Notes On A Film: Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane was created by Robert E Howard a few years before he created Conan, and appeared in pulp magazines of the time (and in some comic books for Marvel in the 1970s). I mention this because I have read neither and didn’t have any knowledge of the character before watching the film. I like a slice of sword and sorcery, I like to watch smaller non-Hollywood films, and I’ve always thought that James Purefoy was a good actor who should have been a bigger name (even though the first film I remember seeing him in was Maybe Baby by Ben Elton, where his character was doing some of the worst taijiquan I’ve ever seen on celluloid).

The two main attributes to the film are Purefoy as Solomon Kane, and the gritty and atmospheric mood in which the film percolates, as created by director/writer Michael J Bassett – the film is set in the early 1600s and feels authentic (although it feels sometimes as if it is set several hundred years earlier). Kane starts the film as a mercenary fighting for Queen Elizabeth I, attacking and defeating the inhabitants of an Ottoman fortress. However, when he and his crew reach the throne room, most of them are killed and he is told by a demon that his soul has been damned and will go to hell. He escapes, vowing to avoid this fate, which he does by joining an English monastery; however, the abbot eventually expels him and Kane returns to his ancestral home. After a brush with some ruffians (who don’t kill him, because he has to stay alive for the film), he falls in with a family of puritans heading to the New World (headed by a particularly craggy-looking Pete Postlethwaite), who subsequently get attacked; Postlethwaite and his son are killed, the wife spared and the daughter taken, and Postlethwaite handily tells Kane that his soul will be redeemed if he saves his daughter (although how Postlethwaite would know that is unclear; it would sound like the desperate plea of a dying man …). So Kane decides to take up his violent ways again after swearing never to do so.

This is effectively the origin story of Kane (the film is the first of a hoped-for trilogy), a theme which is very popular at the moment with superheroes and their ilk. This means that there isn’t as much action as you might expect but more brooding and talking. The action that does occur is well choreographed and sufficiently bloody – Purefoy is a talented swordsman after his years in the theatre, and there is a good visceral quality to the fight scenes. There are some familiar faces in supporting roles, such as Mackenzie Crook as a deranged priest with a strange flock, Jason Flemyng as Malachi, the ultimate villain of the piece (a priest who became a sorcerer), and Max Von Sydow as Kane’s father, and the film is sufficiently entertaining and sufficiently good for what it is, but nothing more than that.

I don’t want to appear harsh about the film because I quite enjoyed it, but it’s not a film about which you would enthuse because of great moments or that it does something you haven’t seen before, but it is good as a piece of well-done genre entertainment. There are things that get in the way of suspending disbelief – why did the ruffians not kill Kane in the first section? Why would the soldiers of Malachi attempt to kill Kane by crucifying him (thus allowing him the opportunity to escape) instead of just killing him outright? And even waving the nebulous concept of ‘magic’ around doesn’t make me believe that someone who forces his hands over the rusty nails that have been banged through them, leaving great holes in them, can be cured by an old pagan crone – he’s going to have big chunks of the middle of his palms missing at best. Also, the CGI-heavy finale seems at loggerheads with the rest of the realistic approach to the movie – the theological basis for the origin seems to give way to Dark Magic for no discernible reason, nor explain why Kane’s soul is so special that a demon from hell is summoned to retrieve it (meaning the scale of the fight against the demon for Kane seems completely implausible, meaning the denouement has no narrative satisfaction). But I’m probably being excessively picky for the sake of writing about it – I would be interested in seeing a sequel to this, where we would get to see much more of Kane kicking arse and taking names, even though I don’t think that it will ever happen.

Rating: DVD

[See here for my updated film rating system]

2 Comments

  • Taranaich 15 May 2010 at 2:24 am

    Interesting review, very nice. I agree with many of the points.

    I have read neither and didn’t have any knowledge of the character before watching the film.

    Going into this film with either no knowledge of Solomon Kane, or a lot while knowing exactly what lies ahead in the story, is probably the best way to watch the film.

    For all its high points, Bassett's interpretation of Kane is not only totally original, but in many ways contradictory and even contrary to Howard's original character. Howard's Kane was never an evil pirate, for instance, and the whole family drama was completely made up for the film.

    That said, the producers say that they're eager to make a film closer to the stories for the sequel: hopefully it'll get a theatrical US release, and us Howard fans can get an actual Solomon Kane movie.

    Reply
  • David 15 May 2010 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for the kind words and for the information about the film; I'm glad I saw the film with best possible vantage point of ignorance 🙂 Interesting to discover that it's not like the books.

    Reply

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