The advent of Michael J. Bassett's Solomon Kane was awaited with great anticipation by the Robert E. Howard fan community. The production's links to the abortive Wandering Star publishing venture, set up to release luxurious (and expensive) illustrated editions of Howard's works, which eventually morphed into the highly regarded Del Rey trade paperback series, raised expectations that the movie would be respectful of its source material.
For many, these hopes were dashed when it became obvious that Bassett's Kane would not be a faithful reproduction of the original. Specifically, the revelation that Howard's "man with no name" type Puritan would be saddled with an expository back-story was sufficient to arouse understandably furious indignation from "purist" Howard fans.
For those of us prepared to overlook this enormity and offer the movie a chance of acceptance on its own terms, the project still held promise. From my own perspective, Bassett's citing of Michael Reeves' legendary Witchfinder General as a key influence was enough to set the cinematic salivary glands a-drooling.
So, has Solomon Kane delivered on the big screen? Whilst no classic, Bassett's movie has successfully captured the feel of British horror's '60s / '70s heyday. For a start, it is unrelentingly grim and gritty. Snow and rain fall ceaselessly on bleak winter landscapes as ragged figures trudge through the mud. Eternally grey skies loom over scenes of violence and desolation, apocalyptically foreboding.
The acting is accomplished with a strong lead from James Purefoy, ably supported by character actors of Peter Postlethwaite and Max von Sydow's calibre. (It would be unfair, of course, to draw any comparison with the once-in-a-lifetime performance teased out out of Vincent Price by the crazed young genius of Michael Reeves.)
Plotwise, Bassett has opted for an "evil sorcerer enslaves the land" scenario which will raise few eyebrows among Sword and Sorcery die-hards. The plot twist tying it into Kane's much lamented back-story ticks around like clockwork and concludes with a somewhat disappointing climax featuring a generic Balrog-like CGI monster. (As a low-budget production, the movie is fortunately up to that point free from excessive CGI).
The evil sorcerer, Malachi, is a mini-Sauron, and the sight of his zombified minions transporting terrified peasants in cages raises the ghastly spectre of 20th Century Nazism, and there are some genuinely scary and even gory moments in the film. At one point there is even a crucifixion scene, which pays simultaneous homage to both Witchfinder General and (less auspiciously!) Conan the Barbarian as Kane is hoisted aloft and then escapes by dragging the nails through his palms.
Whether or not one sees oneself as an "REH purist", Kane's back-story (insisted upon, we are led to believe, by the movie's money men) creates some serious problems with his character. Robert E. Howard's original 17th Century Puritan is a splendid creation, much of whom's power derives from the mysteries of his origin and what drives his motivations. Single-minded to the point of fanaticism in his persecution of wrong-doers, this enigmatic "man of God" appears at times to be driven by an almost demonic will. Even his Puritanism is tinged by pagan elements; he has no scruples, for example, in forging a supernatural alliance with an African witch-doctor when it serves his ends. Lacking introspection, he wholeheartedly accepts his role as the tool of his own righteous anger.
Bassett's Kane, on the other hand, is a much more conflicted character. A damned soul seeking redemption from sins committed in far lands whilst buccaneering in the service of Queen Elizabeth, he is guilt-ridden and self-obsessed. As the dispossessed younger son of a West Country nobleman, he is further burdened by psychological "baggage" in the shape of family trauma. In the face of these obstacles, his religion seems weak and, at the start of the film, he is ejected from a monastery's guestroom because his presence is deemed in some unexplained way to be disruptive.
Most worryingly, Kane's Puritanism is reduced to the adoption of his characteristic (and historically inaccurate!) black garb, which is presented to him as a gift by the family of Peter Postlethwaite's aspiring Pilgrim Father, who take him under their wing after he is beaten up by wayside robbers. His commitment to this stern belief system therefore stems more from feelings of personal gratitude than from ideological fervour or divine inspiration. All in all, this is "Solomon Kane Lite", a watered-down, more sympathetic anti-hero, driven by psychological impulses that drive the plot along in a way which it is hoped will be familiar and comprehensible to modern film-goers.
Right at the end, however (following the Balrog), there is a promising hint that, with all this psychological kerfuffle brought to some kind of "closure", Kane may well be able to shed his past and set out across the globe smiting bad guys in the single-minded manner expected of him by admirers of Robert E. Howard. So really the movie we've all been waiting for is in fact the sequel to Solomon Kane.
The sad irony of all this is that it now seems likely that the promised sequel will never be made. It is a testament to the deep conservatism and risk-averse nature of the modern film industry that Solomon Kane failed to find a theatrical distributor in the States and will not be screened in Howard's own country. As Al Harron has pointed out over at The Cimmerian, the only hope now is that dvd sales will be spectacular enough to warrant further investment.
One is, of course, left wondering what would have happened if the producers had shown faith in Howard from the outset and created a movie faithful to his character or, better still, based on one of his original stories. Would the general public have been able to cope with such an enigmatically vengeful and mysterious character? We may never know, but one thing is certain; Sergio Leone's masterful "Man with no name" trilogy could never have been made in today's impoverished cultural climate.