he said on the set. "But it is still a very violent game, though maybe no more so than football. There is a gladiatorial aspect to rollerball that frightens me. I keep cautioning the boys about it. They are all athletes—skaters, bikemen, stuntmen—and they love body contact, they love playing with a ball, they love speed and agility, and there is an enormous amount of skill involved. They experience the excitement of doing something really well, and I can understand their desire. But I am totally opposed to playing rollerball before a paying audience."
There may be something a little disingenuous about the way Jewison draws back in horror from the idea of rollerball being accepted as an actual sport. To a large extent he created the game, and his film will acquaint millions with it. Once the movie is released, it seems highly likely that there will be demonstration games, and if rollerball catches on, United Artists could find itself with a multimillion-dollar franchise.
What does Jewison have to say to the notion that Rollerball will, like A Clockwork Orange, itself engender violence? "I'll have failed if that happens," he remarks. "One of the problems of dealing with violence as a subject matter is that you have to use violence to discuss it. I had to have it in the film to carry through my ideas."
The chief of these is Jewison's theory that people want to see death and injury, that they are fascinated by it. Violence is an obscenity, he maintains, but it exists. "I'm a sports fan myself and my favorite sport is ice hockey, one of the most violent of sports. What people really want to see is blood on the ice. You have diehards who are just watching on the chance that some guy is going to get wrapped up.
"This game, rollerball, is a tool to help me say what I want to say. I hope it's not going to get too big—like cards in The Cincinnati Kid, which wasn't really just about a poker game. The card game was an instrument that got out of hand. That was also the problem in A Clockwork Orange. In the last three reels this distasteful, brutal, terrifying creature started to take on heroic proportions. That was exactly the opposite of what the author, Anthony Burgess, was trying to say in his book."
Such subtleties tend to be lost when the action starts on the 17-degree pitch of the wooden arena-cum-track that Herbert Schurmann, the world's leading architect of cycle and motorbike tracks, built of hardwood inside the Olympic basketball showplace. There just isn't any doubt in the observer's mind that here is a-viable game. Even a two-minute take is sufficient to suspend disbelief. Like Baron Frankenstein, Jewison may have created something that won't be kept locked up indoors.