Friday, May 04, 2012
Cult Movie Review: The Blood of Heroes (1989)
“Life is hard everywhere.”
I commenced this week on the blog with a survey of the Cult-TV faces of “sports and fitness,” and shall now close it with a look back at The Blood of Heroes (1989), a film concerning a particularly vicious sport called “Jugger.”
Since I watched and reviewed Rollerball (1975) a few months ago, I’ve been fascinated with the future of professional sports. We know that professional sports will likely remain extremely commercial and profitable going forward, but the contemporary and ongoing scandal involving Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints also suggests that, perhaps, sports are growing more brutal.
In case you haven’t heard, Williams is the fellow who coached his football players to “kill the head” so that “the body” would die. He also encouraged his players to rough up an opposing player with a concussion.
Not exactly “good sport” is it?
And people say that horror films incite violence…
Regardless, The Blood of Heroes is a violent and enthralling post-apocalyptic film. In some senses, it’s actually the Rocky (1976) of the dystopia genre, because it gets the audience squarely behind its underdog heroes, and resolves in an incredibly hard-fought victory, with the heroic athletes bloodied but unbroken.
Unusually, the film is also a rite-of-passage story with a strong female character, Joan Chen’s Kidda, holding center stage. Most often, even in today’s cinema, the hero’s journey is a male one, but Kidda and her dreams of a better life pulse at the heart of the film’s action. Rutger Hauer portrays an experienced Jugger player named Sallow, but in many ways, this veteran actor takes on the supporting role of the “wise elder,” revealing to Kidda the ropes of the game, and, importantly, the politics behind the game.
Reviews for The Blood of Heroes were mixed upon theatrical release. Vincent Canby at The New York Times championed the film and wrote that it is “entertainingly grim and, in an upside-down way, romantic.”
Time-Out, meanwhile, noted that The Blood of Heroes (a.k.a. The Salute of the Jugger) offered “little to look at and nothing worth hearing.”
In this instance, I agree with Canby’s conclusion.
Although characterization in the film is ultimately subordinate to the frequent and violent jugger matches, one nevertheless develops genuine affection for the players here: Hauer, Chen, Vincent D’Onofrio and Delroy Lindo.
And although it is easy to gaze at the film and conclude that the narrative is somewhat meandering or plot-less, this episodic quality, this loose structure, actually works in the film’s favor. Watching The Blood of Heroes, you are afforded a real taste of the Jugger’s life, from the wearying nomadic existence, to the violence and intensity of the sport, to the seemingly-endless ritual of tending to wounds and bruises after a match. The film repeats this sequence of events over and over, until you feel like you’re right there with the athletes, sweating and bleeding alongside them.
Perhaps The Blood of Heroes’ underlying message isn’t entirely deep, but it is, nevertheless worthwhile. The film suggests we are all tougher than we think, and that even when the forces of the world seem aligned against us, we’ll keep fighting and striving for something better than the status quo.
“Play hard, you'll forget the fear.”
The Blood of Heroes is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which (most) folks no longer have the time or luxury to think about professional sports, at least as we understand them now. The world’s infrastructure has collapsed following a series of wars, and folks no longer remember the “Golden Age of the 20th century” or “the miraculous technology or cruel wars that followed.”
Accordingly, the popular game of Jugger removes the commercialism and professionalism of modern-day sports, but amps up the brutality angle. In this violent game, a team consisting of several players -- a “qwik,” a “chain,” an “enforcer” and a “slicer” -- battles an opposing team. The match is bloody and violent, and doesn’t end until the winning team manages to place a dog skull on a pike, or stake. Roving Jugger teams subsist by beating local teams, and collecting tributes for their victories.
The film follows a group of nomadic players, led by taciturn Sallow (Hauer). His team comes upon a farming community where a passionate young woman, Kidda (Chen) wants to join the team as “qwik.” Kidda boasts dreams of playing in “the League,” inside one of the nine cities. Sallow himself was once in “the League” but was expelled from high society for his inappropriate behavior with a lord’s concubine. Since that time, Sallow has eschewed contact with the cities, but he nonetheless tells Kidda a challenge can be issued to the city’s team. If the team accepts…they’re in!
After several victories, Sallow’s team travels to a city to mount such a challenge, but the wronged Lord – named Vile – still wants Sallow punished and humiliated. He instructs the city’s team leader, Gonzo, to blind Sallow during the match, and then, essentially to beat him to a pulp.
The match in the city commences in bloody fashion, and for Kidda and Sallow, their future is on the line…
“Juggers can't fuck after the game. It doesn't work. Unless you like to rub wounds against wounds.”
In the introduction to this review, I mentioned Rocky as a clear antecedent to The Blood of Heroes, but perhaps, in terms of sports movies, I also should have made notation of Bull Durham (1987) too. In that classic baseball movie – one of the best ever made -- a player named Crash (Kevin Costner) is cast out of the minor leagues and sent down to the Single A division to mentor a promising player, one who could make it all the way to the majors. As that player rises, Crash hopes to rise again too…
In very, very broad strokes, The Blood of Heroes follows a similar sort of outline, with an aging player, tossed from the big leagues, coming to mentor a young, promising player in a smaller, less professional venue. Sallow and Kidda represent those characters here, but in both situations there’s this the idea of a cycle: of the old, wiser player not only tutoring the young, but returning to the world that, at some point, wronged him. In terms of visuals, The Blood of Heroes, written and directed by David Peoples, clearly owes a lot to The Road Warrior (1982) aesthetic, and yet thematically it is much more a sports movie than a science fiction epic.
Here – as in real life – athletic prowess is one of the few ways one can successfully bridge the gap in an unequal economic system. In the film, we see the immaculately-dressed, immaculately-cleaned upper class citizens of the underground city, and can contrast their aristocratic look with that of the Juggers, who are leathery, filthy, wind-blown, and marred by scars and bruises. Just as is the case in our society, the upper classes are willing to pay handsomely to be entertained by good athletes, and thus a sense of class warfare seems present in all interactions. One upper-class woman likes to decorate her porcelain skin with the blood of Jugger players, and so there’s also an impression of a vampire-like over-class lording it over the under-class. .
Uniquely, at its valedictory moment, The Blood of Heroes visually mirrors to its spiritual cinematic antecedent, the aforementioned Rollerball. There, in the final battle, James Caan’s player Jonathan E, defeated the last enemy player right in front of his nemesis, an executive played by John Houseman. Specifically, he checked the opposing player into the glass barrier separating him from Houseman.
Here, director Peoples’ stages a nearly identical shot, with Sallow taking out Gonzo, just inches from Vile, in front of Vile’s box seats (behind a kind of protective cage).
In both cases is the same idea is transmitted: the notion of individualism trumping established order, or authority.
In both cases, defiance beats obedience.
If anything at all undercuts the success of The Blood of Heroes, it is the final triumphal note, however, the film sounds after Sallow and Kidda win the day. Immediately, the vulture-like upper class descends upon them, congratulating the players, flirting with them, chatting them up. The implication is that Sallow, Kidda and the others are now in like flint, and welcomed into a life of comfort and luxury.
But really, aren’t these Jugger players letting the establishment absorb them, at this point, and becoming part of the corrupt 1% percent in the process? Aren’t they, by joining the league, playing the aristocracy’s game? I like some of the early shots set in the city, where Sallow and Kidda are literally on the outside looking in (through bars on the windows) at the upper class, but the ending seems to undercut this crucial sense of outsider-ism.
It seems that the real point of the movie is (or should be…) that reaching the top doesn’t necessarily put you where you want to be.
Once you get there, you realize you’re still trapped playing another man’s sport.
Aside from that complaint, The Blood of Heroes is a rousing sports movie in a dystopian setting. Shot in Australia, the film makes the most of its picturesque exteriors, and we see every variation of jugger match known to man. The game is played in the scorching sun, and in the rain and mud. There’s also some interesting symbolism in the film in the form of the game itself: a literalization of the notion of picking over the bones of a dead world. That’s what Jugger is, literally, a battle to win a skull, a bone…something dead and useless.
The Blood of Heroes is a visceral and involving film, in my judgment, and one made doubly so by the twin decisions to keep dialogue to a minimum and to not over-burden the narrative with more incident or detail than necessary. As I wrote above, the film is extremely episodic and repetitive: travel, play, sew up wounds. Rinse and repeat. If you allow yourself to go with the flow, you can fall into synch with the movie’s distinctive, almost-trance-like rhythm and literally almost feel what it’s like to dwell in this world of sweat, dirt and blood.
And given the alternative of those porcelain-skinned, aristocratic vampires, you may even come to agree with Sallow’s opinion that scarred skin – like this violent but memorable film -- is strangely beautiful in its own way.