The Solomon Kane movie: quite as bad as feared
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
posted by Miguel Martins
I hope Leo Grin will forgive me for shamelessly copying the title of one of his blogs. Mark Finn had great doubts about this project when he saw the first official poster. REHupan Steve Trout also recently voiced his disappointment here at TC after finding out that this flick has little to do with Robert E. Howard’s œuvre. This movie tells a completely invented origin story, twisting the character, the setting and plays hell with many established facts from the actual Solomon Kane stories.
The movie tells the origins of Solomon Kane and is hoped to be the first of a trilogy of movies. When the story opens Kane is a mercenary of Queen Elizabeth I fighting in Africa, but after an encounter with a demon, The Reaper, he realizes he must seek redemption or have his soul damned to Hell. He returns to England and lives a life of peace, converting to puritanism, but soon the doings of an evil sorcerer upset his plans and he must take up arms again.
James Purefoy has been cast as puritan swordsman Solomon Kane in a movie of the same name to be made from the stories of “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard. Kane is a 16th century soldier who learns that his brutal and cruel actions have damned him but is determined to redeem himself by living peacefully. But he finds himself dragged out of retirement for a fight against evil.
Sadly, any purist quibbles aside, I do not think that Solomon Kane is a good movie by strict cinematic standards either.
I saw the Solomon Kane movie shortly after its official release in France at the end of December, in a cinema at the center of Paris. Most of the French theaters where it was displayed have now dropped it after one or two weeks. As of this writing, the box office numbers confirm that this film has not done well here. There were mixed reviews when it was shown in Spain during the Sitges Festival, but the French press has almost unanimously lambasted it. It reaffirms my faith in the tastes of the people who invented cinema. We made a triumph of Gran Torino last year and we buy more Howard books per capita than our American allies. We are fully capable of knowing quality (or the lack of) when we see it.
Before proceeding to a full review of the film itself, let’s set some things straight concerning this project.
Wandering Star Books published expensive and lavishly illustrated volumes containing Robert E. Howard texts in unadulterated form, starting in 1998 with The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. Every true fan of Howard should feel indebted to Marcelo Anciano, Paul Berrow and their associates. Marcelo Anciano hired stalwart Howardian purists like Patrice Louinet and Rusty Burke to work on these books. The Wandering Stars were expensive volumes — it was clear from the beginning that these books were meant as “teasers” to attract cinema producers — but their content became available to Howard readers through the less expensive Del Reys.
This blogger is totally convinced that the very concept of an origin story itself kills a part of the character’s mystique. Solomon Kane’s “Man with No Name” attributes should be the basis for any well done adaptation featuring the Man from Devonshire on screen. A tale like The Blue Flame of Vengeance features a mysterious avenger who comes by night, gets rid of the bad guys and disappears before dawn. Twenty years ago, when I read my first Solomon Kane story, I dreamed of seeing Clint Eastwood with a rapier, dressed in Puritan clothes, in the part. The Dollars Trilogy, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider were already among my favorite films.
Paul Berrow has stated that he would have liked to do a movie with a character true to Robert E. Howard. His first intent was to bring a true-to-REH Solomon Kane to the screen:
The early scripts were pure Sergio Leone…no background, no context to ground him in. 17th Century can be pretty obscure to a Studio…until recently! Well we shopped it and shopped it for many years. “Who is this guy…we need to know more to invest in him…he is so dark..blah blah blah” Its now close to 14 years since we took the character on by publishing the Limited Edition Classic version of Solomon Kane, a labor of love for all concerned. During this time we have filtered the work of many script writers working to PG13 and R-rated briefs. The Peoms (sic) kept popping their heads up demanding attention. Then we decided that the budget for the African scripts was creating a barrier and that this film might not ever get made, that’s when we switched our attention to the origin set up and a film based around Solomon Kane coming home from the Elizabethan navy.
That was the start of the entire debacle. Now a director was needed to helm the flawed project:
A friend at Working Title films gave me a short list of genre directors working out of Europe. Michael Bassett was amongst them. I had coffee with Michael in Soho at the Cuban bar in Wardour Street, gave him a two line pitch and we got the show on the road within no time.
When some idiotic investors decided that Howard’s Puritan character could not make it to the screen “as is” and when Mr. Berrow chose his director, the project was essentially doomed. Michael J. Bassett was once called an “insipid mediocrity” by Leo Grin. Keep in mind, Howard fans, that Bassett would probably have been out of the equation if some buffoon had not required a lame origin story to finance the whole project.
Then this young, barely-known director and screenwriter unleashed his creativity. Also from Paul Berrow:
The tone was set on his first draft and Michael enhanced and honed that script until we rolled the cameras. Once we embraced the origin notion it all started to make sense to everyone and the budget ballooned to north of the 40 million usd quoted in the press….its probably closer to 50 million in truth now. The character is alive on film and i hope a great future for the franchise has begun…next stop Africa and that Guy with no name.
Allegedly, the second film in what’s supposed to become a trilogy would/will be truer to Howard. But what if this first installment doesn’t make enough money? What will remain will only be another bad flick which ignores the Man from Cross Plains’ concepts that adds to a growing list of horrible, derivative films vaguely based on his writings.
Let’s recap Michael J. Bassett’s opinions on Robert E. Howard’s creation:
To find this origin, creatively I took my cue from REH’s poems and his allusions to Kane’s pagan heart which seemed to me to be somewhat at odds with his constantly stated devotion to God’s word and absolute correctness of his mission. There is such a good tension at work there.
Bassett doesn’t seem to get that if Howard gave Kane an urge for adventure and an unshakeable faith in his God as the Puritan’s main motives, it was on purpose, to make him a more complex character than is obvious from first glance. This ambiguity, clearly demonstrated in the yarns, is at the core of the character. Howard wrote in a letter to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith that Kane was a “paranoid.” By that, he meant that Solomon Kane was crazy. A certain form of madness is necessary to imagine Solomon tenaciously pursuing a man for long years just to avenge a ravished girl he’d never seen before.
Does Bassett get that he is betraying the very essence of the character? Why would someone twist Kane’s background so as to make him unrecognizable? Isn’t the dichotomy between Solomon Kane’s Faith and his conscience of his own lust for action, as well as the contrition which goes with it enough? Is there not sufficient ”good tension” already present in Howard’s Solomon Kane to make him an appealing character? Does Bassett realize that the Solomon Kane who feels at home amidst the squalling savagery of the deepest jungle is not an “evil” man nor a sadist, but that these tales could be interpreted as further Howardian exaltations of the inherent barbaric nature of mankind and yet other charges against civilization? Has this director no clue whatsoever regarding the themes explored by the Bard from Cross Plains?
Apparently a single paragraph from “The Blue Flame of Vengeance” and a few lines from ”the poems” were Bassett’s inspirations and justification for this redemption story which would take Solomon Kane on a journey changing an evil man to a fighter for good causes.
Aye, I led a rout of ungodly men, to my shame be it said, though the cause was a just one. In the sack of that town you name, many foul deeds were done under the cloak of the cause and my heart was sickened – oh, well – many a tide has flowed under the bridge since then, and I have drowned some red memories in the sea…
– “The Blue Flame of Vengeance”
No, Michael. No.
Even someone whose English is as imperfect as mine can see it. Here, the Puritan doesn’t admit having been an evil man. Solomon just says that he was disgusted by “foul deeds” done in the name of the “cause.” Foul doings which, clearly, already made him “sick” back then. Not his evil doings.
Let’s take a look at the poems, where (supposedly, according to Mr Bassett) some “hints” on the former evil nature of Solomon Kane would be hidden. Here’s an excerpt from “The One Black Stain”:
Solomon Kane stood forth alone,
grim man of sober face:
“Worthy of death he may well be,
but the trial ye held was mockery,
“Ye hid your spite in a travesty
where justice hid her face.
“More of the man had ye been, on deck
your sword to cleanly draw
“In forthright fury from its sheath
and openly cleave him to the teeth –
“Rather than slink and hide beneath
a hollow word of the law.”
Hell rose in the eyes of Francis Drake.
“Puritan knave!” swore he.
“Headsman! Give him the axe instead!
He shall strike off yon traitor’s head!”
Solomon folded his arms and said,
darkly and somberly:
“I am no slave for your butcher’s work.”
“Bind him with triple strands!”
Drake roared and the men obeyed,
Hesitantly, as if afraid,
But Kane moved not as they took his blade
and pinioned his iron hands.
They bent the doomed man over to his knees,
the man who was to die;
They saw his lips in a strange smile bend,
one last long look they saw him send,
At Drake his judge and his one time friend
who dared not meet his eye.
The axe flashed silver in the sun,
a red arch slashed the sand;
A voice cried out as the head fell clear,
and the watchers flinched in sudden fear,
Though ’twas but a sea bird wheeling near
above the lonely strand.
“This be every traitor’s end!”
Drake cried, and yet again.
Slowly his captains turned and went
and the admiral’s stare was elsewhere bent
Than where the cold scorn with anger blent
in the eyes of Solomon Kane.
– from “The One Black Stain”
We see Kane opposing a figure of authority because of his sense of justice. “The One Black Stain” is probably a reference to the execution of Sir Thomas Doughty in 1578. It happens before 1596, since that’s when Sir Francis Drake passes. Near the beginning of the film (set in 1600), we see ”Movie Kane” killing a man who doesn’t obey his orders. Pretending that there is a hidden meaning in the poems which would justify Bassett’s take is basically an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has read the Solomon Kane yarns. In the poems, we see that the behavior of the only true Kane is exactly the opposite of the ruthless and greedy killer portrayed by Purefoy at the beginning of the flick. Movie Kane cold-bloodedly kills a man who doesn’t follow his orders. The one and only true Solomon Kane stood against exactly the same kind of unjust execution!
By the way, why was 1600 chosen as the date to start this movie? A workable Solomon Kane chronology is really difficult to do (and some might say pointless), but how would one reconcile a Kane who fights injustice as soon as 1578 and Bassett’s evil bastardized character that we see in 1600? What’s the point of choosing this date if not to divorce the Bassett version of Solomon Kane further from Howard’s?
All his life he had roamed about the world aiding the weak and fighting oppression, he neither knew nor questioned why. That was his obsession, his driving force of life. Cruelty and tyranny to the weak sent a red blaze of fury, fierce and lasting, through his soul. When the full flame of his hatred was wakened and loosed, there was no rest for him until his vengeance had been fulfilled to the uttermost. If he thought of it at all, he considered himself a fulfiller of God’s judgment, a vessel of wrath to be emptied upon the souls of the unrighteous.
All his life.
By Valka! Not after he saved his soul from the Devil. Not after a murderous youth. All his life. And Bassett is well aware of this quote. Some true REH fans pointed this out to him when he joined Conan.com. What did he say?
I just don’t buy that he was always a good man righting wrongs, he’s just too dark a character for that. He feels like a man paying penance to me and that’s why I like him so much and forgive the grimness. That’s what I went with instead of the very closed motivation given in the Red Shadows line. To me, one character is interesting and the other is more of an automaton who would be hard or indeed impossible to make play in a movie. And that’s not to say you won’t entirely disagree with my interpretation and loath every frame of the film but it felt right to me. Wandering Star who has slogged away at getting Kane to the screen for over a decade now supports the choice and we both think it works as a movie for people who have never heard of Kane and for those who are more versed in his “true” history.
“I just don’t buy that [Solomon Kane] was always a good man.”
Bassett knows that he is contradicting REH, but he just doesn’t care.
Bassett’s ”Solomon Kane” is not an “automaton,” which is how he likes to see REH’s iconic character. Bassett’s “evil man in need of redemption” is a more compelling and “interesting” character, without the “very closed motivation” given in “Red Shadows.” Well, at least by MJB’s lights.
Right on, Mike. Keep repeating during your interviews that you can “read between the lines” written by REH. To impose your wrongheaded ”creative” interpretation of the character, you ignore the background explicitly and unequivocally laid down in “Red Shadows,” the tale intended by REH to introduce his readers to the Puritan. The first Solomon Kane yarn ever written and published.
You’re not fooling anyone, MJB. You don’t like Howard’s character. What you really longed for was to create your own thing. As for me, I like REH’s “impossible to make play in a movie” Solomon Kane and I vehemently disagree with your assertion. The late and very perceptive Steve Tompkins had already noted, when he read one of your posts a few years ago, that you didn’t trust the source material. I think that Sergio Leone and Ol’ Clint would definitively disagree on the impossibility of putting this kind of role on the silver screen, but you’re the filmmaker, I guess. You obviously think that today’s audiences don’t want to see the true Solomon Kane on screen and that all that they really want to see is your bastardization. Basically, Michael, you’re saying to Howard fans: “You don’t really want to see this [automaton], what you really want is…”
Hell, Howard fans have heard this litany so many times before. It sounds so eerily familiar.
I surmise that the original sin of this project was bringing this guy on board. He might like the genre, but despite his claims to the contrary, Howard’s hero was the least of his concerns. Bassett has stated in interviews that he wanted an actor who would look like Viggo Mortensen, someone who would understand that Kane had a “tortured soul” and who would get that “his journey for redemption” was at the core of the character.
Bassett could repeat a hundred times that his inane interpretation is faithful to Robert E. Howard’s vision and it still wouldn’t make it true. Give me back my ‘Clint Eastwoodesque’ character. Because your bastardized version, your pseudo-Aragorn (à la Peter Jackson) who-wants-to-redeem-his-doomed-soul sucks, Mike. Many (or perhaps not so many, if it doesn’t find an American distributor and flops in Europe) people will see this film. Once it is firmly established that Kane was an ”evil man” who fought other evils simply to save his own selfish soul, what is left of Howard’s creation? How could Movie Kane walk into Howard’s stories later and then sententiously lecture bad guys about their sins without totally embarassing himself by being the king of the hypocrites? Seriously? What’s the point in naming this travesty “Solomon Kane”?
Beside the character’s motives, Bassett also has the cosmology wrong. This movie revolves upon heavy Christian symbolism. The bad guys and monsters all work for The Devil. Bassett willfully ignores that Howard, highly appreciative of his friend Howard Philips Lovecraft’s writings, inserted Cthuloid references in the tales. While the daring Puritan swashbuckler might call his opponents demons or creatures of the Devil, I fail to remember a monster directly sent by Satan in any Solomon Kane yarn written by Robert E. Howard. Twisted descendants of old races, Cthuloid entities, undead, sorcerers, yes. But explicit agents of the Judaeo-Christian Devil? They were probably hidden “between the lines” along with MJB’s evil Kane.
The power of God Almighty never helps Solomon Kane concretely in the tales written by Robert E. Howard. Solomon’s unswerving faith is his motivation, nothing more. Kane never sees unequivocal, concrete evidence of the powers of God in any of the yarns written by Robert E. Howard. Not in “The Moon of Skulls”; not in any of them.
Movie Kane begs for God’s help and guidance constantly. And we’re not in an Abel Ferrara movie here. For the readers who don’t fear spoilers: in this film’s (weak) climax, the power of God seemingly manifests during a particularly bad computer generated scene. Earlier in the movie, Solomon Kane is crucified. In one of the flashbacks, we see a young Solomon who accidentally kills (or so he thinks) his elder brother. A reference to Jesus. Another to Kane and Abel.
Movie Kane isn’t a Puritan, he just dresses like one once offered clothes by the Crowthorn family. I also consider Kane’s body being covered with tattoos and scarifications of Crosses and Christian symbols a pretty ridiculous idea. Movie Kane’s inner wounds had to be materialized somehow, Michael? As if it was not evident enough that your Kane has a “tortured soul.”
The evil overlord garbed in black and wearing a mask is nothing but a lame cliché, the ‘Reaper’ demon is very derivative of Jackson’s (MJB obviously likes the Lord of the Rings film adaptation) depiction of the Nazgûl…
I can see dismissals coming. Some readers might think that I’m so biased as a purist that I can’t appreciate the (few) good things in this movie. To prevent such nonsense, let this be a kind of “coming out”: I love the Milius Conan film. I appreciate it because it introduced me to Conan and hence, brought me to REH. I like how it pays homage to Prokofiev and Eisenstein. I also think it is a great samurai film (and this blogger worships Akira Kurosawa, another of John Milius’ obvious influences). I could also talk of its paraphrase coming from The Secret History of the Mongols (a fascinating read) as well. In short, despite the fact that Conan the Barbarian is not an ‘Howardian’ movie by any means and taking into account Arnold Schwarzenegger’s non-acting, I love it because it’s a great work of cinema.
Sincerely, I would have forgiven Bassett many betrayals of the character, chronology and setting (though I would have bickered a bit, true) if he had created a real piece of art.
This ain’t art. Not even close.
I will not say that the Solomon Kane movie is a complete turkey. That wouldn’t be honest. I don’t think it’s as bad as some (for instance, Leo) feared. However, it comes close. The script is horrendous and not only because of its lack of fidelity to the Texan’s tales. The story told in this flick is really weak. While the production values are hardly first class, I willingly admit that they are above Red Sonja, Kull the Conqueror and the likes.
The costumes are well done and they look appropriately worn-out and dirty. I have only one very minor quibble: how hard would it have been to give Solomon Kane a green sash-belt? Some sets are finely crafted as well, and the low-to-middle budget doesn’t show too much here. Czech artist Jan Cilecek made several fine sculptures for the film. The Danish director of photography, Dan Laustsen, used desaturated colors which were reminiscent (to me) of some painters belonging to the Dutch School; some visuals and lightings are really well-done and the Czech landscapes look very beautiful. Kudos to the people in charge of those aspects of the movie. They really did some good work.
You can’t say the same thing for the special effects. I really liked the creatures from the first scene. It’s a shame that you don’t see such well-done monsters throughout the whole movie, but what could be expected from the person who conceived these creatures and supervised these effects, Mr. Patrick Tatopoulos, the same man who previously designed the creatures of a film whose sole mention alongside Solomon Kane’s infuriates Howard fans, Stephen Sommers’ infamous… Van Helsing? This is a slight exaggeration, because when he is given a respectable budget, Tatopoulos can produce some good work. But here…the monsters under the abandoned church made me laugh. The ‘balrog-esque’ demon from the climax is not as ridiculous (he is only badly done) but the last effect in the scene was, in my opinion, burlesque. Which was probably not what Bassett intended.
Klaus Badelt, who composed the score, created some excellent movie music. This is not his best work, but it is decent enough. The problem would be that music meant to be rousing, when played over key scenes which looked pathetic, sounded more pompous than anything else. The over-the-top crucifixion scene, with Purefoy tearing himself from his cross, comes to mind.
Nothing could save this execrable screenplay. The dialogue is hackneyed. Compared to Robert E. Howard’s poetic prose (or poetry found in Howard’s prose, as Charles Gramlich would say), here we have really lame sentences. We hear Purefoy intone (and moan) such deep dialogue as: “I’ve done bad things,” “My soul is doomed,” etc… If the uninformed public hears it and think it accurately transcribes the words of the Cross Plains’ Pulpster, then this film will do a great disservice to Howard’s literary reputation. This blogger’s English is not his first language, but I guarantee you that I could have penned dialogue of the same quality without too much effort, something which says a lot regarding Bassett’s writing abilities. I know how finely honed sentences in English sound. I’m a fan of Robert E. Howard.
The cast is good. That’s a point on which I disagree with Leo, who previously talked of “metrosexual” actors. I liked James Purefoy in the HBO Rome series, where his interpretation of Marcus Antonius/Mark Antony was solid. The show was highly entertaining, despite its numerous historical inaccuracies (Caesar with a full head of hair instead of being bald? A Pontifex Maximus who claims that he is only a soldier who doesn’t know much about religion?). I’d rather have seen Daniel Day-Lewis in the Puritan’s part, but I admit that Purefoy could have been a convincing Solomon Kane. But how could an actor make a great performance when he has to utter inane lines of dialogue, or when some gimmicky moves are required by the director? Watch the trailer and you’ll see what I’m talking about when Movie Kane grabs his sword with the help of his feet (twice). What’s happening here? Howard’s Kane had a cold and pragmatic fighting style. Another example was when poor Pete Postlethwaite, who is not a bad actor either, had to utter inane final words. I felt sorry for him, as I am for the whole cast. I think that the actors weren’t the ones who made a mess out of this film.
This movie is badly directed. You can hardly see nor understand what’s happening during several fighting scenes. Some key scenes like the crucifixion were abysmal. Bassett and some lame special effects are the curse of this flick. Leo dismissed the whole movie, but didn’t realize how much he was right on Michael J. Bassett. As a screenwriter, he wrote insipid dialogue and devised a weak plot. As a director, his work was mediocre. Besides ignoring Howard completely, he also ruined what could have been an acceptable middle-budget action flick in the same league as another movie produced by Samuel Hadida, Le Pacte des Loups (English title: Brotherhood of the Wolf). Several people who contributed to this film did a good job. Sadly, that is not so for the man most responsible for the final product.
The argument that fans of Robert Ervin Howard should support this film so as to attract new readers will soon be void. Cinema-goers ignorant of Howard who appreciated Bassett’s lame take will not be directed to the real Solomon Kane for long.
Soon, they will be able to buy a book with Purefoy on its cover and read Ramsey Campbell’s novelization. Fellow blogger Deuce told me that it could be “the best thing out of a bad mess.” I agree. Campbell loves Solomon Kane, has always been very respectful of REH, writing knowledgeable forewords for Bantam and Baen. As opposed to the likes of de Camp, Campbell carefully marked where Howard’s texts ended when he penned some (acceptable) completions. I like Ramsey Campbell. I wrote an entry on his excellent sword and sorcery character Ryre for Simon Sanahujas’ book Les Nombreuses Vies de Conan. Campbell has also written fine horror tales. I’m just wondering why such a good writer joined this mess. Well, at least the dialogue in the book can only be better than what Bassett wrote for the film, though I dread an upcoming Solomon Kane the Indestructible Chronology. Will someone try to reconcile Movie Kane and the one and only Solomon Kane?
Shieldbearer Al proposed a vote for the De Campista awards. Gary Romeo might deserve an honorary award for his years of dedication to Old Spraguey’s defense. However, for this year, my vote goes to Michael J. Bassett. The only thing which ‘redeems’ him in my eyes are the nice words he constantly repeats regarding Robert E. Howard. Much appreciated, Michael. Those words sound like a music to my ears. If your (bad) movie hadn’t almost completely ignored his writings, I would have believed you.