I’m a fan of the pulp writer Robert E. Howard. His Conan the Barbarian short stories are the granddaddy of the sword and sorcery genre, and for all their savagery and simplicity, they remain great reads to this day. With Solomon Kane, Howard traded in the broadsword of the barbarian for a cutlass and the loincloth for the wide brimmed hat of the Puritan. Enter Solomon Kane, director Michael J. Bassett’s adaptation of Howard’s lesser known creation. On the whole, the movie is a fairly enjoyable adaptation of Howard’s work, but the Bassett’s ambition unfortunately exceeds his ability by a wide margin.
When we first see Solomon Kane (James Purefoy), he’s in the process of tearing through an army of mercenaries in an exotic North African location. The story, we learn, is set in the early 17th century during the height of hostilities between England and Spain. Kane’s calling, apparently, is to murder Spaniards and fill his coffers with the spoils of war. He’s good at his calling, and he clearly loves his calling; in an early battle sequence he grins maliciously as he rips through flesh with his trusty cutlass and murders an unarmed prisoner with his flintlock.
But the bloodthirsty adventurer develops a change of heart as he encounters the Devil’s own grim reaper in the foreign stronghold. The supernatural monstrosity attacks Kane, informing the man that he’s come to collect the mercenary’s pitch black soul. After narrowly escaping the clutches of death, Kane no longer remains too keen on killing. That’ll happen.
We flash forward a few years, and Kane is now a man of peace, having donated his vast fortune to the Church and renounced his violent ways. He soon finds himself taken in by a traveling family of Puritans headed by a kindly patriarch (the brilliant, late Pete Postlethwaite). Of course, since the reformed sinner is another one of Robert E. Howard’s meditations on masculinity, it’s not long before he’s ripping throats open in his battle against the forces of evil.
Servants of an evil sorcerer named Malachi murder the family of Puritans and kidnap the patriarch’s daughter. With his dying breath, the old man tells Kane that he can redeem his soul if he rescues the girl from the clutches of evil. Having his license to disembowel renewed by God himself, Solomon Kane dons a wide brimmed hat, a black cape, and a pair of vicious swords. Along the way there are some twists and revelations, but this is mostly unpretentious, low fantasy where subtlety and symbolism are replaced with decapitations.
The most striking thing about Solomon Kane is how effectively Bassett manages to evoke an Elizabethan world that’s slowly being consumed by hell despite the picture’s middle-of-the-road budget. The sets are fantastic; England has never looked more grim and foreboding on film. Kane spends most of the film trudging through muddy villages or riding through desolate, ice covered fields. Rain and sleet appear to be Kane’s only traveling companions. The costumes of each character practically reek of mold. The chapels, houses, and taverns throughout the country are dilapidated and filthy. If hell were to manifest itself anywhere on Earth, it would certainly be in the England of Solomon Kane.
Meanwhile, the make-up and gore effects are also surprisingly effective given the limits of the budget. Servants of the sorcerer Malachi spend their time kidnapping peasants and transforming them into possessed monsters with pitch black eyes and dark, bulging veins. A good holy warrior needs demons to slay, and Solomon Kane doesn’t lack for gruesome monstrosities to purge.
The first hour or so of Solomon Kane is fantastic, but the limitations of the budget soon become apparent as the film careens toward a hastily cobbled together final act. The proceedings turn very grim, but the over arching story is all a little bit silly. Yet, despite the inherent silliness in the story, the filmmakers never once adopt the tongue-in-cheek approach to the material that worked so well for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. It’s hard to take Solomon Kane’s heartfelt journey towards contrition seriously when he spends so much time looking cool while beating witches and demons to a pulp, and a little self awareness would have greatly benefitted the film.
When the villainous Malachi is finally revealed at the climax of the movie, it’s a huge letdown. The monster that the sorcerer unleashes to kill Kane looks like something between a forgettable Castlevania boss and SyFy movie monster. Again, at no point do the characters exhibit any self awareness concerning how ridiculous this all looks.
In the end, we’re left with a movie that touches on the fun, wild energy that makes Robert E. Howard’s pulp fiction so fun to read, but that takes itself more seriously than the author probably intended. Solomon Kane almost succeeds as a serious piece of fantasy, but a poorly conceived final half drives the material firmly into the realm of camp. Solomon Kane is almost a good movie, but it unfortunately remains firmly entrenched in guilty pleasure territory.