Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Salute of the Jugger

Salute of the Jugger - US trailer

Department of films I unaccountably like: the 1989 Salute of the Jugger (a.k.a. The Blood of Heroes), set in a post-apocalyptic future in what's evidently Australia (it was filmed around Coober Pedy). It follows a disparate team of "Juggers": players of a brutal sport just called "The Game", that involves armoured heavies fighting it out while a lighter but still violent player - a "Quick"- attempts to gain possession of the ball (a dog's skull) and place it on the other team's stake.

The chief threads concern the pursuit of redemption by its outcast leader, Sallow (played by Rutger Hauer), and the pursuit of ambition of Kidda, a peasant girl (played by Joan Chen) whose talent as a Quick and joining the revered "League" will be her only chance of enjoying the opulent lifestyle in what passes for civilisation, the underground Nine Cities.

In many ways this is staple post-apocalyptic stuff: desert setting, nasty brutish and short life, horrible food, grunge clothing, lots of fighting, an underground city run by a decadent elite, and so on. But the script and direction (by David Peoples, who has a track record of co-writing rather superior action SF/fantasy such as Blade RunnerLadyhawke and The Twelve Monkeys) raise it far above the mundane. The cast is good too; as well as Hauer and Chen, it includes Delroy Lindo. Anna Katarina, Vincent D'Onofrio and Gandhi MacIntyre all bringing strong and sympathetic characterisation to their roles, with the excellent Hugh Keays-Byrne as the suavely vicious Lord Vile. Even what isn't said is just as expressive, as in the constant self-consciousness of Big Cimber, the female Jugger, in attempting to hide the scarred side of her face.

Pavement artist drawing Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross

Often films can get a bit laboured in filling in detailed back-story, but Salute of the Jugger doesn't do this; it just immerses you in the situation, with atmosphere and verisimilitude provided through minor details that stick in the mind. Cogwheels used as currency. The chest of drawers carried as a rucksack by Gandhi, the team's trainer and manager. The lift down to Red City going so deep that its occupants have time to fall asleep. The city that's revealed to be merely better-organised squalor than the surface. Sleeping accommodation on shelves high up a sheer wall. The pallid Lords who, despite their silken clothing, candelabra and chamber music, are still eating insect canapés and goanna (albeit elegantly presented). The pavement artist who, unnoticed, is drawing Bosch's Christ Carrying The Cross, preserving art at a higher level than the Lords, whose art seems to have reverted to the primitive and totalitarian.

Salute of the Jugger has acquired, I think deservedly, a cult following. For a long time this film was very scarce, but it's readily findable now on DVD for £2-£3. I won't directly infringe copyright by linking, but if you do a YouTube internal search for "The Blood of Heroes-parte 1 subtitulada", you'll find a Spanish-subtitled version online.

Insect canapés

There's a very interesting Authorsden article - Blood of Heroes, Salute of the Jugger - by John Howard Reid, reprinted from his 2006 book America's Best, Britain's Finest: A Survey of Mixed Movies. Reid worked on the set for a few days, and has some behind-the-scenes background on the large amounts of what sounds like spectacular footage that didn't make it to the final cut. He comments particularly that it was "a Poverty Row film in reverse"; it superficially looks low-budget, but in fact was filmed with a very high budget, and with great attention to details that we only rarely glimpse (as in the repulsive canapés and the Bosch painting).
You should have seen the Red City street down which I and about two hundred meticulously costumed extras wandered. The shops. Wow! All filmed with the weirdest, most bizarre, most inventively created produce and goods that highly imaginative designers and set dressers could imagine. And what do we actually see on the screen. Zilch!
- Ray

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