Being a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories I have been very reluctant to see the 2009 Solomon Kane movie. I did not believe that any modern film-maker could, or would, do them justice. I’m now delighted to be able to say that I was wrong.
The movie is not actually based on the stories themselves. It is an origins tale. It is however based on Robert E. Howard’s character and it is a genuine attempt to get the character right.
The movie opens with Kane as a pirate plundering a castle and as a result being damned. Kane returns to England and takes refuge in a monastery and renounces violence, believing this to be his only hope, even if it’s a slender hope, of salvation. He is forced to leave the monastery after the Father Superior has a vision that tells him that Kane’s destiny lies elsewhere.
He meets a Puritan family on the road and is invited to journey with them. William Crowthorn and his wife and their two children Samuel and Meredith are hoping to go to the New World to make a new start. It soon becomes apparent that things are going very wrong in England. Bands of raiders roam the country, burning and pillaging and murdering. We will later find out that the raiders are servants of the evil sorcerer Malachi.
Kane and his companions on the road encounter one of these bands, with disastrous consequences. William Crowthorn is killed. Meredith is carried off by the marauders.
Kane is now a man of peace and is unable to defend his companions. He now faces a terrible choice. To save Meredith he will have to take up the sword again, and in doing do he will risk the near certainty of eternal damnation. It’s a risk he is willing to take.
This is not a conventional action movie and it’s most certainly not a comic book movie. It’s unconventional nature seems to have frightened distributors and it failed to get a proper commercial release. It’s been generally written off as a commercial flop but if writer-director Michael J. Bassett is correct in his claims that the often-quoted $45 million budget was wildly exaggerated it may end up turning a profit through DVD sales. Bassett apparently doesn’t mind that it didn’t get its chances in the movie theatres - he’s hoping for a Blu-Ray release which he feels (probably correctly) is the best way for this film to reach an audience.
It’s also been much criticised by Robert E. Howard fans for supposedly having little to do with either Robert E. Howard’s stories or his character. That’s actually rather unfair. Bassett had hoped to use tis movie as a springboard for a series of later films that would have been based on Howard’s actual stories. More importantly, I think the movie does set up the character rather well and I think it does capture most of the qualities that make Solomon Kane very different from other sword-and-sorcery heroes.
Solomon Kane is a man to whom damnation and salvation are very real. He inhabits a world very different to our own. It is not a world of moral relativism. It is a world in which good and evil, Heaven and Hell, damnation and salvation, God and Satan, are not merely realities, they are the only realities that really matter. It is also a world in which the Christian religion matters. You cannot make a movie about Solomon Kane while indulging in fashionable anti-Christian polemics, and to his credit Michael J. Bassett understood this. He also understood that there could be no place for political correctness in such a movie - apart from anything else such concepts would have been hopelessly anachronistic.
He also deserves credit for taking his subject matter seriously. In an interview included on the DVD (and even if you don’t normally bother with DVD extras you really should watch this interview) he makes it clear that his intention was to avoid any hint of a tongue-in-cheek or camp approach. James Purefoy, who plays the title role, also deserves credit for playing the title role absolutely straight. Solomon Kane is a gloomy, tortured, utterly humourless man and any attempt to play him any other way would have made him just another generic action hero. Of course it’s likely that the movie would have done better commercially had it been approached as just another dumb action movie, so what we have here is something you don’t see very often these days in the movie world - artistic integrity.
Also noteworthy is the refusal to make Meredith a love interest. Kane’s feelings towards her are, as Bassett notes, much closer in spirit to courtly love than to romantic love. Kane is a Puritan after all. He doesn’t set out to rescue the girl because he expects to move in with her afterwards. He does it because he is fundamentally, in spite of the evil he has done in the past, a godly man and it is his duty. It is also the only way he can save his soul.
The movie also manages to avoid being transgressive or subversive, and that’s always something to be thankful for.
I’ve probably made the film sound terribly serious and dull but while it attempts to be more than an action movie it also succeeds in being a thoroughly entertaining and exciting action movie. If it’s sword fights and monsters and mayhem you want they’re there in abundance.
Visually it’s very impressive. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve as far as visual style is concerned then all the CGI in the world isn’t going to help you. Fortunately in this case the film-makers do have a coherent vision and despite some budgetary constraints it looks splendid.
While Robert E. Howard purists might not be satisfied this film is certainly closer in spirit to Howard’s writings than I would have expected. It’s an intelligent action movie, a very rare beast indeed.