Welcome back, Wastelanders.
With the recent passing of legendary actor Rutger Hauer, I thought it only fitting to revisit his single greatest contribution to the post apocalyptic genre.
I'm talking about the largely forgotten 1989 cult classic, The Blood of Heroes, aka Salute of the Jugger.
The film opens on a desert vista, with a rough-looking group of wanderers approaching a small town. These wanderers are Juggers, players of a savage sport known only as The Game. At their head is veteran player Sallow (Hauer).
Excitement in the village mounts at the strangers' arrival. The local team of Juggers quickly assembles, prepared to play off against the newcomers. The rest of the villagers gather to watch. Among the observers is Kidda (Joan Chen), a talented and eager young player who apparently serves as part of her home team's second string.
The preparations for The Game commence. The players suit up, putting on armor and setting out the dog's skull that serves as the game's "ball." The locals set the goal stakes in the ground. They gather piles of counting stones to keep time with.
Once The Game begins, it's raw and brutal. Pretty soon one of the local players is broken and out of commission, and a player on Sallow's team named Dog Boy is playing with a badly injured leg.
Also in the exchange, Sallow's headgear is knocked off, exposing the tattoo on his face. The crowd is stunned. Sallow is (or was) a member of The League, the elite of the elite, the Juggers that play in the Nine Cities. What brought him out to the sparsely populated Dog Towns, they can only speculate.
With one of her home team's players out of The Game, it's Kidda's turn to shine. She suits up, taking her position as the team's "Quik." Her direct opposite is the injured Dog Boy. She begins taunting him before the round begins, saying she's going to break that leg.
The gong sounds, and immediately Kidda and Dog Boy are in a knock-down, drag-out fight over the skull. Kidda prevails, making good on her promise to break his leg. Then she takes the dog skull and makes a run for the goal stake. She nearly makes it, only getting stopped when Gar (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Sallow team up on her. Dog Boy gathers the skull, and drags himself to the home team's goal stake to win the game.
A night of drunken celebration later, and the Juggers are on the move again. Except now they have a follower.
Kidda, having tasted greatness against the traveling Juggers, decides she wants to be as good as the League Players. She follows at a distance, only approaching when they pause to let the limping Dog Boy catch up.
Kidda offers to take his place on the team, saying she's fast, she'll make a good Quik. Sallow rejects her at first. He says that Dog Boy will heal up soon enough, and tries to send her home. But she's still following a day later when Dog Boy admits he can't stand up anymore. The Juggers offer to bring him along, anyway, but he has too much pride to accept.
"No one carries the Dog Boy," he tells them. Respecting his wish, they leave him propped against a tree in the desert, with only his share of the food and water.
The next thing we see is an extended practice/tryout session, as Kidda works to earn her place. She gets knocked down. But she keeps getting up and trying harder. Sallow, deciding she's good enough to stay on, teams her up with the chain-wielding Gar, the team's "Giffer."
Soon the wandering Juggers enter another Dog Town, a village bigger than Kidda's. The ritual from before repeats as both teams square up and gear up. Then The Game begins, and Kidda has a chance to prove she's been paying attention.
Locked in another knock-down, drag-out brawl with the opposing team's Quik, Kidda is getting the worst of it, until she manages to climb onto her opponents back. She bites his ear off, forcing him to drop the dog skull. She scoops it up and makes a run for the goal stake. The team swoops in to protect her, and Kidda scores a victory.
Later, as the night's drunken celebration wears on, the team's surgeon Ghandi attends to Kidda's injuries. As he does, she asks about Sallow. How does a League Player end up out in the Dog Towns?
Ghandi begins to tell her the story: Sallow was apparently a rising star in the League, but young and foolish. He openly flaunted an illicit love affair with a lord's woman, which earned him an expulsion from the League and an exile from the Red City.
The story is interrupted by a drunk Sallow, who offers Kidda backhanded comments, criticizing her play style and saying she needs more practice, before he stumbles out into the night with a woman on each arm. This incenses Kidda, but Ghandi points out that he was actually complimenting her.
"He thinks you're very good," Ghandi says.
"That's not what he said," Kidda replies.
"That's what he meant."
Their talk then turns to the League, the Nine Cities, and the luxuries found there. Kidda's imagination—and her ambition—are stirred.
The film follows this with a montage of Dog Towns, matches, and drunken nights. The team wins every game they play, but the victories are always hard fought. Through all of it, Kidda is getting closer to the team, and especially to Gar, who she takes as a lover.
One night, talking to Sallow after a Game, Kidda observes that the boys in the Dog Town don't look like they've eaten in six weeks. He remarks that they probably haven't.
"We live good, compared to most," he says.
Kidda, though, uses this talk of hunger to pry for details about the League, and the Cities. She asks if they're really as good as everyone says, and if the stories about the luxuries Ghandi told her about are true. He says they are.
The Juggers continue to move further north, and they continue to play and win. But the matches get tougher the farther they go, and eventually Sallow gets blinded in one eye. As Ghandi patches him up, the surgeon remarks that maybe its time for them to turn south again, to head back to the smaller Dog Towns.
The following day, as they're walking to their next destination, Kidda asks why they don't just head for the Red City. She's been talking with the others. She knows now that any team can issue a challenge to the League. That's how Sallow got noticed and accepted.
Sallow refuses, saying they wouldn't accept anyway. But that night in camp, he sits awake, thinking. Kidda's hunger and drive for glory remind him of who he used to be, and what he used to stand for.
Come morning, he's making his way to the Red City. After some debate, the rest of the team follows.
A while later, the Juggers join a procession of refugees and travelers outside a lonely, isolated elevator shaft. They're all waiting to be allowed entrance down into the city. While they wait, Gar asks Sallow if it's true that no League team has ever lost a Challenge. He asks sallow if he thinks they can do it.
"Win," Gar repeats. "Or at least go 100 stones three times. That would be just as good, 300 stones. Tie."
Sallow says nothing, and Gar asks how many stones Sallow went back when he made his Challenge.
Sallow tells him they only went 26.
Gar is shocked. He asks how Sallow could possibly have been allowed into the League after a game like that. Sallow flashes a haunted smile.
"We were the only ones to ever last that long," he says. "Two of us were still standing. It was a good Game. We played very well."
Eventually, the elevator shaft opens, and the Juggers are permitted to take the long ride down into the underground City. Once there, the team goes to get food from a street vendor, while Sallow and Kidda go to watch one of the League Games.
At the sight of it, though, Kidda begins to have second thoughts. The Game is faster, more intense, and more brutal here than she ever imagined.
After the Game, Sallow and Kidda watch the winning players leave the field. The city's lords and ladies stand by the exit ramp, greeting and fawning over the victorious Juggers. While they do, Sallow's gaze drifts to one lord in particular. From there, it rests longingly on the lady by his side. They're obviously the ones from Ghandi's story, the object of Sallow's illicit affair and the lord behind his subsequent exile.
Kidda notices, but she makes no comment, allowing him his private memories.
Then Sallow spots an old colleague of his, a League Jugger named Gonzo. He approaches Gonzo at the end of the ramp, far from the city's elites. He asks about a Challenge match. But Gonzo says the League will never accept. At least not with Sallow on the team.
As they're leaving, Kidda tells Sallow she doesn't want to go through with the Challenge anymore. He asks if she's scared. She says yes. She says she doesn't want the League's attention anymore.
Sallow tells her he wants it.
In the very next scene, the Juggers appear before the League officials. For consideration, they present all the dog skulls they've collected as trophies in their wanderings. While they wait for the officials to give word, Sallow tries to stand near the back, unobtrusively. But the same lord from earlier, the one behind his exile, recognizes him. He wanders from official to official, whispering in their ears.
At last, the chairman announces they will deliberate before making a decision.
At a dining hall, the team sits around, dejected. They suspect that in not being accepted right away, they've been turned down. They saw how the officials looked at Sallow. They know if they're denied, it's his fault, an opinion Gar states out loud.
Both Sallow and Kidda leave to wander the city, eventually winding up in the Red City's ghetto. As Sallow offers to pay for two beds in a flop house, Kidda tells him to just pay for one.
As Kidda and Sallow spend the night together, the action cuts to Gonzo. The League Jugger is dressed in silk finery, enjoying a dinner party thrown by the city's elite. There, he's approached by the same lord seen whispering to the League officials earlier, Lord Vile.
Vile tells Gonzo that at his personal insistence, the challenge from Sallow's team has been accepted. Also at his request, Gonzo will be playing against them. He then instructs Gonzo to put out Sallow's good eye and break his legs when The Game commences.
Gonzo is practically dumbstruck. "You want me to damage him on purpose?"
Vile gives him a cold look. "I insist."
The next day is the day of the Challenge. In the audience stands above the arena, Lord Vile arrives with his lover in tow. Without telling her, he's brought her here to watch as Sallow is broken and humiliated.
On the arena floor, Kidda eyes the opposing Juggers. She talks to Sallow about her fears. She says she was never afraid in any of the other games, because before now, she never imagined it was possible to lose. She always expected to win.
"Then win," Sallow tells her.
On the opposing side, Gonzo tells one of his teammates to pin Sallow and hold him for the remainder of the round. Despite Vile's instructions, he intends to protect his old friend by any means possible.
The Game begins. In short order, Sallow is pinned. One of his other team members, Big Cimber, is down and badly injured.
But Kidda manages to keep the opposing team's Quik from making a goal, running out all 100 counting stones in the first round. It's an unprecedented achievement, and news of it spreads around the Red City as spectators flock to the arena.
During the intermission, team surgeon Ghandi is forced to take Big Cimber's place. The Red City's team gets fresh replacements. Lord Vile berates Gonzo for failing to carry out his instructions.
The second round begins. Sallow takes Gonzo head on. Kidda battles her rival tooth and nail. It's all-in for the entire team, and soon Sallow gains the upper hand on his old friend. He pummels the League Jugger into submission, then he slowly removes his helmet and locks eyes with Lord Vile.
At the same time, Kidda wrests the dog skull from the opposing team's Quik, beating him into unconsciousness. But Sallow stops her from running to the goal stake. He gestures around the arena. To a man, their team has the Red City Juggers down, pinned and defeated.
There's no one left to oppose her.
"Walk," Sallow tells her. "Slowly."
To the sounds of the roaring crowd, Kidda triumphantly strides up to the stake, placing the skull on it. For the first time in the history of The Game, a challenger has beaten a League team.
Plenty of it, and hallelujah to the b-movie gods for that!
While the bloodshed is entirely confined to the playing fields of The Game, a significant amount of the film's runtime is dedicated to it. We get bone-crunching, eye-gouging, skin-ripping action every time the Juggers take the field.
When it comes to violence, The Blood of Heroes lives up to its title.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Probably one of the most restrained cases in the entire genre. Arguably, it's also one of the best.
A lesser film would have labored to show the Juggers wandering past the blasted out remains of a city. But The Blood of Heroes doesn't go for such an easy or extraneous shot. Instead, it hints at the ruined state of things by carefully selecting the pieces of the old world the wandering Juggers carry with them.
Ghandi lugs around an old dresser full of his medical supplies, wearing it like an oversized backpack. The Juggers' armor is piecemeal, with most of it being made of old tires or chains.
But the single most striking example is the chess set made of sockets. It's a wonderfully understated piece of world-building, one almost bordering on genius: the competitive, tactically-minded Juggers finding a use they understand for an old-world artifact they don't comprehend the original purpose of.
Is it as spectacular or visually stunning as a shattered Statue of Liberty?
But it brings the world of the film to life in a way that no amount of crumbling landmarks in the background ever could.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
The Red City is an underground hellhole where the aristocracy lives in luxury, the poor live in squalor, and the Juggers fight to entertain the masses.
Sure, it's a fairly standard set-up. But with the story's tight focus on the Juggers themselves—and especially on the parallel character arcs of Kidda and Sallow—the film really doesn't need to stretch here.
Less is sometimes more, and The Blood of Heroes gives us just enough to keep things moving.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
With apologies to Tina Turner and her Thunderdome, The Game featured in The Blood of Heroes is the greatest example of this trope in the entire genre.
It's basically a heavily armed variant of football, where the goal is to put a dog's skull on the opposing team's spike. Time is divided into three rounds, and kept by throwing piles of 100 stones at a metal gong. When the pile runs out, the round ends. One goal is all it takes to win.
Simple enough. But there's a hidden complexity beneath the surface. Each of the five named player positions has a fairly a defined role. Only the Quik gets to handle the dog skull. The chain-wielding Griffer acts as the Quik's blocker and backup. The Slash appears to be the offensive line, with the Back-Charge, and the Drive serving as the defense.
Once the game is on, anything goes, with biting, gouging, and leg-breaking all deemed acceptable moves. Sallow ends up blind in one eye. Dog Boy ends up crippled and left for dead.
But despite the game's brutality, there's a sense of honor and fair-play surrounding it. Gonzo says it best, when defying Lord Vile's instructions to intentionally injure Sallow on the field.
"I've broken Juggers in half, smashed their bones, and left the ground behind me wet with their brains. I'd do anything to win. But I'd never hurt a soul for any reason but to put a dog's skull on a stake. And I never will."
Barbarian Hordes -
None, surprisingly enough. That said, The Blood of Heroes is the rare example of an apocalyptic movie that doesn't need them.
Aside from the Juggers themselves, nothing in the film's world building hints at any intertribal or inter-village rivalries. We see no war-bands, no weapons, and no guards or sentries of any kind, other than those at the Red City. Warfare is never even mentioned outside the pre-title card.
The assumption we're left with is that by some unspoken tradition, all war and conflict have been replaced by The Game.
It's a conceit that 100% works in the context of the story. One the movie pulls off by presenting it matter-of-factly, along with the rest of its premise.
Badass Warrior Women -
While Anna Katarina's battle scarred, boisterous, and fearless Big Cimber certainly deserves a nod, The Blood of Heroes' Badass Warrior Woman MVP is undoubtedly Kidda.
From the first frame she appears in, Kidda has the eye of the tiger. She makes good on her threat to break Dog Boy's leg in her initial game. In her first match as a member of Sallow's team, she bites the opposing Quik's ear off. She battles tooth and nail to help drive her team to victory after victory, culminating in the climactic Challenge match in the Red City.
Sure, Kidda might be small. But she's as tough as they come, and the movie forces her to prove it time and again.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
None to speak of. Gonzo is probably the closest we get, but that's stretching the definition past its useful limits.
In fact, I'm only bringing him up here because of what he represents in the story.
While most apocalyptic films use the grotesque and the freakish as shorthand for the forces trying to tear down civilization, The Blood of Heroes does the reverse. Gonzo is actually this civilization's representative: an abnormally large Jugger with an exposed steel plate in his head. He's what Sallow could have been if he'd remained in the Red City, and an illustration of the "good life" Sallow was exiled from.
It's an interesting visual choice, especially when coupled with the almost Dantean elevator ride down into the Red City.
For one thing, it underscores that Sallow's exile may not have been an entirely bad thing. We see the Red City, the aristocracy, and the League, and we come away with the conclusion he was better off in the Dog Towns.
Sallow descends into a metaphorical hell in search of his redemption. Keeping with the Dantean metaphor, the Red City is Inferno rather than Paradiso. And Gonzo is one of its bloated, grinning devils.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out about The Blood of Heroes is how flat-out brilliant the concept is. It's a post-apocalyptic sports movie, equal parts Rocky and The Road Warrior. And while the set-up has the potential to be gimmicky, Writer/Director David Webb Peoples uses it to break new ground in the genre.
Where most apocalyptic stories feature characters focused on survival, The Blood of Heroes instead gives us characters primarily concerned with honor. That's a fresh enough take to be noteworthy on its own. But what's truly fascinating about that choice is what it implies about the movie's setting.
The Mad Max films and their imitators mostly portray a world falling into savagery. Bands of lawless nomads rape, murder, and pillage their way across the wastes in an endless struggle for limited resources. But The Blood of Heroes shows a world where the pendulum is just beginning to swing the other way, a world taking its very first steps away from barbarism. The celebrity status of the Juggers, the reverence everyone holds for The Game, and the unspoken but pointed absence of any other kind of violence all hint at a new and emerging order, an infant civilization crawling out of the ruins of the old.
It's the kind of story that rarely—if ever—gets told in this genre.
The second thing that needs to be said about The Blood of Heroes is that in terms of pure story, it's flawlessly constructed.
By maintaining a tight focus on the unknown but ambitious Kidda and the disgraced veteran Sallow, it seamlessly blends two opposite—but not opposed—character arcs, creating a larger and more powerful story in the process.
The film's biggest strength is the way it leverages the main characters' motivations. Kidda's hunger for glory is played perfectly against Sallow's desire for redemption. Most importantly, it avoids the easy trap of dropping them into a traditional Mentor/Pupil relationship, opting for a more nuanced approach.
While Kidda learns the ropes of The Game from Sallow, the aging Jugger sees a reflection of his own lost, youthful enthusiasm in her. It sparks a deep desire to go back and right a wrong committed against his pride.
By act three, both characters have a powerful, consuming need to play in the Red City. The Challenge match is more than just another Game to either of them. It's everything. Win or lose, they'll go down swinging.
And damn if we're not on the edges of our seats the entire time.
Ultimately, The Blood of Heroes is a film is about hope and heroism in a brutal, unforgiving world. Victories are short and fleeting, and they only happen when you make them happen.
But when they do, they're stuff of legends.
The Rad Rating:
The Blood of Heroes comes within reaching distance of the coveted Five Rad rating, but it falls just short of apocalyptic perfection.
The pace never flags for an instant. The action moves along smoothly without feeling rushed. The characters have ample time to grow and breathe. The film knows which moments are important to show us in full, and which ones can safely be summarized in an action montage.
Above all, The Blood of Heroes doesn't engage in hand-holding. It presents its characters and its world matter-of-factly. It trusts its audience enough not to pause and point out the obvious, allowing us to gather everything from the subtext, the dialogue, and the art direction.
Honestly, the film's only real flaws are the relatively wooden performances from the supporting cast, and its somewhat uninspired cinematography. Neither are grievous sins. But they're just glaring enough to prevent me from awarding a full Five Rads.
That said, The Blood of Heroes is a criminally underrated masterpiece of post apocalyptica. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Mad Max and The Road Warrior when discussing the genre's all-time classics.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.