How ‘The Blood of Heroes’ aka ‘The Salute of the Jugger’ birthed a whole sport unto itself.
In 1989, legendary screenwriter David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) took a shot at directing, and his first and only moment in the director’s chair gave us an ingenious blend of a post-apocalyptic setting and sports action. A perceived 99 percent of all post-apocalyptic actioners take their attitude and style from the original Mad Max trilogy but with The Blood of Heroes (aka The Salute of the Jugger) Peoples went into a refreshingly new direction. For the film, he invented the sport of Jugging, a mix of American Football, American Gladiators and Blood Bowl, where two armored and weaponized teams compete for a dog skull. His producers entrusted Peoples only with a relatively small budget, but this did not stop him from creating a masterpiece!
After a cataclysmic event, the world has been a barren desert ever since. Sallow (Rutger Hauer) leads a squad of fighters, who are traveling from village to village to compete in Jugging matches. Their ultimate dream is to collect enough trophies to enter the subterranean Nine Cities where life is pleasant. To earn their place among the lucky few, Sallow and his team need to defeat the elite Juggers from the league of the Nine Cities.
“The Juggers Are Coming!”
Peoples created a true wasteland that is not just a playground for action heroes. The post-apocalyptic desert does not look epic or inviting for adventure, but just desolate and bleak. The minimalist sets show exactly enough to create a believable world. The story is told straightforward, but the pacing of the film is fairly mellow outside of the matches. This perception is also enhanced by everyone walking slowly through the desert and grabbing every opportunity to sit or lie down to recover their strength.
Besides the matches and the journey to the Nine Cities, we get some insights into the minds of our protagonists, as they share their dreams and worries with each other. There is also no animosity between the players of different squads outside of the game. Despite the often crippling matches, they even celebrate together after a game. The Blood of Heroes is one of the rare post-apocalyptic actioners where characters are not cynical, but trying to live as humanely as possible even in the hardest of all times.
A great cast breathes life into their characters, among them future Hollywood mainstays Vincent D’Onofrio and Delroy Lindo. The pack is lead by the late Rutger Hauer who functions as the film’s center of gravity, and is as charismatic and commanding as ever. Joan Chen is Kidda the “Qwik”, the runner on the field who is the only player allowed to touch the dog skull. Both her and Hauer’s character drive the story, and both of them deliver intense and sincere performances.
A Post-Apocalyptic Journey With Bone-Shattering Sports Action
The absence of a villain or even remotely malignant characters may disappoint people looking for a classic good vs. bad showdown. There’s plenty of action to be found in the Jugger matches, though. They are intense, raw, and devoid of any pathos. The focus is all on the game, and Peoples masterfully succeeds at drawing the audience right into the middle of the playing field.
There is no elaborate choreography or spectacular moves, just punching and bludgeoning, with plenty of broken bones and blood being spilled during the matches. The teams take no prisoners on the battlefield, and an injury can not only mean the end of your career but a return to the fight for survival just like everyone else, with the added tragedy that with a broken limb you’re actually worse off than everyone else.
The Blood of Heroes is a gem of 1980s genre cinema. Peoples invented a new sport and created an incredibly immersive setting with some bone-shattering action! As an entry to the sports action genre, for my taste it even trumps classics like Rocky IV, and is the best of its decade!