Post-apocalypse movies were to the 1980s what zombie movies were the 2000s: a relatively inexpensive premise to produce that after a few major box office smashes led the way, could be knocked off endlessly. Most of these were simply Mad Max wannabes, but a few of them took the genre and did something really cool with it, and among these, my very favorite is easily a gritty, ballsy, junkyard sports story called The Blood of Heroes. It is also known internationally as Salute to the Jugger, and Salute of the Jugger. It stars Rutger Hauer right as he entered that long phase of his career where he was content to do a lot of weird action movies, and Joan Chen and Phillip Vincent D’Onofrio right at the beginning of their own acting histories. Best of all, it’s written and directed by David Webb Peoples, whose writing credits include things like Blade Runner, Unforgiven and 12 Monkeys. And it’s a movie you’ve probably never heard of, and will have some difficulty finding if you want to get a copy.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland long, long after the fall of civilization. The wonders of the bygone age are almost completely forgotten, wiped away by ancient wars that turned the world into a desert. Most settlements are small market towns where the only entertainment is when traveling athletes called Juggers arrive to play the Game. The Game is like rugby played with a dog’s skull except everybody is in suits of homemade armor and attacks each other with various kinds of non-lethal weapons. It is a brutal and bloody game where injuries are frequent, permanent disfigurement is a distinct possibility, and no matter how rough things get, the violence on the field never seems to spill over into regular life. Juggers who smash each other’s brains in during the day are content to drink with each other in celebration at night, perhaps out of some kind of recurring memory that the world is the way it is because of the wars that ruined it. The Game recognizes that humans are violent creatures that require violent diversions, but those diversions should only go so far and no further.
Our story takes place when a band of Juggers led by Sallow (Rutger Hauer) comes to a dirty little village for a Game, and local farm girl Kidda (Joan Chen) jumps at the chance to play with the traveling competition. One gets the impression that the professional traveling teams tend to kick the stuffing out of the local amateur teams, but in a world this desolate, you take any contest you can get. So when Kidda’s side loses and Kidda herself is roughed up pretty badly during the course of the game, she gets a taste for the Jugger’s life, and runs away from home to join them. She is a natural, and Sallow sees in her a kind of ruthless ambition that once drove him as a young Jugger, too.
As the band travels the wasteland, we realize that they’re grinding out games in frontier towns to collect enough trophy dog skulls to earn themselves an invitation to play for the League—the professional Jugger circuit that performs for the Nine Cities, a subterranean network of strongholds where there is still a semblance of industry and luxury. Sallow once played for the League until he got himself exiled from it for the kind of mistake only young fools make, and now, aged by his days in the desert, he seeks a chance to play against his old masters one last time. He knows they’ll never let him back in. And he knows that virtually every wandering team that challenges the League get destroyed. But if they can distinguish themselves, then maybe Kidda can have a shot at the kind of rich life Sallow once had. That would be good enough.
This is really an underdog sports movie dressed in a world so exhausted by war there are no marauders, no lethal chases, no gunfights. For all of the violence in this movie, there is not a single death in it. This is the story of a disgraced athlete looking for one last shot at redemption through an unlikely victory. And even if that kind of story is old and predictable, how the Blood of Heroes executes it is not. Our heroes’ final match, where everything it means to be a Jugger—all of the pain and guts and strife and savagery and bravery and resilience—comes together in a game sequence that is just a hell of a thing to see. It is all fantastic, but it is what Sallow says to Kidda at the very end of the Game, and how Kidda acts upon it, that delivers this movie’s moment of truth. And what a moment it is, too.
It’s a shame this movie has become such an obscurity, because there is a lot to love about it. I quite enjoy how we got a story of a ruined world and focused not on those who wish to ruin it further, but those who take its legacy of violence and bloodshed and try to make it into something that everybody left can actually live with. But what I love most about it is that enough folks were taken by the Game that they made a live-action role-playing version of it called Jugger that is played in a couple different countries to this day. If that’s not high praise for this unique story, I don’t know what is.