The Blood of Heroes/The Salute of the Jugger (1989)
David Webb Peoples
Rutger Hauer (Sallow), Joan Chen (Kidda), Delroy Lindo (Mbulu), Anna Katarina (Big Cimber), Vincent D’Onofrio (Young Gar), Gandhi MacIntyre (Gandhi)
“People no longer remembered the Golden Age of the 21st Century. They didn’t remember the miraculous technology or the cruel wars that followed. They didn’t remember when Juggers first played The Game or how it came to be played with a dog skull.” – taken from the opening of the movie.
Sports movies are stupid. I’m not saying that sports movies aren’t entertaining or that they’re not often well made or that they can’t be inspiring, but they represent a simplified version of “good” and a hollow sense of triumph. Rudy only got to play one period in an unimportant game of a sport he wasn’t even any good at, Rocky‘s career is book-ended by defeat, The Replacements go back to being nobodies once the strike ends, the Mean Machine still have to continue being prisoners after having just made fools of the people in charge of their lives, and Major League 3 happens. Yet all these movies end with big triumphant celebrations even when the victory was just trying really hard and still losing (you get the most epic slow claps for that).
The marriage of something as thematically shallow as a sports movie to something as thematically deep as a doomsday picture is more than a bit contradictory. Surprisingly this formula isn’t unpopular and often represents two great tastes that taste great together, as Rollerball and Deathrace 2000 can attest. The Blood of Heroes (or The Salute of the Jugger as it was originally known) is a sports movie about a team of Juggers (post-apocalyptic athletes in a game which is never named in the movie, but which the internet tells me is also called Jugger) who travel from town to town playing a very American football/rugby-esque game where the goal is to impale a dog skull on a stick.
The first and the biggest mistake the movie makes is not telling the audience how Jugger is played. The viewer can puzzle out the basics: the Qwick carries the skull and impales it on the opposing team’s stick, the Slash swings their flail around their head to protect the Qwick, and everyone else hits each other with sticks. Still it’s never clear what the difference is between Rutger Hauer’s position and position of team-mates Anna Katarina and Delroy Lindo; they seem to be the same role but they wear different gear and have different titles. Just out of curiosity I looked up the rules and found out that Jugger is a real game that is played in Germany and Australia because sometimes people misunderstand the messages of movies. In any case the real-world rules seem to contradict the movie and real-life Jugger is somehow even lamer than real-life Quidditch.
Even though you may not understand the rules, you can pick up enough to know whether someone is losing or winning and the fact that the matches don’t last very long (three rounds of a designated person throwing a pile of one-hundred similar sized stones at a piece of sheet metal) makes for an ideal sport to be utilized in a movie. In any case, the plot is only really only about Jugger in as much as it affects the life of Kidda (Joan Chen).
When we’re introduced to Kidda she’s a poor laborer in a small dog town (no explanation of this colloquialism is given but it seems to refer to poor farming and mining communities) who dreams of fame and fortune. When the town’s Jugger team loses its Qwick, Kidda volunteers and injures our heroes’ own Qwick, Dog Boy (a character in awful scar-faced make-up that makes his head look like a half-melted candle), to the point that he can no longer walk. She takes over because Dog Boy is kind of a dick and at his request (Quote: “No! No. Nobody carries the Dog Boy.”) they pretty much leave him to die in the desert.
Kidda finds her path to the top through Sallow (Rutger Hauer); he used to play for The League of Nine Cities (a cadre of dystopian rich people that live underground and treat the surface people as violent dogs who perform for their amusement and profit; picture FIFA or the NFL but not quite as evil) but got kicked out due to his public affair with an “elegant lady” (Note: For convenience sake I will refer to the upper class as “Elegants” for the remainder of this review), but he knows how to challenge The League and his original team lasted longer than any other in challenging them. I don’t think it’s a spoiler when I tell you that the plucky underdogs triumph over the elite bad guys and much hugging and cheering ensues. But it’s dumb.
What’s really interesting is the way the movie handles Kidda. With the exception of Dog Boy’s charming “I’m gonna rip your tits off, Bitch” there are really no further acknowledgements that Joan Chen is a tiny Asian lady. This is probably one of the most gender neutral stories in the history of film (Anna Katarina’s Big Cimber never even gets addressed as a woman at all). She starts a relationship with Young Gar but that’s barely even acknowledged and it never proves to be a weakness on her part to be attracted to another human being. She does have an obsession with silk but that seems to be more about the status symbol of the material than anything. The movie does lean just slightly toward a potential romance between Kidda and Sallow but it just drops it pretty quickly and their relationship remains one of mutual admiration.
While Rutger Hauer elevates the material as always, it’s Joan Chen who really shines here. Kidda is naive but she’s strong and smart, she has shallow desires but they’re based on a life of hardship and you can can kind of understand her selfishness. Chen disappears into her character fully and apparently did most of her own stunts in the movie. The physicality of her role alone is worth celebrating, but it’s just the cherry on top.
As great as those things are, they add up to a bit of a dud of a movie. The Blood of Heroes does have one ace up its sleeve though: world building, thanks to some seriously under-appreciated set designers and the imagination of director/writer David Peoples (remember that name, you’re going to see it a bunch in this column). It would appear that the elegants ran underground during the period of great war while the surface dwellers are the spawn of the unlucky bastards that managed to not die when everything was going down. The elegants are very old-world in their speech and the way that they dress, while the surface dwellers are more like a giant cargo cult clinging to what bits of the old world are left and filling in the rest themselves, it shows a definite thread of how Jugger was born.
Spoilers are coming. Watch the movie and come back or proceed at your own risk.
While it’s obviously a surface sport, the elegants have co-opted Jugger as a way of pacifying the indentured servants so that they can glean entertainment from watching the unwashed peasants beat on each other like the gladiators of old. Jugger has a very “bread and circuses” feel about it. The horror of Kidda’s dream is spoiled before she even gets a chance to realize it. Sallow tells her that League Juggers are “treated like” citizens but Kidda is so over-the-moon thinking about the luxury that she doesn’t read the subtext in his statement. This gives the big scene where Sallow hands Kidda the dog skull and we pan out to see all the members of the rival team beaten as he says “Walk. Slowly.” a note of menace. Sallow has just gone out of his way to show up and humiliate a prominent member of the the society he and his team are about to be joining. That’s not a happy ending, that’s the end of The Hunger Games.
I don’t know if there was ever a sequel planned, but the Juggers just spit in the face of the oppressive government, there’s a lot of places to go with that. What are the reprecussions of this win? Will there be a reunion between Sallow and the elegant lady? How will naive little Kidda handle life amongst the elegants and will it be as wonderful as she dreamed? Will Sallow’s enemy turn Kidda against him somehow? Will the people ever realize that Jugger is just a distraction to keep them from rebelling?
The second biggest problem with The Blood of Heroes is that all of the most interesting details are hidden in the background: the hotel consisting of cot-size shelves on an impossibly tall wall, the way bolts and other bits of small metal are used as currency, the little snippets of future slang, the class disparity between elegants and surface dwellers. You get the impression that there’s a lot more movie that should be happening here but there just isn’t.
I can find almost nothing on the making of this movie save this article written by someone who claims to have been on-set for four days. He claims that Peoples wasn’t great with the crew, Rutger Hauer was a diva, and the editor hacked the movie to shit. There was apparently more plot with Kidda, a subplot about the primary religion of the wastelanders, a great deal more with the movie’s barely-seen villain, and more establishing of The Red City. According to the article, The Blood of Heroes was a big-budget science fiction movie made to look cheap by bad editing and a writer/director who wasn’t ready to direct. Now, I take that article with a grain of salt (as should you) but all of those statements seem rather plausible when viewing the movie, and the fact that this is Peoples’ one directing credit seems to support that.
Even with all its flaws, I would never call The Blood of Heroes a bad movie. So much of it works far too well to ever be truly bad, but it certainly feels light and thin. If you look below the surface there is a deep and rich story that begs exploring, but on the surface it’s just another dumb sports movie. Still it’s an entertaining sports movie and those depths do add to that, and if you look at it as a deep sports movie rather than a dumb doomsday movie it’s actually pretty solid. It’s a bit spare but The Blood of Heroes is too interesting not to see at least once.
The Blood of Heroes had ten minutes cut from its running time in the U.S. and that version is the only one available on DVD. You can buy this grainy full-screen DVD with no special features from Amazon or just watch a rip of it on Amazon Instant. Sorry folks, but that’s all you can get without dipping into the foreign market (and your options aren’t remarkably better there) so maybe spam Shout! Factory, Blue Underground, and Severin with requests for a proper restoration and see if you can make something happen.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS