Thursday 4 March 2010

A Little Blast from the Past

Even though I've been nominated for a Venarium Award (somehow), make no mistake, I'm still an ornery old coot trapped in an angry young man's body.

Case in point, lookie at this old article from Richard Zeszotarski.

In 1928, a good five years before the first tales of a certain Cimmerian swordsman by the name of Conan saw print, the pulp magazine Weird Tales published a novelette by that character’s creator Robert E. Howard. Titled “Red Shadows,” it introduced the character of Solomon Kane, a Puritan swordsman from Devon, England who travelled the world of the sixteenth century fighting evil wherever he found it. As the world was still fairly unexplored at this time, the evil often took the supernatural form and Kane would find himself pitted against werewolves, witches, vampires, ghosts and even a Lovecraftian horror in one tale, making him one of, if not the first of, modern literature’s monster hunters. If one subscribes to the notion that all fictional characters reside in a shared universe (see Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s appendixes for a better example of this) than it can be honestly said that Solomon Kane was kicking vampire butt long before Abraham Van Helsing was even a glimmer in his father’s eye.

So far, so cool. Alan Moore isn't really in my good books given his general disregard of Howard, when his beloved Lovecraft gets multiple references in the Black Dossier. Still, not bad.

Howard wrote twelve stories and three poems about Solomon Kane before his untimely death in 1936, but even some of those, such as “The Castle Of The Devil” And “Children Of Asshur” are just (unfortunately) unfinished fragments. These stories were collected into three volumes by Centaur Press in the late 1960s and again, with the inclusion of two other fragment stories, by Del Rey Books in 2004. During the 1970s, Solomon Kane enjoyed an existence as a backup feature in Marvel Comics’ Savage Sword Of Conan magazine and even got his own mini-series, The Sword Of Solomon Kane, in 1985, as well as a few independent comic company one-shots in the ‘90s. Although creators John Ostrander and Tim Truman have (to the best of my knowledge) never stated so, Solomon Kane would appear to be a major influence on their comic character Grimjack.

Again, not too shabby.

For the most part though, Kane seemed to be fantasy literature’s forgotten son, a guilty pleasure known only to diehard Howard readers and fans of esoteric pulp fiction.

... Wait, what?

I'll never understand this assertion of Kane being "fantasy literature's forgotten son." First of all, the article itself points out that Kane appeared in The Savage Sword of Conan, one of the most popular iterations of the Conan comics. Come on, how many other "forgotten sons" have entire comic series dedicated to them?

As for "guilty pleasure known only to diehard Howard readers", what nonsense. If you know the name Robert E. Howard as anything more than "the guy who created Conan," there's a very strong chance you know Solomon Kane. You wanna talk characters only diehard Howardheads would know? Try Black John O'Donnell. Justin Geoffrey. Black Margot. Am-ra of the Ta-An. Golnar the Ape. Solomon Kane? He's about as famous as Howard characters get this side of Conan: at least on the same echelon of recognition as Kull & Bran Mac Morn, and certainly more than Cormac Mac Art or Dark Agnes. I sure would consider a great many other fantasy heroes and heroines more (un)deserving of "forgotten" status than Kane.

Finally, in the winter of 2001, a film version of Solomon Kane was announced by the producers of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The plot of this film would deal with Kane, a descendant of Conan, seeking revenge on a shape-changing sorcerer for the murder of his family in colonial America. While Howard made a passing reference to Kane once visiting the Virginia colonies and fighting Indians there in one of his stories, the idea of setting the film in Colonial America just seems like a lazy way to explain Kane being a Puritan (rather than doing some research on the Puritans in England instead) and the idea of the shape-changing sorcerer villain seems recycled from a Conan movie, much like the bland Kevin Sorbo vehicle Kull The Conqueror (also based on a Robert E. Howard character). Also, making the solitary wandering Kane a family man and a descendent of Conan shows an obvious unfamiliarity with the source material.

A Solomon Kane script where our Puritan is an American family man descended from Conan who seeks to avenge his family's death by a shapeshifting sorcerer? Great Grenville's Ghost, I must find this screenplay! I mean, I know Bassett's Solomon Kane could've been worse, but even I never imagined that.

The film’s script by Michael J. Bassett solves what could have been an obstacle in creating an original first story about this character by basically giving an origin story to a character who previously did not have one. Granted Howard’s stories and poems have made references to Kane’s past, including his birthplace in Devon, serving in the British Navy against the Spanish Armada, running afoul of the Spanish Inquisition and even a brief career as a pirate captain...

Wait, when was Solomon Kane a pirate captain? Birthplace in Devon - check. Service in the navy - check. Spanish Inquisition - check. I seem to recall him being possibly a privateer, but I sure as hell don't remember freaking piracy being among his past occupations. Is this a reference to the highly ambiguous line in "The Blue Flame of Vengeance"?

"Aye, I led a rout of ungodly men, to my shame be it said, though the cause was a just one. In the sack of that town you name, many foul deeds were done under the cloak of the cause and my heart was sickened – oh, well – many a tide has flowed under the bridge since then, and I have drowned some red memories in the sea…"

That doesn't say anything about piracy (or wrongdoing on Kane's part, for that matter). I took it to mean that Kane was just the captain of a ship whose men committed atrocities in the ensuing siege and destruction of the town. Of course, this is one of a few lines Bassett has extrapolated for his interpretation, which, needless to say, is one of my biggest problems with the film.

...but they never tell why he came to be the man who is in introduced in “Red Shadows”- a Puritan swordsman (itself something of a contradiction as Puritans are often thought of as pacifists, not expert fencers who are also handy with flintlock pistols) who staunchly protects the innocent and is the eternal foe of all unexplained and supernatural evils. Bassett’s script shows how Kane gets to be this heroic figure and why he does what he does.

Heh, guess we're talking about different Puritans. As for Bassett's script "showing how Kane gets to be this heroic figure" - he doesn't, because there's no way Howard's Kane ended up the way he was by starting as an avaricious plunderer.

Here, Richard goes into more detail about the script. While many of my most hated elements are there, the benefit of hindsight means that I feel some relief at the lack of other elements:

At some point, he is erroneously told that Meredith is dead and falls into a depressed drinking binge in a raider-occupied village. Kane is captured in this state and is crucified (!) before the villagers. He survives the ordeal, however, aided by the appearance of Meredith in the village, and is now gifted with the ability to see demons in disguise. This comes in handy when he is rescued and healed by a group of rebels.

I'm so, so glad the horrible Demon-o-vision was taken out of the final film. That's a video game "power" if ever I read one.

I’ve often said when asked what a proper Solomon Kane movie should be like that it should pretty much be a Hammer film with a lot of action. Bassett’s script does just that, although it adds the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The journey of Kane and the Crowthorns through the haunted English countryside reminded me very much of the journey of Max Von Sydow and the traveling actors through plague-ravaged Sweden. The mentions of bodies hanging from trees, old ruins and druidic circles also recalls some of the scenes of a young Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) trekking through the harsh wintery countryside in The Man Who Laughs. These are rather arty touches to a film that could have easily gone the route of a run-of-the-mill sword and sorcery flick.

Heh, I must admit, I never even noticed that. In retrospect, I do see a little bit of Seventh Seal in Solomon Kane, which in itself elevates it above the usual action-movie fare. Then again, taking touches of Bergman films is about as "artsy" as lifting moments from Kurosawa or Eisenstein films: any film student could do that. It's hard to call it artsy when it's so easy, and when you're taking scenes and elements from truly iconic, essential pieces of cinema. I'm looking at you, John "you know what was awesome - Alexander Nevsky" Milius.

Some people have grumbled on the internet about Kane not being portrayed as a Puritan. To that, all I can say is that while he’s not shown as being a Puritan at the start of the film, he is given Puritan garb by Meredith Crowthorn and his changed outlook on good and evil doesn’t exactly show that he isn’t a Puritan by the film’s end.

"Grumbling" is putting it lightly. As if it was begrudging, and not really worth the attention, instead of something integral to the character. What a limp dismissal of one of the film's key criticisms. The thing is... well, there really isn't anything to show he is a Puritan either. I especially love how apparently giving him Puritan garb somehow counts, as if merely dressing a man in black and a dog collar makes him a Catholic priest. In the script, and the final film, there is absolutely no reason to believe Kane is a Puritan, and plenty to assume he isn't, specifically an awful lot of the film's shaky spirituality.

Others may balk at Kane gaining the ability to see demons, something not in the original Howard stories, but I think this an acceptable “tweaking” of the character that is somewhat reminiscent of an ability possessed by the monster hunter class of characters in the World of Darkness role-playing games. So it makes sense that Kane, a monster hunter, would have this power.

... Ok, this Christian dude clearly just doesn't get it. Solomon Kane is a man. Just a man. That's the power of his character: he isn't an avenging angel, imbued with divine powers, or a Chosen One. He's a mere mortal, yet he combats the Devil's own servants with little more than his fists and his swords, and occasionally the help of a powerful staff and his blood-brother N'Longa. Giving him supernatural powers destroys that aspect of the character. Would you give Batman the ability to fly? Would you give Zorro the power to turn invisible? Giving Kane a supernatural ability to see demonic possession is a betrayal of one of the character's key aspects.

As he even tells Meredith at one point, “There are evil creatures walking this earth, Meredith. They bring such pain and suffering and there was never a man who could fight them. But I can. I can. It is my gift and I will hunt them down and send each and everyone back to hell.” That speech, for me, is very true to the nature of Howard’s creation.

I've italicized the parts which, I feel, are so anti-Howard that it cancels out the rest of it. Kane wasn't a chosen one, he never thought of himself as a chosen one. He has no "gift" save the gift God gives any good Puritan: the will and resilience to resist the Devil's work and followers. As for "never a man who could fight them"? Well if that's the case, how come humanity wasn't crushed from the beginning? After all, if there was "never a man who could fight them" then humanity would be easy pickings for the demons.

Finally, some fans may complain that the film doesn’t adapt anything from Howard’s stories, especially Kane’s mystical cat-headed staff and the African witch doctor who gave it to him, N’Longa. To that, I have to say that most of the stories are pretty short and would need a lot of padding and tweaking to become feature length film material.

"The Moon of Skulls," "Red Shadows," "The Hills of the Dead," and "Wings in the Night" are all long enough to make perfectly substantial films on their own with negligible alteration. Only really short ones like "Rattle of Bones" and "Skulls in the Stars" would need to be combined.

Sure, I’d love to see film versions of “Red Shadows,” “The Hills Of The Dead” and maybe even a finished version of “The Castle Of The Devil” and “Children Of Asshur,” but that’s what sequels are for. And if this ultimately faithful script is followed closely than hopefully that’s what fans can expect and get.

"Ultimately faithful" has a derisive "HAH!" issuing from my mouth. I wonder if Richard's even read the stories he'd love to see versions of.

Note: Rich Zeszotarski would like to thank Bret Blevins and Michael W. Kaluta whose conversations concerning Solomon Kane have certainly “fanned the flames” of his fervor for this character. Also, big thanks to Rich Drees, who knows what a huge fan Rich is and nudged him into reading this script even though he was afraid it would be crap.

You'll have to forgive me for the above comment. Maybe Rich is a big Solomon Kane fan. I guess I just can't see how anyone could see the film as being remotely faithful to the character. Even Crossplains Pilgrim over at the REH forums wouldn't say that, and he's the staunchest supporter of the film over there.

So yeah. I may be up for a proper prestigious award, but that doesn't mean I can't be a pedantic gannet on occassion.

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