Salute of the Jugger (1989)

salut01Country: United States / Australia
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Joan Chen, Vincent D’Onfrio, Delroy Lindo, Anna Katerina, Gandhi MacIntyre, Justin Monjo, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Max Fairchild
Screenplay: David Webb Peoples
Director: David Webb Peoples
Cinematography: David Eggby
Music: Todd Boekelheide
Producers: Brian Rosen, Charles Roven
Alternate Title: Blood of Heroes

If you’re around the same age as me, you’d have a soft spot for the films of Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. Granted, over his long career he has only made a handful of films that are very good — Blade Runner and The Hitcher remain cult classics in their own right. I have always had a strange affinity for Flesh + Blood, Paul Verhoeven’s soft-porn barbarian movie from Europe. However it’s not Hauer who draws me to the film. It was the pairing of Australian actors Jack Thompson and Tom Burlinson, in a film was set six hundred years before Australia was settled, that brings a smile to my face.

When Salute of the Jugger was being made I read and interview in the local press with Hauer, where he said that he didn’t have a home. He was a nomad and moved from one film upon completion to the next. He would set up a temporary base in whatever city his work would take him to. Then again, suggesting that he was a nomad, on the set of a film in which he plays a nomad, may have been just a timely bit of copy or a soundbite for the media. This may (or may not) explain some of the poor film and career choices he has made. Maybe if he had a home, he could take time off and sit back and ‘carefully’ read the scripts that were coming his way, and decide if these were really the roles for him. I say this as a film fan looking in from the outside at his body of work. In reality, Hauer maybe has one of the great ‘free’ lifestyles. He is doing something that he loves, and he gets to travel all over the world with no excess baggage to tie him down. The more I think about it, the more I envy the man.

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But back to his films. So, yeah he made a lot of crap, and maybe this is because he leaps from one project to the next. Even Hauer’s trash films generally have a bent – usually futuristic/always violent — that makes them worth at least one viewing. But Salute of the Jugger is different in that it was planned well in advance. The film had an incredibly long gestation period. The script written by David Webb Peoples was completed in 1977. In 1982, when Peoples was working on Blade Runner, he showed the script to Hauer who expressed interest in the project.

Other film commitments kept Peoples and Hauer apart for many years and after a few false starts, and the usual Hollywood wheeling and dealing, the film was given the green light. Peoples, making his directorial debut, was at the helm of the project. As the film had quite a modest budget, and because American dessert locations have been used so extensively – particularly in westerns – it was decided to make the film in another country. A country that had cheap labour, and had an environment that wasn’t as familiar to cinema goers. The two countries considered were Mexico and Australia. With Peoples making his directorial debut, wiser heads suggested that it may be important that Peoples spoke the same language as the technicians on the set, so the film ended up being made in Australia — with exteriors filmed in Cooper Pedy in outback South Australia, and at a quarry near Sydney.

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The film is set in the post apocalyptic future, and the world is split into two distinct groups — the rich and the poor. The rich live deep underground in dank, dark cities – of which only nine remain. These cities seem like images from a Hieronomous Bosch painting — snapshots of a dirty dystopian hell – are in fact luxurious compared to the run down, starving dog towns on the surface of the planet. This is where the poor people live. The one thing that unites the rich and the poor is a game — it doesn’t have a name – and it is played by warriors called Juggers.

As the film begins, a troupe of Juggers, headed by Sallow (Rutger Hauer) march into a dog town looking for a game. A young boy runs through the huts announcing their arrival. The locals are willing to oblige. On the outskirts of town, working in a field is a young girl named Kidda (Joan Chen). She has dreams of playing in the ‘League’, which is sort of like an A-grade, or First Division for Jugger players. Only the very best of the best make it to the ‘League’. Kidda wants to ditch her work and participate in the game, much to the chagrin of her parents.

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Once the terms are set, the game begins. The game is quite simple — much like soccer or basketball, there is a rectangular playing field. And each team has to defend a spike at each end of the field. There is no ball in this game. Instead they use a dog’s head — and the object of the game, is to get the dog’s head and run down to your spike and impale the head on it. The first team to do this wins. If only it were that simple, eh? It’s not. Each team has five players. First there is the ‘Kwik’, who as the name suggests is the speedy one who carries the dog’s head. To protect the Kwik there is a player who spins a chain net over his head like a helicopter blade. And then there are three blockers. The blockers are armed with large double ended sticks, with which they inflict as much pain and damage on the opposition players as possible. As you can imagine, it’s quite a brutal game.

The game begins without Kidda, and in the opening play, Sallow’s ‘Kwik’, named Dog Boy, has his leg sliced open by a chain wielded by the opposition. For a ‘Kwik’, a damaged leg is like a guitarist with snapped strings – pretty useless -but he is a fighter and is willing to continue. Meanwhile, Sallow beats seven shades of shit out of one of the opposition players as recompense. After the interval (the game is played in three sections), Kidda, who has run off from her work in the field, joins her home team, replacing the man the Sallow smacked up. Her effect on the game is immediate. She is fast, and quickly does some more work (damage) to Dog Boy’s leg. She is looking pretty good, and it is possible that the home team may even win. That is until she runs into a swinging chain wielded by Young Gar (Vincent D’Onofrio). Face bloodied and lacerated, she stands dazed in the centre of the playing field until Sallow puts her down for good.

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Then it is a cake walk for Sallow’s team. Dog Boy, who can’t walk, picks up the dog’s skull and drags himself to the spike, to score and win the game. Jugger, despite being a brutal and barbaric game, is played in a sportsman like manner. After the contest, despite however much pain and damge an opponent may have inflicted, each man salutes their opposite, acknowledging their gladiatorial spirit. Being a nomadic Jugger is only good if the team win — that is, if you enjoy being clobbered regularly in sport. To the victor go the spoils – primarily food and companionship for the night. Thankfully for Sallow and his team, they won, so their evening is a boozy shag-fest.

Despite the beating that Kidda has taken, she is still determined to become a Jugger and do battle in the ‘League’. With Dog Boy injured, she sees it as an opportunity to ingratiate herself with Sallow. On the next morning, as the Juggers leave town, heading out into the wasteland towards the next dog tow, she follows behind. When Dog Boy’s leg gets so bad, that he cannot stand, she joins the team. In time, as Kidda’s skill improve, Sallow’s team becomes more and more successful — to the point where they are almost at the standard of joining — or at least being noticed by the League. The thing is, that Sallow once played in the League, but was kicked out after an indiscretion with a woman of ruling class. He is persona non grata in Red City, and furthermore is not the type of character that the League would give a second chance to. However, Kidda and Young Gar, whose skills have also improved exponentially, are keen to attract the attention of the League and eventually they convince Sallow and the rest of the team to head back to Red City and give it one final shot.

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Over the ensuing years many, many stories have appeared about longer versions of the film, and missing sequences, and to that end, with possible the exception of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and Lang’s Metropolis, Jugger has become a modern posterboy for back room butchery (Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit, but we Jugger fans have a powerful lobby group). It has been described as the opposite of a Roger Corman picture, wherein Corman pictures attempted to stretch their tiny budgets, putting their best on the screen, Jugger instead removed all signs of budget and production design and left in the dregs of the shoot. As I wasn’t on set, I can not say how much of this is true. There has been talk of large amounts of footage taken — with spectacular sets — in the Red City, and also subplots about a religious cult that appear to control the ruling class in the city. Looking at the finished film, it seems that there may be some truths in that. Hugh Keays-Byrne’s role seems incredibly truncated. Keays-Byrne plays one of the big-knobs in Red City. He’d be known to international audiences as the Toecutter in the original Mad Max. As it stands now, his role is little more than a cameo, almost a faceless enemy.

But having said that, if this footage exists, if included, it may have been to the detriment of the film. After all, Salute of the Jugger is an action film. Long stretches of exposition, and subplots about religion could only slow the film down. I think, if they exist, they could make great ‘special features’ on a DVD — I for one, would be curious to see them — but I don’t believe a reconstructed Jugger is required. Whatever the original vision may have been, good or bad, I guess it is lost to the sands of time now, and even if some of the footage survived, it is hard to imagine it being reinstated in a cohesive format. I’ll just add here, that the version I have reviewed here is actually a cut version — a few minutes have been lopped from the end — but that is not what I am talking about above. I mean quite substantial sequences in the Red City, and even other characters who have been completely removed from the final cut.

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I realise that Salute of the Jugger as released, is a very flawed film. It lacks plot and characterisation. Even as a post-apocalyptic tale of society reverting back to a primitive state it fails miserably. But as a sports film where the underdog takes on a vastly superior opponent and against all odds and achieves the impossible, Jugger pushes all the right buttons and succeeds admirably. The end game is as thrilling to watch as it would be devastating to participate in. Over the years there have been plenty of sports films – most of them are crap (boxing comes off the best with at least the original Rocky and Raging Bull credited against the sport). But I think Salute of the Jugger is one of the great sporting films — okay the ‘game’ wasn’t a real game (one invented for the film), but this film overcomes that hurdle, and not only teaches us the rules, but also taps in to latent sporting emotions hidden within. For me, this film conjures up memories (or the emotion I felt) when I watched the 4th cricket test between Australia and England, played in Melbourne during the 1982-83 season. No doubt, you’re reaction to the film will be completely different based on your life (and possibly sporting) experiences.

You may have noticed in the paragraph above, I said that ‘Jugger’ wasn’t a real game. Well it wasn’t when the film was made. It is now, however the rules have been modified, and it is not quite as brutal as the game depicted on the screen – it is more like ‘Touch Jugger’. The new modified game, it has been suggested, first appeared in Germany, which has an active Jugger league. The game is also has taken off in other countries such as the USA and Australia — the Melbourne team being formed in 2006. The fact that teams have formed around the world to play Jugger, is a strong testament to the sporting, emotional content in the film.

After all these years, I still consider myself a Rutger Hauer fan. Most films he makes these days are direct to DVD efforts. He seems to mix this with some supporting roles in bigger films (like Batman Begins). But regardless, I know I can go into a video/DVD library and pick up virtually any Hauer movie and still be entertained. The film may be utter shit, but I know that in there somewhere, there was some spark that drew Hauer to the project. And that spark, if I can find it, makes the viewing worth while.

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Salute of the Jugger (1989)

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