Solomon Kane: based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; written and directed by Michael J. Bassett; starring James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max Von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith), Pete Postlethwaite (William Crowthorn), Alice Krige (Katherine Crowthorn), and Jason Flemyng (Malachi) (2009): It’s a shame this origin story for one of Robert E. ‘Conan the Barbarian’ Howard’s finest heroic creations never got a North American theatrical release. As movies based on Howard’s work go, this is immensely good.
Solomon Kane doesn’t have the weird, sweaty, portentous grandeur of the original Conan the Barbarian, but it’s certainly better-acted and better-written than that odd classic. This is a dark yet ultimately hopeful movie, devoid of Camp and metafoolery, committed to its peculiar (and very Howardesque) version of English history.
Indeed, the main cast suggests nothing more than a Masterpiece Theatre production gone rogue into the wilds of American pulp. James Purefoy is great as Solomon Kane at the beginning of his demon-fighting career, and the rest of the talented cast and crew seems similarly invested. It’s like watching real historical drama acted by real actors, only with awesome sword-fights and monsters! Madness! No wonder it couldn’t secure an American distributor!
The story begins in the year 1600. After escaping a demon who tells him that someone has already sold his soul to the Devil, kill-crazy British privateer Solomon Kane retires to an English Abbey to repent of his sins and remake himself into a Man of Peace. He will fight no more forever.
But God’s got other plans for him. Before long, Kane’s trying to single-handedly stop Northern England from being overrun by Satan’s Army. You know, just like it happened in the history books. An invasion of England by Hell really is suitably Howardesque, though, despite the fact that almost nothing in the movie is drawn from Howard’s actual work. The big, gloomy Texan loved to scramble history in his blood-soaked sword-and-sorcery melodramas.
Howard’s stories, fragments, and poems about Solomon Kane only briefly refer to his ‘origins’ as the Renaissance World’s premiere monster-fighter. And this film doesn’t really synchronize with Howard’s references: nowhere in Howard’s work is the suggestion that Kane had to repent of anything. He was an evil-killing machine from the beginning. He probably beat up ghosts while still in the womb. However, contemporary heroic-origin movies tend to need a character arc of redemptive psychology. At least in this case, the psychological growth trends towards Kane’s acceptance of his mission as for the public, and not just the personal, good.
In any event, there’s lots of sword-fighting and musket-firing. There’s crucifixion, an old Howard standby. There are several nicely visualized supernatural beings, including a creepy looking fire demon and some truly unpleasant things lurking inside some supernatural mirrors. There’s a rain-swept, plague-ravaged, burned-out landscape to quest across, a Waste Land to be redeemed.
A little more stillness and time for character development would have been nice. As is, though, this is quite the propulsive action-adventure movie. It’s a shame there won’t be more installments. I’d have liked to see writer/director Michael J. Bassett’s take on Kane’s loopy African adventures amongst the vampires, harpies, shambling super-blobs, evil men black and white, and sympathetic gorillas of the ‘Dark Continent.’ Highly recommended.