"Hands held him hard, but the vagrant gleam in his eyes grew blind and bright,
And Solomon Kane put by the folk and went into the night.
A wild moon rode in the wild white clouds, the waves their white crests showed
When Solomon Kane went forth again, and no man knew his road."
--Robert E. Howard, "Solomon Kane's Homecoming"
I had a fixation on the stories of Robert E. Howard when I was a teen. I discovered Howard through the Conan the Barbarian comics from Marvel, and wound up knee deep in all of Howard's other creations. Conan continues to bear the author's banner, but of all his pulp heroes, the one I liked the best was Solomon Kane. Whereas Conan and Kull the Conqueror and Bran Mak Morn were all straightforward enough (or as straightforward as Howard's own neuroses would permit), Kane was a mystery man. There were hints of his past, particularly in the two long poems Howard wrote about the character, but hints were all you ever got. Nothing explicit. It gave him a kind of glamour that belied his dour, Puritan depiction.
Someone finally got around to making a movie about Kane in 2009. Director Michael J. Bassett's version of Solomon Kane provides the origin story Howard omits. It kind of robs the character of his glamour, unfortunately, and it speaks ill of audiences if they can't accept mysterious strangers as protagonists anymore. For the most part, this is NOT Howard's character, though there are references to Howard's stories littered throughout the movie. None of this is to say it's a bad movie. It's not. Just that it's an unfaithful adaptation and that it's unfaithful in a way that robs the character of his personality. I have a vested interest in the character, and that kind of viewer is always going to be hard on adaptations. You'll have to take what I say about this with a grain of salt.
In a way, it's not a bad thing that this is an alternate-reality version of Kane, because it jibes with the film's depiction of an alternate-reality year 1597, when Solomon Kane, the dread pirate and Elizabethan mercenary, comes face to face with his own damnation and sheds his life of violence for a life of pacifism. He knows that if he ever takes up the sword again, he will never find his own redemption. The movie provides Kane's back story beyond his turning point, though, filling in the circumstances of Kane's childhood estrangement from his noble family and the awful accident that prevents him from ever going home. The plot ties all of this up in a nice, tidy knot. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Kane is expelled from the monastery where he has taken refuge against his damnation and falls in with a Puritan family as he wanders a blasted, fantasy version of Elizabethan England. There are raiders terrorizing the countryside, and some dark force behind the raiders. The family is attacked and decimated, their beautiful daughter abducted, leaving Kane with no choice but to take up arms again as he is promised redemption if he rescues the girl. This brings him back to his ancestral home, where his family has made a dark pact.
For the most part, this is all pretty stock fantasy film fodder, but where this separates itself from other films of its ilk is in the care with which it is made, with the beauty of its production, and with the unusually good cast. James Purefoy cuts an awesome figure as Kane, and handles Kane's tormented swing from evil to good with aplomb. He's wholly believable in the role. Of his supporting actors, Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige are superb as the Crowthorns, Kane's Puritan friends, though Rachel Hurd-Wood isn't given much to work with as their abducted daughter. She's good enough that she works in the role, but it's a disappointing character. Max Von Sydow makes an appearance as Kane's father, probably cashing a paycheck as he is want to do, but even on an off day, he's good enough for this kind of role. Not Ming the Merciless good, I guess, nor Seventh Seal good, but this doesn't demand that, and he delivers the goods for what he's asked to do. Jason Flemyng is almost unrecognizable as the big boss at the end, so much so that I didn't realize who he was until the credits roll. Director Bassett has provided his actors with a splendid backdrop of bleak landscapes and crumbling ruins. This looks expensive, even though it wasn't, particularly. This is one of the best-looking Gothic fantasies I've seen, so much so that I wish the story itself were worthy of the production. The video game structure of escalating difficulties before fighting the boss at the end is disappointing. The art of writing adventure stories has seriously deteriorated in the video game era. It's also disappointing that the big monster at the end seems like a regurgitation of the balrog from The Lord of the Rings. In a movie with such a meticulous attention to design, this is a serious failing. None of this wrecks the movie, but it does temper my enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, Solomon Kane has languished without a distributor in North America, which is a shame. It's an exciting, dark, horror adventure that is so much better than other films of its type that I can't believe there's not an audience for it in the US and Canada. Chalk it up to the shifting tides of the movie business, I guess.