Solomon Kane (2009) The Pilgrim's Kickass

What things are best in life? The usual kind of things, like crushing enemies who are driven before you, hearing the lamentations of their women, and the stories of Robert E. Howard. For those not familiar with the name, Howard was a pulp writer who, in his all too brief thirty year life, created a cultural icon for the ages when he penned the first Conan story in 1932 for the magazine Weird Tales. What few recognize about Howard is that Conan was not his only creation. He also created tales of Bran Mak Mourn, King of the Picts, El Borack, a Texas gunfighter and world adventurer, Kull of Atlantis, the basis for the 1997 Kevin Sorbo vehicle Kull the Conqueror, Red Sonja, the She- Devil with a sword, and Solomon Kane, which is what brings us here today. Kane was one of Howard’s more modern characters, a 17th century Puritan who, armed with a sword, a dirk, and paired flintlocks, wandered the land like Caine in Kung Fu and dispatched evil wherever he found it. Now he's the subject of a new movie, but will it be as just as Solomon or will the devil lie in the details?

Only nine stories about Kane were published during Howard’s life, and if it wasn't for the thread being kept alive by the Marvel Comic’s 1970s character of the same name, there’s a chance the character could have slipped into total obscurity. Now there’s a film that seeks to change that. I say now, but Solomon Kane was actually made back in 2009 with a theatrical release in the UK in 2010 and a limited release in American theaters delayed until 2012. Even then, like most folks, I had no idea that Kane came and went, and there’s a good possibility it never came even near to my town. Since then, Solomon Kane has been crying for an American distributor and Stars/Anchor Bay is finally coming to the rescue with a DVD release stateside. The question remains, was it worth the wait? After all, I waited almost thirty years for another Conan movie, and the less said about that the better. So, folks, buckle your seatbelts as well as your Pilgrim hats and shoes as we take a journey into this cinematic realization of Howard‘s work.

Solomon (James Purefoy) is badass. As the film opens, he, along with his crew of scurvy dogs, are raiding an Ottoman fortress, but the real action starts after the battle when Solomon is confronted by a hooded, skeletal figure calling itself “The Devil’s Reaper”. It seems that Mr. Kane’s evil deeds have so damned his soul that it is irrevocably bound for hell. Making a hasty escape, Solomon retreats to a monastery in England where he learns to protect his soul by becoming a man of peace. As long as he doesn't fight, the devil’s henchman can’t find him. That’s all well and good until the Priest has a vision that he must cast Solomon out, and Kane is left to his own devices in the real world of the 17th century where being a “man of peace” could lead you to being a man in pieces. He is soon taken in by a band of Puritan Pilgrims bound for the new world, but when the family is attacked and killed, the daughter bound for slavery, Solomon renounces his vow of pacifism to save the girl from the slaver’s evil clutches. What follows is an adventure that sees Kane battle demons, vast armies, and sorcerers, in a quest that will lead him to the steps of his own ancestral home. 

Under the guidance of writer/director Michael J. Bassett, whose first feature, Deathwatch, was critically favored, Solomon Kane the film bears only passing resemblance to Robert E. Howard’s tales. While the character, as portrayed by Purefoy, feels like an accurate representation of the character, the origin story and quest involved seem pulled out of thin air. While they ring true, that was one of my reservations about the film. With only a handful of episodic stories, how much of Howard’s writing would actually make it on the screen? The answer sadly seems to be very little. That’s not to say that what Bassett came up with isn't good. It has an epic quality that has drawn comparisons to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, but the story is muddled and hard to follow at times. Thankfully, the movie is buoyed throughout by solid performances from veteran actors such as Max von Sydow, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige, and Jason Flemyng, who keep the story going even when it’s not clear where it is going. The real strength is in the style of the production. The special effects are quite stunning at times, especially the execution of the mirror demons, and there is a richness to the set design that makes Solomon Kane very visually interesting. However, sometimes the effects come up short, looking hasty or unfinished, and Kane’s final confrontation appeared too much like a Balrog for my comfort, a line that none shall (or should) pass. 

Robert E. Howard, like the characters he penned, was a force of nature. Sadly, he ended his own life at the age of thirty after becoming despondent following a deathbed vigil for his mother. Thankfully, his characters live on, and with films like Solomon Kane, even with its flaws and missteps, there is a chance for another generation to be introduced to the work he created. The hope is that some will investigate what is behind the character and read stories such as “Red Shadows”. “Hills of the Dead” or “The Footfalls Within” (the only story with a passing resemblance to the film), but if not, perhaps at least the image of a buckle hatted, pistol packing Puritan will remain in the cultural tapestry. So while Solomon Kane wasn't the best movie, keeping alive the work of Robert E. Howard is still one of the best things in life. Oh, and driving your enemies before you. Who doesn't love that?

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. I'd forgotten about this movie until seeing it one the shelf at my local Wal-Mart. The trailer had me interested when I saw it, god, what feels like years ago and maybe it was? I don't know.

    I picked up the [Dark Horse-release] black n' white reprints of Roy Thomas' old Marvel stories featuring Solomon Kane during my brief infatuation with all things pulp/fantasy. Loved Conan, Kull and Lin Carter's later contribution, Thongor.


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