Monday, 14 March 2011

Solomon Kane (2009)

Written and Directed by: Michael J. Bassett.

Solomon Kane, that's a good name, isn't it?

Anyway, before we see, later this year, whether the latest cinematic attempt at Conan manages to properly capture Robert. E. Howard1, or whether the best "Howard" film will remain, in fact, Rambo, there is this film version of Howard's second most famous character, starring James Purefoy as the titular dour puritan.

To be honest, I was a bit trepidatious about this despite my love for a] Kane; b] Howard; and c] Purefoy2. I can't stand origin stories you see. They're worst in superhero films of course; endless stuff the audience either already knows or doesn't care about before anything interesting happens. And then, if there's been a few years between films and a change of director, they have to "reboot" the bloody concept and start all over again. For heaven's sake, isn't it?. In recent years I've adopted the brilliant plan of not watching the first film of superhero franchises at all, and starting instead from Part II, but even this isn't foolproof: watching The Dark Knight, having carefully avoided Batman Begins, what do you find but that a large chunk of the three-day running time is an origin story for Two-Face...

Anyway, Solomon Kane. While we watch it, let's also consider Howard's own first tale of Solomon Kane, "Red Shadows", from the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales.

I liked it. It's easily the best cast Howard-based film yet, Purefoy is excellent as Kane, Bassett treats everything with a proper seriousness, and there are moments that brilliantly capture the spirit of Howard. (Though, perhaps unfortunately, the best of these is right at the start, a splendid evocation of Howard's proficiency, as H. P. Lovecraft put it, with "the description of vast megalithic cities of the elder world, around whose dark towers and labyrinthine nether vaults linger and aura of pre-human fear and necromancy...")

And yet...In "Red Shadows", Kane, after evil is done to an innocent girl, declares "Men shall die for this" on the second page of 26 (in the recent Gollancz
Conan's Brethen edition of Howard's tales), and the story climaxes in the dark jungles of Africa. Here, we have a brilliant pre-credits sequence in Africa, then it's back to England for an origin tale, and Kane swears his oath to avenge evil done to an innocent girl after 40-odd minutes (of 100 or so).

Perhaps I'm being unfair. In one of the interviews on the DVD extras, Michael Bassett says:
I wanted to have an origins tale, which is not something that Robert Howard did in his original works. His short stories are Soloman Kane as a fully formed character and there are only hints of who he was prior to this kind of puritan avenger.
and judged by his intentions he succeeded completely, and made a fine film, with the sort of lean and efficient running time that the Dark Knight's of the world can only dream of. Is it just me though that thinks it would have been better to have started with the 'fully-formed' Kane, and had only hints of his dark past? This goes back to Rambo being an elemental force of nature rather than a "character", and something Faction Paradox creator Lawrence Miles said about how adventure fiction runs on iconography rather than characterisation, and how "the lead characters [in adventure stories] are great symbols. If you tried dissecting their psyches, they'd fall to bits in a second."

I think he's right, and that characters like Soloman Kane aren't ultimately best served by knowing their origins and the details of their (as here) traumatic childhood family experiences. A Heroic Fantasy, I think (and especially Howard's) works best not as a character piece, but as an unstoppable frenzy of action. (Which is perhaps why the best examples remain short stories from nearly a century ago, rather than modern two-hour films). Even so, I'd definately watch a sequel to this, and I
really want one of those hats...

1 The early signs aren't good, at least for me, as the bloody thing's apparently going to be in 3D, and 3D really, really makes me sustain a fury of the most vitriolic kidney.

2 Whatever one thinks of Rome3, Purefoy's performance as Mark Antony was a thing of shining excellence.

I really liked it, to be fair...