Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. This is a Science Fiction website: SF audiences haven't been kind to fantasy over the years. Still, I felt the need to comment on some specific elements. For expediency, I'm going to address them here, though I also commented on the site itself.
Returning to Howard's written word: at least half of the savage tales of Solomon Kane take place in Africa and it's here in particular that the writing is in equal parts enthralling and repulsive. Some of the most entertaining stories are in this African sequence, but Howard's depiction of Africans is very much a product of its time and place, America in the 1920s and 30s. There's no point gilding the lilly, these stories are quite simply and very blatantly racist. The superiority of the white man is fundamental to Howard's world view.
First, the idea that "the superiority of the white man is fundamental to Howard's worldview": this is a simplification of Howard's view of civilization as cyclical. The superiority of the white man to Howard was always transient and impermanent: that eventually, the superiority of the white man would fade, and be usurped by another race. This is entirely in keeping with Howard's many tales of civilizations becoming decadent, before complacency set in. Great white civilizations have fallen to ethnic barbarians, just as ethnic civilizations have fallen to white ones. White men just happened to be in charge during the 16th Century, and through to the 20th. Howard was reflecting this. Indeed, one story, "The Last White Man," portrays just such an uprising in the distant future.
For that matter, so does the boxing story "The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux," albeit in a more subtle way. The world champion, "Mankiller" Gomez, is a Senegalese boxer who's completely unstoppable. A search for a "Great White Hope" is announced, mirroring Jack London's call for a white man to defeat Jack Johnson. Here, there is no Great White Champion to conquer Gomez: they're all lying down on the mat. Who does defeat him? Ace Jessel, one of the most sympathetic, gentle, intelligent heroes Howard ever wrote of, the only of his boxing heroes to ever be a world champion - and he was black.
And before some apologist for the author pipes up in his defence, it's not that Howard has successfully captured the values of the times about which he was writing - the 16th Century. Frankly, his writing is not that sophisticated. Africans are characterised as sullen, wide-eyed, ignorant and superstitious. While they are often physically powerful, they are depicted as barely more than beasts.
First, I don't like the tone. "Some apologist" "pipes up," doesn't sound very accommodating of divergent views, and is rather condescending. Anyway.
Calling Howard's writing "unsophisticated" is patently absurd. As for calling his writing "unsophisticated" for his descriptions of African men - is he suggesting that Howard should completely break from type? This is how Howard described all the barbarians he didn't like - even his Vikings, which were pretty clearly white men. Sure, they're not described like Conan, but not everyone can be Conan. Besides, did he somehow miss N'Longa, who starts off playing right into reader's prejudices of a goofy, comic Juju-man before being revealed in 'The Hills of the Dead" to be a man of immense intellect, wisdom and power? Were the frightened boy and girl of "The Hills of the Dead" really anything less than what they were - frightened youths faced with horrors they could not understand? Was the friendly yet haunted Goru really "little more than a beast"?
A subtle though telling distinction is drawn between Europeans and Africans when referring to colour: Howard invariably refers to a European as a "white man" but frequently refers to Africans simply as "blacks", only very infrequently referring to an African as a "black man" (and never referring to "black men").
Any thought that there's some sort of telling "distinction", that Howard was insinuating black people were not truly "men" (rather than simple terminological differences - like, the fact blacks were simply called "blacks" in the 1930s) is dispelled when one remembers that Kane has risked his life on multiple occasions for black people. In "The Footfalls Within," he braves an entire Arab slave train to free African slaves. In "Wings in the Night" he seeks to defend a black village from winged horrors numbering in their hundreds. In "The Hills of the Dead", Kane protects a single black girl from vampires. What, are we to suppose that Kane is only protecting them as he would protect cattle or dogs, rather than the fact that Kane is protecting them because they are people?
Wings in the Night (1932), a great story, but otherwise repellent, epitomises this entrenched racism. Kane has defeated a bunch of harpies, famously dealt with in an earlier age by the Greek hero, Jason:
"Kane stood, an unconscious statue of triumph - the ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth, whether he be clad in wolf-hide and horned helmet, or boots and doublet - whether he bear in his hand battle-ax or rapier - whether he be called Dorian, Saxon or Englishman - whether his name is Jason, Hengist or Solomon Kane."
It's not often I say this, but for once I'm looking forward to the adaptation in the hope that it improves on the source material.
Again with that paragraph of "Wings in the Night." Jerard's dismissal of "Wings in the Night" for that paragraph utterly irks me, for the story contains the single most profound, soul-shuddering expression of grief, pain and sense of failure in any Howard story.
Kane looked at the shambles that had been Bogonda, and he looked at the death mask of Goru. And he lifted his clenched fists above his head, and with glaring eyes raised and writhing lips flecked with froth, he cursed the sky and the earth and the spheres above and below. He cursed the cold stars, the blazing sun, the mocking moon, and the whisper of the wind. He cursed all fates and destinies, all that he had loved or hated, the silent cities beneath the seas, the past ages and the future eons. In one soul-shaking burst of blasphemy he cursed the gods and devils who make mankind their sport, and he cursed Man who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron-hoofed feet of his gods.
This is the most emotionally distraught Kane has ever been. it's the most emotionally distraught any Howard hero has ever been - and it's because Kane failed to stop the massacre of a little African village. Not an innocent lily-white virgin, not a youthful Englishman, but a village of Africans. Sure, one can put this down to Mighty Whitey, but when it comes down to it, Kane's purpose in life is to protect the innocent. In this, he failed. It didn't matter the colour of their skin to him: all that mattered was that they were human. He failed. And his impotent fury and anguish is plain to see.
In the end, yes, to modern eyes some of the things Howard wrote were racist. Such was the era in which he wrote. Decades of civil rights movements have addressed that great injustice, and the world is unquestionably better for it. Reading some of Howard's work can be very jarring at times. However, one should remember that Howard was not unique for his time - and, in many ways, Howard was arguably more enlightened than the average. This is a time and place when mixed marriages were illegal, where people considered black people's inferiority to be scientific truth, and where lynchings were practically wholesome local traditions. People like Mark Twain and Harper Lee were the exception to a vast majority - not just in America, but the world at large.
Yet even in this time,- Howard managed to rise above it. How many contemporaneous authors would have a pagan Juju-man be a puritan's closest ally, and a man far more intelligent, wise and powerful than the white Christian hero at that? How many authors would describe black women as just as attractive and comely as white women? How many boxing authors would've even written about a black champion, let alone one that's intelligent, empathetic, and with no sense of deference or supplication to white men?
I originally found this via a later review on Bassett's Solomon Kane. It isn't free from its own silliness.
Although the plot of Bassett’s adaptation bears no relation to any of Conan creator Robert E. Howard's stories, Bassett has captured their spirit remarkably well. What he has crafted is an origin story that explains how the Puritan warrior of Howard's stories came to be the man he is: where Bassett’s film ends with Kane on the war path against all that is Evil, Howard’s stories kick off. In Howard's tales Kane is little more than a force of nature in the blind pursuit of justice, and like a force of nature, he is just as self-aware: which is to say, not at all. Allowing Kane to have a back-story is a stroke of genius as Bassett can humanise the warrior and allow the audience to engage with the character.
Oh come on, Gerard. Kane doesn't have any self-awareness? No, Kane isn't introspective - but he knows he isn't. He may not know why or how he became the avenging puritan, but he knows he doesn't know - he's aware that there's a reason for what he does. Kane is self aware. For goodness' sake, Gerard.
Second is the idea that Kane can't be humanized. Again, I point to my favourite, "Wings in the Night," where Kane is faced with the reality of failure. What could be more human than his helpless, frustrated, uncontrollable torment? Hell, what about "Solomon Kane's Homecoming?" What about all the times where Kane shares his emotions, fears, concerns, hopes, jokes? I have to wonder if this fool's even read the damn stories.
Finally, the idea of Bassett's Solomon Kane working as a suitable prequel. It doesn't. Of course it doesn't. I'll happily defend the film's cinematic merits, but there's no way it's Howard's Kane, and there's no way Howard's Kane could've started out like Bassetts - not just for thematic, but simple continuity reasons. Also, I love how an origin story, one of the most tired and overplayed setups in cinema, is apparently a "stroke of genius." Gerard must've freaking loved the Star Wars prequels: after all, they totally humanized Darth Vader, didn't they, made him into a sympathetic hero the audience can engage with?
So what chance now of a trilogy? Next to zero I’d have to say and that is truly disappointing. For all that Howard’s stories are repugnant for their blatant racism (a racism that is difficult to excuse but must be recognised as a symptom of the times in which Howard was writing), they are exciting and enthralling tales and Bassett and Purefoy have established the best of foundations for some thrilling cinema.
Gerard, do you know what I think's repugnant? Intolerance. And intolerance stretches to intolerance of an author for the crime of writing in the 1920s. Well, that'd technically mean that I'm being intolerant of intolerance of an author, and therefore repugnant myself... OK, I think it's just regrettable.
When I first read the Kane stories, I had already survived "The Vale of Lost Women." That first chapter was difficult for me to read the first few times, until I fully understood it (and realised that it really isn't as racist as it appears on a surface level, or at least, it isn't about racism so much as alienation, corruption and barbarism vs civilization). I have an aunt, a wonderful aunt, from Kenya. She told me stories from her homeland, taught me a little Swahili, and enthralled me with her heritage. She married my uncle, a tall, blond, blue-eyed man, and their children are gorgeous. I'm all into African culture. Yet, as is so sadly depressing, racism isn't dead. I was mostly sheltered from it when I was younger, but my aunt and cousins have had to put up with a lot, even in this day and age.
So racism is something that's utter anathema to me, and I've seen just how hurtful and damaging it is. However, it's simply unfair to apply modern mores to those written over 80 years in the past. It isn't any more fair than writing off science fiction that relies on now outmoded science: one shouldn't dismiss "The Rats in the Walls" because of a reference to the Piltdown Man, or The War of the Worlds for the Martians' shakey quarantine measures. To do so would be to dismiss the story, and the story deserves more. So do the Solomon Kane stories. The racism must be acknowledged, but so should the story's strengths. More than half of Gerard's article was based on targeting the racism, without actually taking the time to note the positive depictions of black people. Generally a thorough examination of a subject must take both sides of the story, and I note that many critics who concentrate on Howard's racism (or sexism, or anti-intellectualism) are guilty of that fault.
See, I agree with Gerard on Solomon Kane's merits. He brings up some excellent points when he's only talking about the film, and not Howard or the literary Kane. That's probably why I'm so frustrated at his condescending dismissal of Howard. He even goes so far as to hope that the new films can improve the original stories! Well, if having Kane fight two flaming lions on a rope bridge while a young, hip warrior N'Longa helps out counts as an "improvement," I say don't bother.
At the end of all that rambling, I guess what I'm saying can boil down to "the writings of a white male writer from 1930s Texas don't jibe with modern progressive thought on black people - and I'm supposed to find this surprising, notable or unusual because...?" I too am saddened by the racist elements in Howard's literature, but racist elements were common in the 1920s: anti-racist ones were not. I think it's better to judge Howard on the elements that make him stand out, not the ones that make him the same.