Accept No Imitations: Solomon Kane
Monday, February 22, 2010
posted by Al Harron
Some Robert E. Howard fans have been waiting for 82 years to see Solomon Kane up on the big screen. Despite proving popular enough to appear perennially in anthologies, comics and role-playing games, for a long time nobody has been successful in bringing the Man from Devon into the cinematic medium. Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane hit UK screens on Friday. I saw it on Saturday.
What’s the verdict?
I’m a sucker for a good redemption story. There are few things more uplifting and inspiring to me than the story of a man conquering his inner evil, and seeking to set right past wrongs. Some are historical realities: John Newton was once a lucrative slave-ship captain, but when he experienced what he perceived as a miracle, he became one of the most important figures in the abolition movement. Saul of Tarsus, once a relentless persecutor of Christians, becomes one of their greatest advocates and heroes under the name Paul. This spreads into literature: Edmund of King Lear being a notable (if tragic) example. Cinema has its own classics: Batty in Blade Runner, Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Jaws in Moonraker. Even He-Man’s skull-faced nemesis Skeletor had a change of heart in a Christmas special. So even if it’s done in a hoary old “Road to Redemption” manner, I must admit a particular fondness for such a character arc.
Howard’s handling of redemption is, much like his approach to good and evil, complex. There are examples that could be interpreted as a man seeking to atone for past sins, like in “People of the Dark.” One could even consider Conan’s sense of royal responsibility for his people to a form of abstract, proxy atonement, considering he preyed upon hapless innocents just like his subjects in his Black Corsair and Red Brotherhood days. To go from a red-handed plunderer into a wise, benevolent king of a people with whom he has no blood link is certainly a stark evolution for the Cimmerian. One line from “The Blue Flame of Vengeance” has Kane mention the possibility of him wandering the earth to rid it of evil as being a search for “his soul’s salvation,” though as Richard Toogood points out, this leads to the rather extreme extrapolations of the film’s story.
Is there any way of reconciling Bassett’s interpretation of Kane with Howard’s? It shouldn’t surprise you that my opinion is no, it cannot, not any more than Conan the Barbarian is compatible with Conan the Cimmerian. Right off the bat I’m going to concur with fellow shield-bearer Miguel: this is not Robert E. Howard’s Kane by any stretch. Bassett’s character is incompatible with Howard’s, not just because of the monumental character alteration which Bassett argues as a valid interpretation of certain lines from the poems, but because of the timeline.
One of the many things mon monsieur Martins commented upon was the discrepancy between Kane’s character in “The One Black Stain” set in 1578, and the film, starting in 1600, with the bulk of the story happening in 1601. I’d like to add that in addition for having Kane presenting (for the film character) wildly uncharacteristic interest in justice and a fair trial, there’s a bit of ambiguity about Kane’s age. Initially I thought it possible that Kane started out as a noble young lad before he became a murderous pirate, but I have problems there. Purefoy is forty-five, thus if we’re to assume Kane is the same age, then “The One Black Stain” has Kane at twenty-three. He’d have to have a truly Skywalker-esque fall from grace to end up as Captain Cutthroat Kane if he’s so heroic as a young man. It’s simply inconceivable for Kane to act as a paragon of justice and righteousness in 1578 (“The One Black Stain”), only to transform into a murderous pirate in 22 years (Solomon Kane). Such a character arc from good-to-evil-to-good is an interesting inversion of a certain other Howard character who’s suffered some extreme alterations.
However, I have one or two divergences from Miguel’s point of view, namely on the matter of it being a competent film. Perhaps I as a heathen Scot don’t have quite as low a threshold for bad cinema as my Auld Gallic Ally, or perhaps it’s a matter of taste: I personally thought Solomon Kane, purely on its own merits… wasn’t that bad. I’ll refrain from plot details for the sake of my New World fellows (and home country neighbors sitting on the fence), but just about all my problems with the film can be laid at the doorstep of Michael J Bassett himself: more of that later.
First of all, though, I’m going to talk about what worked.
I’ll tell you how I mentally prepared for the movie experience: it mostly resolves around construction of a new background. The story is that of Solomon Kane, a Devon lad, who is a distant relative of the other Kane families of Devonshire. He is not the same Solomon Kane who would receive the Staff of Solomon and travel the world hunting vampires and eldritch terrors: that’s his distant older cousin, whose family live on the opposite coastline. One’s from the North Devon Coast, the other the South (or Jurassic). All the thoroughly un-Howardian objections–Kane’s character and his family history–would be explained in this manner to me, reducing my temple-pummeling rage to a mere grinding of teeth. Thus, I imagined that somewhere out in the world, the real Solomon Kane was present doing stuff the real Solomon Kane would do. How he would react to this young wayward relative in my mind’s eye would be dependent on whether I hated the film or not. If something really ticked me off, I would smile wryly as I imagined my personal Kane–played by Christopher Lee, naturally–slowly thumbing his hilt in preparation to relieve this lost lamb of his life. Luckily, it didn’t go quite that far.
This is a pretty decent Sword-and-Sorcery film, and while that might be construed as faint praise given the general dearth of quality examples of the genre in the medium, I’m sincere in my meaning. It’s much better than Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Kull the Conqueror or the innumerable Conan the Barbarian clones. It’s certainly superior to the average dreck they show on the Sci-Fi Channel (I refuse to acknowledge its new trademark), and I wouldn’t insult anyone by comparing their work to the output of The Asylum. Well, perhaps Uwe Boll. It isn’t quite on the same level as its undoubted influences Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter or Witchfinder General despite the much greater production values, but it’s closer to them than Steven Sommer’s shameless ripoff Van Helsing, which managed to seriously damage Solomon Kane‘s early previews by association. “Is this the sequel to Van Helsing?” “Do the Van Helsing guys know they’re being ripped off?” “He stole Van Helsing’s Hat!” Crom’s devils, the number of times I had to resist the urge to punch the wall…
Tying it all together is James Purefoy‘s performance, and damn if I haven’t done a complete 180 on him. I was initially very disappointed when I learned of Purefoy landing the role, as–at the time–I didn’t like him as an actor. My familiarity with the man was on “Rome”, a series I had a few problems with from a historical and stylistic perspective. In particular, I just hated his Marc Antony: a monstrous, lascivious, perverse monster of a man. I felt uncomfortable every time he appeared, and desperately wanted him to be off my screen. It’s only some time later that I realized this was exactly the point. Marc Antony was emblematic of everything I hated about Rome itself: the decadence, the arrogance, the shamelessness, the audacity, the cruelty. And Purefoy was too good at it.
Interested in seeing Jim lad’s other work, not least to see if he could possibly handle the role of the most badass Puritan in all fiction, I did a bit of research. I was astonished at the number of films and series he’d appeared in that I watched, yet never ever recognized him: Sharpe’s Sword, Mansfield Park, A Knight’s Tale, Blackbeard: Terror at Sea, 2007′s Frankenstein. How in the Outer Dark could I not recognize him? Sure, he’s an actor, it’s his job to become the role. Yet that’s something of an understatement, since no matter how great an actor one is, surely you’d be able to recognize them? Well, there are some rare performers who are uncanny in their ability to mold themselves for a role: not just the costume, hair and makeup, they seem to subtly change the very shape of their faces and tone of their voice into a different person entirely. Actors like that are few and far between: Lon Chaney, Alec Guiness, Gary Oldman, Vincent D’Onofrio… Purefoy reminded me of them in his chameleon powers.
I became a lot more enthusiastic about Purefoy, and the film as a whole… until the script leaked out. Oy. Nonetheless, Purefoy did a phenomenal job with what he was given. A glimmer of his sadistic Marc Anthony shone in the eyes of Captain Kane, with more than a touch of his Blackbeard for good measure. I have to say, with my invented back-story (which proved instrumental in my tolerance of the film) viewing this Kane as a different person entirely from Howard’s own, Purefoy in sadistic privateer form was very entertaining to watch.
However, for all the black glee of Captain Kane, it’s as Solomon Kane–or at least the Kane from the other coast–that Purefoy really impresses me. One of the most important parts of Kane’s character is the dichotomy of his attitude to the innocent and to sinners. To the innocent, he is kindly, gentle, considerate, and protective: the sort of guy people know will never harm them, and who will stand between them and Satan himself. To sinners, on the other hand, he’s a far different animal: a figure of terror and menace, unstoppable and unstopping, who will hunt them down to and from the ends of the earth, until they are held to account for their crimes. While the origin irrevocably alters Solomon’s charity and altruism with more than a hint of self-interest and karmic irony, there are still flashes of the real Kane: as Kane gently cradles the young heroine’s head as he would an infant, and as Kane cuts a bloody swathe through corrupt men foolish enough to hinder him in his mission. Only hints, sparks of Howard’s creation… but they’re there.
Those little glints are enough to convince me that if the Powers That Be see fit to fund a real Howard adaptation… then by thunder, Purefoy might be able to pull it off. With the right script, he really could be Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane. In this film, however, with the character making the decisions he does and the world as it is, it isn’t Howard’s, not this time around. Bassett’s scriptwriting leaves a lot to be desired, but as a director he’s not bad. The fight scenes (when the camera isn’t shaking about like maracas at Mardi Gras) are notable for their restraint. Sure, there’s one or two overcomplicated flourishes, but most of the time the violence is grim and ugly. The action of killing a man is not an attractive sight, and there are moments in the film which refrain from excessive gore, but still convey just what a nasty business it is. I wouldn’t mind Bassett returning for another Solomon Kane, as long as he’s kept far away from the script.
The rest of the film isn’t quite as impressive, but I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised. The supporting cast, led by veterans Max von Sydow, Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige, are all consummate professionals. They don’t make career-defining performances, but neither do they sleepwalk, going through the motions like so many actors do in such films. Neither do they succumb to the temptation of masticating the environment as thesps like Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and the late, great Raul Julia did in their less dramatically challenging roles. Relative newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood is likable and endearing when she isn’t shrieking, and the relationship between herself and Kane is commendably and refreshingly chaste, not least because the idea of 45-year-old Purefoy and 20-year-old Hurd-Wood having a romance is on the dodgy side. Samuel Roukin portrays the hulking masked Overlord with suitable presence and implacable menace, even if he reminded me of a mixture between Michael Myers and Darth Vader. Best of all, my patriotic ego leapt in joy at the sight of fellow Scots Rory McCann and Stewart Moore, who sports a mighty beard that mine wants to be when it grows up.
The effects are all competent, if not to the standard of the usual hundred-million-dollar blockbuster–which is not a slight against the production, really. I’m reminded of District 9, which did a hell of a lot with its $30 million budget, though still visibly inferior to the likes of Avatar and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. With ten million more than the South African science fiction parable, it similarly achieves an impressive standard. Patrick Tatapoulos, one of the top creature designers in the industry, merges the design aesthetics of a Hammer horror with a sort of gothic grotesqueness. It’s highly reminiscent of his work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Silent Hill. Combined with permanently dreary weather alternating between rain, snow and falling ash, 1600s England thus seems a bit unreal, viewed through the eyes of a man going insane: it’s as if a stray sword-blow could tear the very fabric of reality. Great for Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, Ymir’s Domain or a Zothiquean hashish-dream, not so great for the realistic world that is Solomon Kane’s. Everything else–music, sound effects, cinematography, costume, what have you–was also well done.
So, what of the weaknesses? Its greatest is unquestionably the script. Though director-writer Bassett (pictured above) keeps away from the sort of moronic anachronistic phrases that plagued Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, his dialogue doesn’t exactly give Howard a run for his money. Hackneyed phrases like “If I kill you, I am bound for hell–it is a price I shall gladly pay,” elicit giggles from the audience. Bassett also thwarts a lot of tension by overstating things for the audience, having characters voice things that they already knew: dramatic irony is a staple of horror, but there’s a fine line between having the audience anticipate something, and making the characters appear slow on the uptake.
The story relies on many unexplained plot devices–it’s never explained exactly why the abbot had Kane leave his monastery, with only a nebulous “my dreams told me” wave of the hand, making the decision less organic, and more transparently a means of moving the plot forward. Another is the handling of the moment where Kane finally decides to get his sword-arm swinging again: the way it comes off, it gives the distinct impression of it being too little, too late. There are some nice vignettes, such as the scene with Mackenzie Crook’s priest and the prologue, with a real sense of atmosphere, but these are often let down by the dialogue or redundant dramatic irony.
Special mention should be given to the historical inaccuracies. While nowhere near as offensive as other films of its ilk, there are still a few groaners. My regular cinema companion, who is hardly a student of history, was puzzled at the presence of the Union Flag during Elizabethan times, reinforced by mentions of the Queen, what with the Union of the Crowns concept the flag represents being inseparable from King James. If she could notice this, I don’t doubt others would. She may not have balked at the presence of a monastery at the height of anti-Catholic England, the confusion about Puritan religion regarding salvation, fashion being a few decades ahead of its time, and the myriad minor details that irk a historically-minded person such as myself, but when she noticed something that happens in the first few minutes of a film… it isn’t a great precedent.
A Conflict of Cosmologies
“I am a landless man,” a strange, intangible, almost mystic look flashed into his cold eyes. “I come out of the sunset and into the sunrise I go, wherever the Lord doth guide my feet. I seek – my soul’s salvation, mayhap. I came, following the trail of vengeance. Now I must leave you. The dawn is not far away and I would not have it find me idle. It may be that I shall see you no more. My work here is done; the long red trail is ended. The man of blood is dead. But there be other men of blood and other trails of revenge and retribution. I work the will of God. While evil flourishes and wrongs grow rank, while men are persecuted and women wronged, while weak things, human and animal, are maltreated, there is no rest for me beneath the skies, nor peace at any board or bed. Farewell!”
–”The Blue Flame of Vengeance”
One of the most problematic results of the “dastardly Kane” origin is that it casts ambiguity over Kane’s inherent goodness. More than any of his barbarians, or soldiers of fortune, or adventurers, Kane is a good man. The darkness in his soul never swallows the piercing light of his righteousness, even if it’s often tinted red by the thrill of action and adventure. Unfortunately,making Kane into a gold-lusting reaver muddies the waters, turning him into something of an antihero. Many reviews have latched onto this, describing Kane thus. It’s really unhelpful, in my opinion.
The second most important shift in tone after Kane’s status as an antihero is that of the world he inhabits. Without going into too much detail, Solomon Kane makes great pains to assert the Judeo-Christian duality of good versus evil. God against Satan, Heaven against Hell, light versus darkness. In Bassett’s vision, all the forces of evil are linked to the Devil, while the forces of good are linked to God. There’s a strange moment where a pagan witch clumsily remarks on “forces other than the Christian God,” but she’s there and gone so quickly, with seemingly little impact on the story, that it’s difficult to consider her to be of any consequence. She’s probably intended to be a subtle hint for N’Longa in a future film, but Bassett shows the same inability to distinguish between foreshadowing and flattening that Peter Jackson did in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
There is no such duality in Howard’s world, or if there is, it’s extremely well hidden. Just about every instance of sorcery, magic or the supernatural is terrible and dangerous. When it isn’t actively hostile to humanity, it is instead alien and inscrutable in the vein of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones. If the biblical Devil does exist, then he is but one of the many heads of a greater and more terrible hydra: The One Black Master of “Dig Me No Grave.” The Devil’s servants–demons, witches, sorcerers–are plentiful, but by no means compatible with contemporary demonology. God, if He exists in Howard’s worldview, manifests in subtle and mysterious ways: the cross of Saint Bernard in “The Cairn on the Headland” is about the only example of divine intervention in Howard’s weird fiction, and even then it’s ambiguous. Another benevolent god, Mitra, utilizes similarly inconspicuous methods in “Black Colossus”; there are also a few other “good” magic users like Hadrathus and Zelata cropping up occasionally. All the same, the ratio of benevolent to malevolent forces in Howard’s universe is distinctly skewed in favour of the latter.
There is a particular moment in Solomon Kane that encapsulates this Heaven/Hell dichotomy, but upon further reflection, there is a way of looking at it from a Howardian point of view. Aside from this one instance, God does not aid Solomon throughout the film: Kane lops off every cruel head and skewers every evil heart with his own strength and will. The various holy scrolls, symbols and prayers he uses to defend himself against the forces of darkness do nothing, save perhaps imbue him with the confidence to triumph. Up until this point, Kane does it all himself. Yet this single Deus ex Machina would seem to undo all that. Or does it? It could also be said that this moment was, like in “The Cairn on the Headland” or The Hour of the Dragon, those mysterious “powers opposed forever against the fiends of darkness” manifesting against a truly dire evil. Kane, like James O’Brien and Hadrathus, was simply the conduit of that mysterious and unknowable power.
With my Howard-hat on, it was easy for me to read between the lines. “The Devil” in this film, though never seen or detailed, may be either one of the undefinable horrors of the Outer Dark, or one of the aforementioned guises of The One Black Master. The Reaper is thus like the Riders of Ollam-Onga or the inhuman agents of Khosatral Khel; the witch and Malachi his human tools, using the established Christian mythology as a basis for understanding an otherwise unfathomable being. God may or may not exist, and if he does, he leaves man to his devices. Nonetheless, “some” force for good, vastly outnumbered by those for darkness, eternally battles against this Master and his minions, working through individuals like Kane when those horrors come onto the earthly plane of existence.
The problem with this interpretation is that it requires a certain amount of familiarity with the source material. The average person going into the audience is going to take the God/Devil dichotomy at face value, with all the baggage of Judeo-Christian mores that go with it. Then, the very real dramatic problem of God appears: how can people believe Kane is in any danger when God is always there to bail him out? For most of the film, Kane’s damned nature gives sufficient room for doubt, that even his year of charity and penance might not have swayed the Lord enough to accept his soul into Heaven. Still, the film is not–in my opinion–clear enough on the matter one way or the other, which is unfortunate.
A particular issue I have is the witch which appears part of the way through the film. The idea of the witch-burning is deeply rooted in the western horror tradition in two forms. Either the witch is real, and thus must be killed via a cleansing conflagration; or the witch is an innocent girl unfairly persecuted by a patriarchal society punishing anything remotely “un-Christian.” Howard addressed both in typically Howardian fashion: those witches who were killed by baying mobs of torch-and-pitchfork wielding fanatics were unquestionably of the latter variety. Conversely, the real witches with access to dark powers were rarely, if ever, killed in such a manner. To paraphrase the famous Cimmerian: “If she’s a witch, how will she suffer you to harry them?” Atla, Kwarada, Salome and other Howardian witches certainly never met their end at the hands of a disorganized rout.
At the risk of spoiling, the witch in Solomon Kane roughly adheres to the second Howardian paradigm. However, what bothers me is that the other paradigm is never mentioned: the witch here is indeed a powerful sorceress, but rather than being treated as the exception, there’s no implication that this witch hunt was unjustified. Combined with the “good witch,” this leads to the perception that in Howard’s world, most witches are real–and therefore, witch hunts are not merely the hysterical group insanity they were in history. Thus, Howard’s more realistic worldview is simplified and made into a fairytale. Besides, it’s pretty clear Kane has no stock in witch-hunts:
Kane bent above the body, which lay stark in its unnameable mutilation, and he shuddered: a rare thing for him, who had seen the deeds of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch-finders.
–”Skulls in the Stars”
Grouping witch-finders with the Spanish Inquisition says all that needs to be said: Kane viewed them as torturers and murderers. As such, I’m sorely disappointed that Bassett doesn’t make some gesture to include a concept that I felt very important in the Kane mythos: the recognition that most, perhaps all, women and men who were accused of witchcraft and summarily executed, were not the supernatural horrors that really threatened the world.
The Matter of Redemption
The great question on Bassett’s Solomon Kane as a franchise, at least for Howard purists, mirrors the storyline of the film. Solomon Kane takes many liberties with the source material, making sweeping and fundamental changes to Kane’s character, and even Howard’s worldview. It could be viewed as damaging to Howard for many of the reasons myself and Miguel fear: that those unimpressed with Solomon Kane’s weak dialogue and simple storytelling will falsely attribute those aspects to the genius of Cross Plains, that the film’s (debatable) representation of God as a tangible entity would lead to people accusing it of Christian sentimentality, or that the characters are “modernized” and “updated” from the musty old pulp nonsense. It’s something that’s infuriated me since Roger Ebert implied Howard had national socialist sympathies based solely on Conan the Barbarian.
Yet has hope forsaken Howard’s Puritan Avenger, or is there a possible chance for Bassett to redeem himself? From the beginning, Paul Berrow wanted the first Solomon Kane film to be an honest-to-Crom adaptation of Howard’s work, but the fickle inanity of Hollywood money-men necessitated the creation of an origin story. That story, such as it is, has now been told: is it possible that Kane–the real Kane–stands a chance, now that the superfluous origin is out of the way?
It depends how fussy you are. There is one other film adaptation which I was reminded of whilst watching Solomon Kane. This film–or rather, series of films–replaced the author’s painstakingly wrought dialogue and characterization by replacing it with trite, pompous dialogue and the sort of “hero’s journey” you grow out of after your first year of film school. It also made massive changes to character, story and setting based on interpretation or “re-imagination” of the source. Most pertinently of all, it was highly divisive among fans: some decried the alterations were an unforgivable betrayal, others felt changes were acceptable since the nebulous “spirit” of the author was present, with still others choosing merely to enjoy it on its own merits. Some strange people even considered the adaptation superior to the original work, which I don’t doubt some oddballs will with Kane.
No, I’m not comparing Solomon Kane to Conan the Barbarian: I’m comparing it to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
Lest I seem overly critical of both films and directors, I also believe there are positive similarities. Both directors show an affectionate flair for the macabre and horrific. Both have shown an ability to get a lot out of their budget, as well as convincing credible actors and renowned artists onto the project. And, most importantly, despite the vast warping of the adaptation process, both directors are earnest in their treatment of the film as a serious, straight fantasy story. Both shunned the pitfall of tongue-in-cheek humour and camp deconstruction, addressing the film with the same sort of determination that one only achieves with true emotional investment.
Also like The Lord of the Rings, the rest of their crew does their job vigorously. Everything about the film apart from the script–the direction, the acting, the cinematography, the art design, the score–is imbued with a sense of enthusiasm and genuine effort. The costume and scenery is detailed to the nines, not one of the actors phones in their performance (even the veterans), most of the technical stuff is polished. Even if some of those elements are unsuccessful, such as the erratic sound design and the computer generated special effects in the later stages, it isn’t through lack of effort.
So what does this mean for Howard fans? Well, if Solomon Kane is enough of a hit to green-light a sequel, then I’m of the opinion that the resulting adaptation of Howard’s work would bear similarities to Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and all the good and bad that entails. How any one Howard fan would react to such a prospect is naturally dependent on whether they think that’s a good thing or not. Many Howard fans enjoy Dark Horse’s comics, some advocating Busiek’s “Born on the Battlefield” as an ideal template for a Conan origin movie. Others (such as myself) have considerable problems with Busiek and Truman’s adaptations (especially “Born on the Battlefield”), and would object to them being used as any sort of basis for a film adaptation. In effect, the same schism that affected the Tolkien fandom in the wake of Jackson’s films might well strike Howardom if Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane sequel comes to pass.
Just as one wonders if the avaricious, murderous blackguard Captain Kane of the film’s prologue could atone for his sins, could Solomon Kane somehow find redemption?
Accept No Imitations
I’m glad I saw Solomon Kane. There are two types of Howard adaptations: those that can, through contrast and comparison, make you look at the source material in a new way, or at least appreciate it even more; and those that don’t, because they are so trite and shallow they don’t even warrant further discussion. Conan the Barbarian, with its Nietzsche allusions and philosophical metaphors, is of the former: even if you despise it, you can look at the original stories in a way that you might not normally due to the differences of the two creations. Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror? Meaningless, bereft of depth, no more worthy of discussion than a satirical newspaper cartoon. In my opinion, despite its considerable faults, Solomon Kane is of the first variety.
Bassett’s interpretation of Kane’s origin is wholly alien to just about every Howard fan’s I know, but it’s at least derived from the source material. He made Kane into the character he is not because of some arbitrary factor like a star that needed a vehicle or cashing in on a current fad, but because it was part of the story he wanted to tell. It’s an intellectual decision on his part, one that you can disagree with, and one that you could accuse of being hackneyed and cliche, but it’s one that can be respected as an artistic choice. The same simply can’t be said for the other films, which function purely as mindless action flicks, vehicles for their respective stars, with no thought to any sort of dimension. Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane are films that can be argued against: the other three are films that can just be ignored.
I can’t accept Bassett’s interpretation of Kane, and I can’t forgive him for the changes to the character, for the exact reasons I can’t forgive Milius and Stone for Conan the Barbarian. Solomon Kane presents a character that is simply not the creation of his original architect, and that will only cause confusion. People still think Robert E. Howard had Conan kidnapped by slavers, set to work on a wheel, pushed into a gladiator pit, trained by Eastern warriors and finding an Atlantean sword before enacting vengeance upon the murderer of his family. Thanks to Michael J. Bassett, that same sort of confusion and ambiguity will now be visited upon Kane. The average cinema-goer will assume that Howard’s Solomon Kane was a red-handed plunderer who renounced violence after a near-death experience, only to take up the sword once again in a bid to save his immortal soul. Certainly one very stupid reviewer has suggested Howard wrote Solomon Kane as an earlier version of Conan based on the very arguable similarities between the two pastiches.
All this just makes me appreciate the one true Solomon Kane even more. Captain Kane killing the defenders of a North African castle with brutal abandon made me think of the real Kane risking his life to save an African slave in “The Footfalls Within” and his heroic defense of doomed Bogonda in “Wings in the Night.” Tattooed Kane hiding in a monastery for fear of the dark things seeking to claim his soul put me in mind of the unshrinking and unshakable courage of the genuine Kane, walking the path-best-untraveled in “Skulls in the Stars.” The wandering pilgrim wracked with doubt, self-pity and sorrow in search of a purpose reminded me of the authentic, determined Kane, crossing the world to avenge the rapist and murderer of a girl he never knew in “Red Shadows,” or spending years to find girls who may well be dead in “The Blue Flame of Vengeance” and “The Moon of Skulls.” And, of course, seeing the pacifist Kane being ambushed by three swaggering thugs had me grimly relishing the thought of what the actual Kane would do to those poor, unsuspecting bullies.
It’s here that I must mention the one thing I have no reservations about. At the end credits (which, like 300, somehow manage to be more exciting and visually appealing than most of the film), the first name up is the director. Fair enough. The second name is Robert E. Howard. Anyone who was at the Glasgow Odeon at the 1:10 performance may have noticed a big bearded chap punching both fists in the air with a roaring cheer. I purchased the official souvenir magazine, and was delighted to see a page dedicated to Howard, along with more pages about the original Kane stories, and a full page advertisement for The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. As was noticeably not the case with every other Howard film adaptation, the filmmakers are making a real point of reminding people of the real Solomon Kane, created in the mind of one of the great unsung American writers of the 20th century.
I hope Solomon Kane is a success, and gets a US release, not so much for its own merits, but because of the possibilities. If Solomon Kane is a success, then that could lead to a trilogy that does what hasn’t actually been done for the big screen in the sixty-four years since Howard’s death: an adaptation of Howard’s stories. The purists could safely ignore the first film, or imagine it’s Kane’s little cousin, or some other guy called Sully McCain, and act as if the new film is the real Kane. If Solomon Kane is a flop, then that’s it. All we have is this pastiche, any hope for a future Kane film in the near future that actually adapts the stories may go down the drain, and we’re stuck with an origin story that has nothing to do with Howard’s character poisoning the well. I’d welcome Purefoy back with open arms. If the Berrows ensure Bassett doesn’t muck with the script, I’d be willing to let him redeem himself (even if the old “fool me once” mantra rings in my ears), though I wouldn’t protest if another director was brought in all the same. Much as I dislike the idea of supporting pastiche that usurps Howard’s material, I’m willing to make this monumental exception to ensure that this is not the last time we see the name “Solomon Kane” on the silver screen.
Talk about a deal with the Devil. Still, better the Devil you know. Back in July, I noted that the publicity and interest in Kane might bring more people to REH. There’s always a hope when a film adaptation comes out, that some people in the audience will say “that was really cool, I should check out the books.” Bassett, the Berrows, Purefoy and others are actively promoting Howard in this way, through interviews, promotional material and otherwise. In a BBC interview, James Purefoy specifically noted that the film wasn’t based on any of the stories, and even mentioned how it’s effectively based on an interpretation of one or two lines from the poems. At the same time, however, he talked up Howard, and described the Kane stories as great yarns, without any qualifiers or backhanded compliments. Every interview I see, someone’s talking about Howard as a genius, one of the greatest fantasy writers of the 20th century, and making him sound like a million bucks. Purefoy himself compared Howard to Tolkien, whose recognition as one of the greats of modern fantasy is unquestioned.
That’s about the best kind of publicity Howard fans could hope for.
*Black and white illustrations by Gary Gianni