A near miss for Solomon Kane

The frustrating thing about Michael Bassett’s Solomon Kane film is that it comes so close to getting it right. The cinematography and gloomy atmosphere capture the somber tone of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane tales very well, and there is a scene in the film where Kane encounters a mad priest who keeps a “congregation” of gibbering cannibals locked in the basement of his ruined church that feels like it could have been directly adapted from one of the original stories.

James Purefoy (HBO’s Rome) is well cast as Solomon Kane. Even the film’s basic plot, in which Kane must battle a band of grotesque raiders led by an evil sorcerer to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a travelling Puritan family, rings true, and is similar to the plot of Howard’s “The Moon of Skulls.”

The problem is in the characterization of Solomon Kane himself. Howard’s character is a mysterious wanderer, a Puritan who fights evil for no other reason than his own righteous fury. The strength of the stories is in the visceral action as Kane fights his near-hopeless battles against exotic backdrops such as the Black Forest in Germany or the jungles of Africa. It’s not particularly highbrow material, but it is exciting entertainment.

The film introduces us to a Solomon Kane who is a brutal, vicious and greedy mercenary. While looting a castle of its gold in Spain, Kane meets “the Devil’s Reaper,” a creature who informs him that the Devil has laid claim to his soul. Kane manages to escape, and we next meet him several years later, living a life of quiet contemplation in a monastery, where he has renounced violence in an effort to redeem himself. The monks send him packing for reasons that remain unclear, and while travelling he falls in with a Puritan family. They are beset by raiders who kill the father and his young son, and kidnap the teenage daughter, Meredith. With his dying breath, Meredith’s father tells Kane that his soul will be redeemed if he rescues her.

This is all a fairly by-the-book Hollywood way to give the character a background and motivation that will be easy for the audience to understand, but it backfires. Kane’s reason for wanting to rescue Meredith now appears entirely selfish – it’s his own escape from damnation in the fires of Hell that he is fighting for. These waters are further muddied with a back story involving Kane’s father and brother, another attempt to give him a personal connection to the events going on around him.

There is a character-defining scene at the beginning of “Red Shadows,” the very first Solomon Kane story, published in Weird Tales in 1928. Kane comes across a young girl, dying in the road after having been attacked by brigands. “Men shall die for this,” he vows, and spends the better part of a year tracking down her killers. The thing that makes the character interesting is that he is so driven to avenge the girl’s death, in spite of the fact that he has no personal or self-serving reason for doing so.

The film really misses this fundamental character point, that Solomon Kane is simply a good man who stands against evil because he must. Like any hero should be.

— Jefferson Powers