Director Norman Jewison says he feared that he'd actually kill someone while making his searing statement about violence.

Published October 2, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Rollerball" (Special Edition)
Directed by Norman Jewison
Starring James Caan, John Houseman, Maud Adams
MGM Home Entertainment; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary, featurette, game

At first glance, it would appear that Norman Jewison was looking for a big change of pace after directing the screen versions of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." But "Rollerball," his gloomy sci-fi assessment of a world run by corporations, actually isn't that far thematically from its two immediate predecessors. In all three cases the story revolves around the upheaval that results when a strong individual clashes with a powerful establishment. In the case of "Rollerball," however, the central figure -- modern gladiator Jonathan E. (James Caan) -- is not a victim of circumstance. Rather, he's a hero in the truest sense: indomitable, unbreakable. Even against an adversary as chilling as |ber-executive Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman), Jonathan's fate is never really in doubt.

Jewison set out in this film to craft an anti-violence statement. By making the blood sport that is at the heart of the story as graphic as possible, he hoped audiences would share his distaste for the "mayhem as mass entertainment" that has become a hallmark of professional athletics. In this sense, Jewison failed spectacularly. The three separate rollerball matches depicted -- Houston vs. Madrid, Houston vs. Tokyo and Houston vs. New York -- are far and away the most exciting parts of the movie and the reason "Rollerball" remains a cult favorite to this day. A cross between roller derby, motocross and hockey, rollerball is a remarkable creation both as a sporting event and as a metaphor for society's need for violence as catharsis. Caan is perfectly cast as the champion who only grows stronger the more he plays the game.

The story, such as it is, concerns a boardroom decision that Jonathan has grown too popular and must retire. Jonathan refuses, and the powers that be implement a series of increasingly severe rule changes for the sole purpose of eliminating him in the arena. The middle of the film gets derailed as Jonathan searches to find out why he's being pushed out of the sport he loves (even though the reason is clear to everyone else) and as he grapples with unresolved feelings for the woman he loves (Maud Adams). But every time the action switches back to the rollerball arena, the movie once again jolts to life and, with its superb camerawork and fast editing, is arguably one of the better depictions of sports on film.

The DVD version benefits enormously from an audio commentary by Jewison, who describes how the game was devised and the efforts of an army of stuntmen to master the complex skates-and-cycles sport. "We had to play the game many, many times to work out all the rules," he says. "I lived in a constant state of fear that I was going to kill someone." The rollerball matches, Jewison notes, were filmed in chronological order. The players became progressively better as the filming continued, which is why the final Houston-New York matchup is so much more physical than the earlier Houston-Madrid contest. A making-of featurette includes behind-the-scenes footage of the production, shot mostly in a converted velodrome in Munich, Germany. There's also a dumb game that involves guessing the correct order of scenes.

"I was trying to stay away from the exploitation of violence that I was trying to attack," Jewison says. John McTiernan, director of "Die Hard," has no such illusions for the "Rollerball" remake slated to be released next spring. He has already said he wants to tighten the focus on the game and largely forget about all that other human-interest stuff. He's probably right, although that doesn't say much for how far we as a society have advanced since the original movie debuted 25 years ago.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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