Predictably, everything is draped in late Gilliam, and the action is meticulously humorless — as Howard was himself. The site of a "failed" witch burning, exploded out around the stake and scattered with eyeless corpses, suggests a more interesting medieval pulp tale, but what we get is brisk, atmospheric, and faithful, for better or worse, to Howard's earnest voice.
- Michael Atkinson, who shows about the usual level of knowledge and accuracy of Howard and his work among film crickets
Howard's character and theme of a Puritan fighting the supernatural evils of the world gets even grittier, and adds a backstory of Kane seeking redemption after showing him to be just as evil as the horrors he encounters. This is a welcome addition and does not hamper the character... Liberties were taken with the character, but like The Dark Knight formula: if you remain true to the character, you can change the window dressing.
- Chris Mancini, a professed fan who considers Solomon Kane accurate to Howard's creation
Based on stories by Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, the movie hews very close to the tone, spirit, and style of the source material. Instead of reinventing the character into a pastiche of modern archetypes and tropes like so many big-budget studio tentpoles, the filmmakers set their sights on faithfully translating the character to the screen without involving so much interpretation that the core elements that make him compelling disappear.
- NO NO NO NO NO NO NO
Since Solomon Kane has been released in the land of his creation after almost three years since its release in other regions, we've been seeing a lot of reviews of the film with fresh eyes. Some are pretty good, which at least give decent reasons for their appraisal of the film, and others are pretty bad, with the same depressing mix of "it takes itself too seriously for a proper fantasy romp" and "doesn't this all remind you of Van Helsing and all these other films that are themselves highly derivative of the source material."
My appreciation for the film has suffered over time, but I still want to say it's a decent film. It's certainly better than a lot of these dark historical fantasy films that've been released of late, and I maintain it's one of the better Sword-and-Sorcery films out there. I'll happily recommend it from that point of view. As a Howard adaptation, though? Ye gods.
Having taken time off following a hospital trip, I took the opportunity to read. In addition to a few new books, I also re-read some old favourites, including the Kane stories, but this time, I read them with the qualification: does this story still make sense if Solomon Kane happened?
(Prepare for spoilers for a 3-year-old film I've been talking about since 2008 that's only playing in a dozen or so theatres, probably because the Weinsteins are the Weinsteins)
Of course, Bassett still maintains that his origin is faithful to the spirit and tone of Howard's creation even with the flat contradictions (at least he's in good company):
Bassett: Obviously, I grew up on '80s fantasy movies, reading the stories of Michael Moorcock and those guys, the pulp fantasy adventures. Robert E. Howard I read. When I heard they were doing a movie of it, I wanted to meet the producers and say, "Look, I can do this. I understand what the character is. I want to make a serious-minded fantasy adventure," and they were very much in agreement in that. What we sort of decided amongst us that it's probably not a good idea to go straight into the short stories themselves, because Kane is a tough character. He's difficult to understand. He does need a little bit of explanation, and given an ample opportunity to go on a full journey as well rather than saying, "This character is fully formed, this is what you're playing…let's find out who he is." So the idea, once I went through the short stories again and I looked for little hints of ideas and clues that Howard had dropped in about who this man might have been. Oddly enough, his own short stories conflict with each other a little bit, but I took this notion that he'd been a bad man, a privateer, in some way, and thought, "Okay, we can start with this man who ultimately loathes himself, has a dark secret---we can reveal that---and by the end of the story, he becomes the Kane we know and love from the short stories."And at Fangoria:
FANGORIA: Why did you choose to bring this character to the screen?
MICHAEL J. BASSETT: Solomon Kane is probably not as famous as Conan, but for those who know him, he is an icon. I love his stories, and I wanted to introduce him to a wider audience. In order to do that, I wrote a completely new backstory about his origins that isn’t in any of [Howard’s] tales, but I did my best to preserve his integrity. I thought I could make a good action movie, as I grew up with them and enjoy action movies with theme and power and heart. I think James Cameron is the best action director around.
FANG: What responses have you had from audiences so far?BASSETT: You never know what the reaction is going to be. Some people are going to love the movie, some people are going to hate it, and you have to take both to improve yourself as a director. I screened the picture in Toronto and in Austin, Texas, and everybody liked it. Even hardcore fans, because I’ve communicated with them on the forums; I’m a movie fan myself and like to talk to fans. I love Howard’s writings, and since I was a kid I wanted to see the adventures of Solomon Kane in a movie, and he has always been on my mind since I began my filmmaking career; I just had to wait for everything to fall into place. And I’ve said all along: I don’t want to do anything that spoils the well for Solomon Kane for later movies. I decided not to adapt the stories Howard wrote, because I wanted to do his origin tale and then more movies, and at the end of this film, he is the Solomon Kane of the books.The things that happen to him in my script are part invention, part suppositions based on what Howard wrote and part just me making stuff up. It was done with absolute respect for Solomon Kane and his creator, though as a filmmaker, I wanted to put in my own sensibilities as well. Luckily, I think we have very similar sensibilities: the grimness of the world, the seriousness of the fantasy and the intensity of the action. It feels like a very good marriage.
FANG: So we can expect a sequel to SOLOMON KANE?
BASSETT: We intend to film more of Kane’s adventures. The first one has done very well in festivals around the world; now we have to wait and see how it’s received by a larger audience. Our intention is to make a trilogy, and if everything goes as planned, we will leave for South Africa to start production on part two.
OK. Give me a minute.
I'm willing to defend the film as a film. I've already seen people criticising the film for the fact Kane doesn't hook up with Meridith despite the absence of a romance subplot being not only appropriate for Howard's character but a refreshing change from most Sword-and-Sorcery films. I've come across the eejits who seem to think witch-hunts were a feature of the dark ages and not the Early Modern period - you know, the period which saw the height of witch-hunts. And I've come across the usual pot-shots at "genre" films, where apparently a Sword-and-Sorcery film that takes itself seriously and tries to infuse drama and character arcs is "doing it wrong."
But there is no way I'm going to defend this film as an adaptation of Howard's character. I'd already said many times why I don't think Bassett's take is faithful in spirit, tone or letter to Howard's creation, and I'd even drawn direct comparisons with the film and Howard's first Solomon Kane tale, "Red Shadows." Bassett points out that Howard's own stories "conflict each other," but none of the conflicts can possibly compare to changing Kane from a man who has fought evil all his life into a man who was once practically evil incarnate. As I said before, this isn't intended to denigrate or criticize Solomon Kane on its own merits: just to elucidate why some Howard fans such as myself cannot consider it faithful to Howard's creation. Since I'd already discussed "Red Shadows," I'm retroactively making that Part One of a five-part look at the Kane stories and their compatibility issues.
Having reread the stories while recovering from a curious malady, I can say with confidence just how conflicting Solomon Kane is with... well, Solomon Kane.
King Kull, Atlantis 100,000 B.C.
Solomon Kane, Devon, England 1580 A.D.
Turlogh O'Brien, Clare, Ireland 1019 A.D.
Bill Kirby, Sussex, England 1900 A.D.
Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, Galway, Ireland 1200 A.D.
Bran Mak Morn, Caledonia 100 A.D.
This is a fragment Howard wrote in 1930/1931, containing a list of his heroes: Turlogh fought at Clontarf (1014), and Cormac fought in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), so combined with our knowledge of Kane being present at the death of Sir Richard Grenville at the Battle of Flores (1591), this is most likely intended as a rough timeframe for their adventures.
As we all see, Bassett's Kane origin starts in 1600, on the dot - 20 years after Howard dated Kane's adventure timeframe. Bassett's Kane was a Bad Man in 1600, which means that either we're to suppose Howard's Kane was a Bad Man for twenty years' worth of his stories, or he flip-flopped between Good and Bad. And for what? What does placing Kane's redemption in 1600 really change in terms of Kane's story? There is absolutely zero reason that the film couldn't have taken place in 1580, or 1570, or any other year that would make sense - that is, if Bassett was really interested in doing Howard justice. Baffling decision altogether.
"Skulls in the Stars"
Far back in Kane's gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch's torch glinting under fathoms of cold grey ice. His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and drama! Not that Kane recognized his sensations as such. He sincerely considered that he voiced his real feelings when he said:
“These things be deeds of some power of evil. The lords of darkness have laid a curse upon the country. A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might. Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time.”
I'm sure some might think that last line suggests a bit of support for Bassett: after all, his Kane defied Satan's personal lackey when he came for his soul, and defied Malachai, another of Satan's servants. But then, consider the preceding paragraph, where Kane's true feelings were drawn towards adventure, life-risk and drama: that really doesn't make sense with Bassett's Kane. As discussed elsewhere, Kane's motivations in the Howard stories are complex: he believes to be doing God's work, and that the drive to travel and adventure is the work of divine spirit and justice, but there's the possibility that this is merely his conscious justification for plain wanderlust.
Bassett's Kane strips away that complexity: he goes out fighting evil because he's atoning for a life of evil. It's spelled out in the film, with no ambiguity, no suggestion of earthier or lustier reasoning. Even if you suppose his debt was paid by saving Meredith, his motivations for further adventures would still be coloured by the fact that the reason he goes out and fights evil is because he has had direct contact with God and the Devil. What's more, most of the film is taken up with Kane's reluctance to Heed The Call To Adventure, even when sorely tested, even when lives are at stake - and most distressingly of all, when it seems he's failed in his mission, he gives up entirely, stalling the Call to Adventure in its tracks. This Kane doesn't adventure because of some innate desire to wander the world, this Kane does it because he is essentially commanded to by Glorious Purpose.
Instead of Kane's wanderings being (possibly) lust for adventure rationalised as divine provenance in a conflicted Puritan's mind, Kane's wanderings are divine provenance in actuality. Thus, Kane's motivations in "Skulls in the Stars" cannot be the same as elucidated in this paragraph, since we already know that Kane's reasons are nothing to do with wanting to adventure, and everything to do with divine intervention.
Kane felt the blood pound in his temples, yet he was as cold as ice. How such an unstable being as that which wavered before him could harm a man in a physical way was more than he could understand, yet the red horror at his feet gave mute testimony that the fiend could act with terrible material effect.
Of one thing Kane was sure; there would be no hunting of him across the dreary moors, no screaming and fleeing to be dragged down again and again. If he must die he would die in his tracks, his wounds in front.
It could be argued that there's character development going on here: Bassett's Kane hid in a monastery for a year and let people die to save his soul. By the end of the film, Kane is willing to sacrifice his life and his soul for Meredith, even when a giant flaming devil steps out of Hell's own portal. However, in that situation, Kane believed his eternal salvation lay in Meredith, and that the alternative would be unthinkable. Here, Kane is not rescuing anyone, having come too late to save that man: there's no reason for him not to flee, save his pride and grit. Yet he does, because he's Solomon Kane.
Kane realized that he was in a desperate plight indeed. Already his garments hung in tatters and he bled from a score of deep wounds. But he never flinched, and the thought of flight never entered his mind. He had never fled from a single foe, and had the thought occurred to him he would have flushed with shame.
Bolded for emphasis. He had never fled from a single foe... Except the Devil's Reaper. And the Fire Demon. Had the thought occured to him he would have flushed with shame... Presumably Bassett's Kane had much cause to drown his sorrows at the tavern aside from his perceived failure in saving Meredith. Now, there are going to be examples which would seem to contradict the above, but they are completely justifiable in context of the tales, and thus don't actually present a contradiction: they'll be discussed in their respective stories.
And, of course, his garments hung in tatters - but no reference to magical wards, scars or tattoos.
This is going to be a recurring issue: Kane spends a lot of adventures with a fair amount of skin showing, but there is never any reference to the protective prayers, symbols and icons tattooed into his flesh, which would surely merit some commentary from Howard - if they existed.
He saw no help for it now, but that his form should lie there beside the fragments of the other victim, but the thought held no terrors for him. His only wish was to give as good an account of himself as possible before the end came, and if he could, to inflict some damage on his unearthly foe
As if you couldn't tell, Solomon Kane is probably Howard's most courageous character. Even Conan fled from supernatural dangers and when the battle was lost: Kane never did. One could argue whether he's courageous or fearless (there's a subtle difference), but as we'll see, Kane stands his ground against terrors beyond the conception of man through determination and faith. It's strange, then, to see Bassett's Kane experiencing very real fear and running so often, even allowing for the character to "go on a journey."
There above the dead man's torn body, man fought with demon under the pale light of the rising moon, with all the advantages with the demon, save one. And that one was enough to overcome the others. For if abstract hate may bring into material substance a ghostly thing, may not courage, equally abstract, form a concrete weapon to combat that ghost? Kane fought with his arms and his feet and his hands, and he was aware at last that the ghost began to give back before him, and the fearful slaughter changed to screams of baffled fury. For man's only weapon is courage that flinches not from the gates of Hell itself, and against such not even the legions of Hell can stand.
..."Aye, how I overcame it, I know not, for the battle was hard and long but the powers of good and light were on my side, which are mightier than the powers of Hell."
Kane's faith wills out against the Haunter of the Moor, but you'll notice that there isn't any direct representation of this "abstract courage": for all we know, Kane's faith alone gave him strength. Rather different from the beams of holy light that incinerated the Fire Demon for him: how come he can't just do that again? Was that a one-time deal for winning his soul back? Even if that's the case, courage clearly can't be mankind's only weapon in Bassett's take.
“A hard thing it is,” said Kane sombrely, “to sentence a man to death in cold blood and in such a manner as I have in mind, but you must die that others may live - and God knoweth you deserve death.
Didn't seem hard for Bassett's Kane at all back when he was an avaricious pirate: why would things suddenly become difficult for him? Is he still concerned about losing his soul? What's more, even after Kane becomes a "good guy," he doesn't seem to have many qualms about killing Malachite's henchmen even though he knows they are possessed and under devilish influence - some possibly forcefully.
“Let him make his peace with Satan, whom he is more like to meet, “ said the Puritan grimly. “The sun is about to set. Loose his cords so that he may work loose by dark, since it is better to meet death free and unshackled than bound like a sacrifice.”
Again, pretty charitable for a man who offered no such leniency to the man who told him what he wanted to know, only to be literally fed to the ghouls. That was after Kane's transformation, remember. True, that particular henchman robbed him and left him for dead, likely committed his share of atrocities in his own time, and Kane also believed Meredith was dead and thus his soul lost, but it's still a marked contrast.
“Life was good to him, though he was gnarled and churlish and evil,” Kane sighed. “Mayhap God has a place for such souls where fire and sacrifice may cleanse them of their dross as fire cleans the forest of fungus things. Yet my heart is heavy within me.”
“Nay, sir,” one of the villagers spoke, “you have done but the will of God, and good alone shall come of this night's deed.”
“Nay,” answered Kane heavily. “I know not — I know not.”
It's interesting Kane brings up this hypothetical place for "gnarled and churlish and evil" souls to be cleansed of dross, considering it never comes up in Bassett's Kane, despite it being extremely relevant to his entire story arc. And even considering how evil Ezra was, and that no more lives would be lost to the phantom of the moor, Kane is still troubled about his actions. Barely a moment's consideration for the poor mook he fed to the ghouls.
Compatibility Issues: Major. Most of the conflicts with Solomon Kane are those of character, since Kane acts in a way that's very contradictory to Bassett's rendition, even allowing for character growth, and the few references to his history are inconclusive. The worst issue is the narrative assertion that Kane "never fled from a single foe": Bassett's Kane does exactly this in the first five minutes.
"The Right Hand of Doom"
Being a shorter story, there isn't that much that's explicitly incompatible with Solomon Kane: the one clue to dating is the very ambiguous reference to "the king's men," which could have a number of explanations (all far too complicated to get into for this post), but since Bassett's Kane appears to be the same age as Purefoy, it would have to be James I. Even so, a recurring theme is that Bassett's film origin makes Kane look such a hypocrite, and it's most profound in this fragment.
“Roger Simeon, the necromancer!” sneered the grating voice. “A dealer in the diabolic arts and a worker of black magic! My word, all his foul power could not save him when the king’s soldiers surrounded his cave and took him prisoner. He fled when the people began to fling cobble stones at his windows, and thought to hide himself and escape to France. Ho! Ho! His escape shall be at the end of a noose. A good day’s work, say I.”
He tossed a small bag on the table where it clinked musically.
“The price of a magician’s life!” he boasted. “What say you, my sour friend?”
This last was addressed to a tall silent man who sat near the fire. This man, gaunt, powerful and somberly dressed, turned his darkly pallid face toward the speaker and fixed him with a pair of deep icy eyes.
“I say,” said he in a low powerful voice, “that you have this day done a damnable deed. Yon necromancer was worthy of death, belike, but he trusted you, naming you his one friend, and you betrayed him for a few filthy coins. Methinks you will meet him in Hell, some day.”
In "Skulls in the Stars," Kane expresses regret and discomfort at the execution of a man who murdered his mentally-handicapped cousin after years of abuse: even if it does save lives by exorcising Gideon's ghosts, it didn't sit well with Kane to essentially sacrifice a man, however evil, to death. And here, we see he's also disgusted at the betrayal of a necromancer by a man who claimed to be his friend: evil or not, a betrayal of trust is a thing Kane calls "damnable" - and he isn't the sort to use that term lightly.
Contrast with Bassett's Kane, who let a man be eaten alive by a pack of ghouls after the man told him what he wanted to know. If Bassett's origin is accurate, then Kane is being remarkably judgemental towards his fellow man for evil acts, completely ignoring the fact that Kane himself was once just as evil as - frequently more evil than - those men. It's profoundly hypocritical for him to say "methinks you will meet him in Hell, some day" without so much as an "unless you repent your evil ways and do God's work from now on." After all, Kane got a chance to reform: why shouldn't he offer the same for other evil men?
Compatibility Issues: Minor. Nothing particularly glaring, aside from the above. This is one of the few stories which could be considered compatible with Solomon Kane: since Kane is a very passive figure in this story, one could apply the Bad Man origin without overt contradictions.
This story is discussed here, and further readings have not changed my thoughts.
Compatibility Issues: Major. Between the multiple references to Kane having fought evil "all his life," his reaction and experiences with the supernatural, and contradictions in his abilities and history, it's one of the most incompatible of the stories.
"Rattle of Bones"
As another very short tale, there isn't a lot here to conflict directly with Solomon Kane, but there are elements which don't sit well all the same.
“Let us see if there be any way to make fast the door,” said Kane. “I like not the looks of mine host.”
“There are racks on door and jamb for a bar,” said Gaston, “but no bar.”
“We might break up the table and use its pieces for a bar,” mused Kane.
“Mon Dieu,” said l’Armon, “you are timorous, m’sieu.”
Kane scowled. “I like not being murdered in my sleep,” he answered gruffly.
It's hard to imagine this Kane letting himself fall into a drunken stupor and allow himself to be crucified (then again, it's hard to imagine this Kane giving up on life instead of avenging an innocent, but that's neither here nor there)
“I have seen you somewhere before,” answered Kane, “though I can not now recall where. As for the other, I assume every man is an honest fellow until he shows me he is a rogue; moreover, I am a light sleeper and slumber with a pistol at hand.”
Given the things we saw in Bassett's Kane, it seems bizarre that he could be the same man who assumes the best about people. Then again, he does seem very easily fooled...
“Gaston the Butcher!” said the Englishman somberly. “Fool that I was to trust a Frenchman! You range far, murderer! I remember you now, with that cursed great hat off -- I saw you in Calais some years agone.”
“Aye -- and now you will see me never again. What was that?”
“Rats exploring yon skeleton,” said Kane, watching the bandit like a hawk, waiting for a single slight wavering of that black gun muzzle. “The sound was of the rattle of bones.”
“Like enough,” returned the other. “Now, M’sieu Kane, I know you carry considerable money on your person. I had thought to wait until you slept and then slay you, but the opportunity presented itself and I took it. You trick easily.”
“I had little thought that I should fear a man with whom I had broken bread,” said Kane, a deep timbre of slow fury sounding in his voice.
One would think that a reaver such a Gaston would know of Kane's brutal past if he had one: nowhere in their subsequent conversation is such a past alluded to. And it's pretty rich for Kane to expect to trust someone with whom he broke bread considering he himself has betrayed other men's trust, or worse.
Compatibility Issues: Minor. Generally only a few debatable points.
"The Castle of the Devil"
One would think a mere fragment shouldn't have much contradictions with a feature film.
“I find little here but starving peasants, cruel lords and lawless men. Yet ’tis like that I have done somewhat of good, for only a few hours agone I came upon a wretch who hung upon a gallows and cut him down ere his breath had passed from him.”
John Silent nearly fell out of his saddle. “What! You cut down a man from Baron Von Staler’s gibbet? Name of the Devil, you will have both our necks in a noose!”
“You should not curse so hotly,” Solomon reproved mildly. “I know not this Baron von Staler, but methinks he has hanged a man unjustly. The victim was only a boy and he had a good face...”
“Aye, sir. The Baron will scarce refuse two wayfarers who seek lodging. More, we can ascertain what sort of man he is. I would like to see this lord who hangs children.”
So we see Kane's mission in this story is to determine what happened which led Baron Von Staler to hang a boy. And yet...
“It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourn through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives. I have a feeling it will prove thus with the Baron.”
“Name of two devils!” swore Silent in amazement. “You speak as if you were a judge on a bench and Baron Von Staler bound helpless before you, instead of being as it is — you but one blade and the Baron surrounded by lusty men-at-arms.”
“The right is on my side,” said Kane somberly. “And right is mightier than a thousand men-at-arms. But why all this talk? I have not yet seen the Baron, and who am I to pass judgment unseen. Mayhap the Baron is a righteous man.”
Even after finding a wretch, a boy, hanging from a gibbet, Kane sticks to his word in "Rattle of Bones" ("I assume every man is an honest fellow until he shows me he is a rogue") and will not "pass judgement unseen" upon the Baron.
What's the problem here, then? Matthew Crowthorne. When one has knowledge of the events of Solomon Kane, this entire exchange takes on a very different light: Kane's fear of losing his soul condemned a boy to death. It's difficult for me to elucidate exactly why this is so problematic for me, but there it is.
Compatibility Issues: Minor. A small quibble on my part aside, there isn't much to contradict.
"Death's Black Riders" (fragment)
Again, too short to really tell, but with no dialogue and little apart from direct narrative exposition, there's little about Kane himself in the fragment.
Compatibility Issues: Negligible. Could we have finally found a story that would work with Bassett's Kane without qualification? Granted it's a 2-page fragment, but at least we can answer the question of whether there's any Kane story compatible with the film with a "yes." Well done, Bassett, Solomon Kane and "Death's Black Riders" can coexist in the same universe without too many problems.
Next time, I'll look at "The Moon of Skulls," "The One Black Stain," and "The Blue Flame of Vengeance."