Sunday, September 22, 2013


The Puritan wanderer Solomon Kane was one of the early creations of the short-lived, now legendary pulp writer Robert E. Howard, predating Conan the Barbarian in print by four years. In the movies, more than a quarter-century passed after the first Conan movie before Solomon Kane made it to the big screen, and then three more years passed before Michael J. Bassett's Euro production was released in Howard's homeland. At first glance, the picture owes its existence less to John Milius's Conan the Barbarian than it does to Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean. I don't mean to suggest that Bassett's film is a comedy -- it takes itself very seriously -- but the Pirates films made the 17th century setting of the Kane stories a safe period to set a fantasy film in. In fact, Solomon Kane takes inspiration from many sources. Some of the interior sets and creature designs may remind you of Pan's Labyrinth, while some of the outdoor action suggests Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. A scene in which Kane (James Purefoy) is crucified will even remind you of the Milius Conan, if not of another 1982 film, The Sword and the Sorcerer, in which the hero decrucifies himself. Alas, it can't live up to that picture's glorious idiotic moment when the hero leaps off his cross, catches a sword in mid-air, and goes to work slaying his enemies. Instead, Kane bellows with rage and flops into the mud.

It might be argued that writer-director Bassett takes influences from everywhere but the Howard stories, but we have to concede that Bassett got the look of the character pretty much right. Like Milius's Conan, Bassett's Kane doesn't adapt a particular Howard story. Instead, Bassett gives us an overdetermined origin story, and while Milius's film is also an origin, it had the simplicity of a revenge tale as well, while Bassett ensnares himself in nearly every origin-story plot thread that could be imagined. For starters, it's a tale of redemption, starting with Kane as a freebooter sacking a North African fortress, only to find himself attacked by a Devil's Reaper claiming his soul. His narrow escape leads Kane to seek shelter in a monastery, adopting ways of peace in the belief that the devil will take him should he ever kill again. But Solomon Kane is also about "fathers and sons," but more about sibling rivalry. Flashbacks reveal that Solomon, the second son of honorary Englishman (and Conan alumnus) Max Von Sydow -- is it that the great Swede now speaks the language better than most natives, or do some people think he is English? --  was to be relegated to the priesthood (a dangerous profession in Elizabethan England) but ran away from home after accidentally shoving his bully of an older brother off a cliff. This pretty much gives away the identity of the bad guy stomping around in a leather mask, but Bassett muddles things by insisting that this menace is only a minion of the real big-bad, the priest-turned-sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), whom we don't even see until the film's last act. His face is tattooed with Latin script in another apparent homage to the Milius Conan, and that's the most interesting thing about him. He ends up overshadowed not just by Solomon's final duel with his brother, who gets set on fire during the fight, and by his own summoning of a giant fire demon out of a mirror. Needless to say, by now Solomon has done a lot of killing, but he's been assured by the dying vow of the late Pete Postlethwaite that any killing he does to save Pete's daughter is O.K. with God.

Is there an original idea to be found in Solomon Kane? It seems not, though there are a few creatively directed moments. One of the best, it turns out, is a tangent from the main story in which Solomon encounters a minister whose congregation has been cursed by Malachi and transformed into flesh-eating subhumans. The slow torchlit reveal of the lot of them, both sexes bald and greenish in the light, packed in a cellar beneath a trapdoor, is the most genuinely creepy moment in the picture. The main story is a dispiriting muddle of "begins" cliches, again begging the question of why modern movie audiences supposedly can't accept the idea of a hero walking the earth without knowing how or why he does so, or being reassured somehow that he is reluctant, conflicted, etc. To my knowledge, Robert E. Howard never felt a need to account for Solomon Kane's childhood or family rivalries. Bassett's attempt to do so doesn't enhance the legend but serves only to make his film more like all the other modern films that find heroism so exceptional that it must be explained by factors other than a commitment to justice or the common good. This grows tiresome and seems to reflect a distrust of moral certainty, if not heroism itself, at least among self-styled creators. There's certainly room for skepticism about moral certainty (or certitude) in movies, but by now it's gotten monotonous. Solomon Kane is itself a monotonous picture, more often merely miserable than spooky and too predictable to be epic. The picture isn't awful, but it's disappointingly uninspired and a disservice to Robert E. Howard's legacy.


Taranaich said...

To my knowledge, Robert E. Howard never felt a need to account for Solomon Kane's childhood or family rivalries.

He didn't, but even the things that we do know are contradicted in the film. It is pretty much in the same boat as the 1982 Conan in those terms.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Taranich. The difference is that Milius (and behind him, Oliver Stone) had enough personal vision to make their non-canonical Conan a great adventure film, and Bassett doesn't.