The Blood of Heroes (1988)
aka Salute of the Jugger

Copyright Richard Scheib 1994

Plot: It is some time after civilization has fallen. A band of juggers roam the landscape, challenging small village teams to competition in a brutal game that is a combination of football and gladiatorial combat. In one of the villages they take on a new teammate Kidda. As she becomes involved with the team’s leader Sallow, Kidda learns of how Sallow was a top jugger but was banished from the cities because of an affair with the woman of an Overlord. She pushes Sallow and the team to make a return to compete in the city leagues.

The Salute of the Jugger, which was retitled The Blood of Heroes in the US, is an interesting and unusual variation on the standard Mad Max 2 (1981) clone. For a start its director, David O. Peoples, was responsible for such estimiable screenplays as Blade Runner (1982) and Twelve Monkeys (1995), not to mention non-genre work like the Oscar-winning script for the Clint Eastwood Western Unforgiven (1992). It’s a post-holocaust film where much more effort has been placed into the world it inhabits than the action scenes. Some of Peoples’ dialogue has a real poetry - names like ‘Elegant Ladies’, ‘a hundred stones’, ‘the Nine Cities’, a description of “silk as soft as wind on your cheek” - that rolls on the tongue with resonant imagery. The film that The Salute of the Jugger most resembles is Robert Altman’s Quintet (1979) - which similarly centered around an invented post-holocaust game (whose rules were never spelt out to the audience) and set against a complex and densely detailed but deliberately never explained decayed future. And The Salute of the Jugger shares exactly the same problems that Quintet did - the fact that the audiences are not privy to the rules of the games in either film makes empathy a hard job. One could call it an interesting film more so than an accessible one.
Where The Salute of the Jugger differs from the average Mad Max clone is that the densely textured post-holocaust backdrop of the Mad Max films is here played for a gritty realism rather than comic-book action. The texture seems to have been even more intensified here, at times made just downright strange. Peoples litters it with all sorts of incongruous images - Gandhi MacIntyre for no apparent reason wears a small duchess on his back, at another point someone in a foreground shot is seen picking their teeth with a keyring. And some of the design work in the Red City is strikingly surreal.

The film was marketed as a Mad Max clone and, despite the lack of understanding of the film that this demonstrates, selling it as a futuristic action film is in essence a correct move, for the place where the film does engage one is not so much in its complex and enigmatically withheld future backdrop and mystifying game, but in capturing the same emotions that essentially fuel all team sports movies - which is basically the desire to see a team win against the odds that are stacked against them. And as such the film engages one reasonably effectively. Rutger Hauer gives a performance that is typically tough and phlegmatic. The one to watch though is Joan Chen, a tough and alert fighter - she seems to be doing her own stunt-work and moves with an impressively lithe and balletic dexterity.



The Blood of Heroes (1988)
aka Salute of the Jugger

Written and directed by David Peoples
Starring Rutger Hauer Joan Chen Vincent D'Onofrio Delroy Lindo Anna Katerina

Review written by :-Dragan Antulov a.k.a. Drax
-The Sci-Fi Movie Page

It's nice to know that, even if western civilization goes to hell'n'gone, some things will remain constant. Rutger Hauer will still be tough enough to chew nails with a smile. Joan Chen will still be cute as a button, but tough enough that you'd never say it to her face. And people in a post-apocalyptic subsistence economy will still devote far too much energy and enthusiasm to sports. (I'm not a sports person. Can you tell?)

Called "jugging," this particular sport is all the rage with those scattered pockets of people who live in villages of a half-dozen tents and dress in earth-toned broadweave fabrics. It's pretty simple, in a believable way: There are two five-person teams and one dog skull. Each team wants to get the dog skull onto the spike at the other end of the playing area. Contusions and fractures are no impediment. Armor and padding are made from whatever pre-holocaust materials come to hand (rubber tires are a favorite; football pads, a la The Road Warrior, are practically nonexistent).

Sallow (Rutger Hauer) is the leader of one such itinerant team, which makes its living wandering from settlement to settlement and playing the home teams. Kidda (Joan Chen) is a member of the home team, a "quik" (the only player allowed to touch the skull -- everone else just tries to whomp on the other team's quik) whose ambitions as a jugger take precedence over her parents' dirt-farming business. The home team gets its collective ass handed to it, and Kidda gets some extra facial scars for her trouble, but she does manage to work over Sallow's quik's knee well enough that he can't travel with the team, and they have to take her on as a replacement (at her insistence).

No, romance does not immediately sprout between Sallow and Kidda. Standard practice, as with sports heroes of all eras, is to sow some wild oats with the willing locals in each town. (In a nice moment of equality, the other female jugger on Sallow's team also has her pick of the nervous and supplicating boytoys.) Kidda instead finds herself in a bedroll with Gar (Vincent D'Onofrio), the chain-wielding "goalie" of her team, until they discover that Sallow was right: Two juggers can't have sex after a game unless they like rubbing wound against wound.

But there's more standing between them than a chain-swinging lunkhead. Sallow's got some history to him; as related by old Gandhi (Ganhdhi MacIntyre), the team's trainer/manager, Sallow used to be in the League, the fabled jugging organization of the Nine Cities. Then he took up too publicly with one of the high-society women and offended her husband, and got himself kicked out to make a living playing in these "dog towns." And that stands in the way of Kidda's ambitions; she wants to get noticed by the League, which can only happen when an amateur team is permitted to challenge the big boys, and with Sallow's face in their roster, who in the League would permit the challenge?

Sallow does eventually decide to go for the challenge after all; perhaps losing an eye in a match helps him reevaluate his priorities. Whatever the reason, his team rallies around him, and off they troop to the elevator in the middle of nowhere that takes people several hours underground to the Nine Cities, a cramped and stratified environment starkly divided into the haves and the have-nots. Oh, and their juggers are mean. Really, really mean.

Now, if you ignore all of the post-apocalyptic stuff, then this is a sports movie, pure and simple. It's got all the classic hallmarks: the young up-and-comer who wants her shot, the has-been who's hesitant about trying again, the one-chance-only game where they've got a chance to hit the big time. As cliche as it is, the movie carries the story well, with the extreme but plausible game of jugging adding the novel twist. The characterizations are understated but present, and the script is both competent and competently delivered.

Unfortunately, most of that falls apart in the last twenty minutes or so. Lord Vlle (Hugh Keays-Byrne of Mad Max), the husband whom Sallow pissed off, shows up as a make-do heavy, trying to set up the challenge match in such a way that Sallow gets taken to pieces. Unfortunately, it's simply too late in the story to have a major antagonist show up and make much of a difference. His wife, the one over whom Sallow lost it all, is barely more than a blip on the radar.

But worse, the story simply doesn't know how to end. What is the resolution we've been working for? Is it Kidda being noticed and courted by the League? Somehow, after her eye-opening look around jugging as performed in the Nine Cities, that seems a hollow prize. Is it Sallow regaining his confidence and proving he's still got it? Unfortunately, we don't really understand why he's doing what he's doing, and where he wants to go from there. (Again, the high-born woman of his former dalliance doesn't figure into the climax enough to make her any part of his motivation.) Is it the defeat of Lord Vlle's dastardly plan? Hard to justify hanging an entire movie on a dastardly plan birthed fifteen minutes before the closing credits. And anyway, Vlle doesn't get much of a resounding comeuppance; he simply is thwarted in his desires to break Sallow for good -- a defeat, I suppose, but a passive one.

Despite that, The Blood of Heroes is certainly one of the more seriously-made post-apocalyptic adventures of the '80's, i.e., crafted by people who honestly wanted to make a good movie instead of simply cash in on a trend. While David Peoples never occupied the director's chair again, his career as a screenwriter has been productive; previous to this, he had such features as Blade Runner and Ladyhawke under his belt (gee, you wonder why he thought of Rutger Hauer for the lead?), and has since been credited with Unforgiven and Twelve Monkeys, among others. The positives of those other movies are on display here, albeit in an imperfect form, and explain why this movie still deserves the space it takes up at the rental store.