Wednesday, December 18, 2013
SOLOMON KANE (2009)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological, metaphysical*
I've seen a few reviews trash writer-director Michel J. Bassett's take on one of Robert E. Howard's fan-favorite characters, Solomon Kane, but I can't quite see why.
True, even the best adaptations of Howard's work-- a small pack headed by 1982's CONAN THE BARBARIAN-- don't tap into the author's strain of dark pessimism and savage code of ethics. But KANE comes closer to the source material than most attempts, notoriously 1984's CONAN THE DESTROYER, 1997's KULL THE CONQUEROR, and the 1992 cartoon CONAN THE ADVENTURER.
In the original stories and poems, of which Howard wrote roughly a dozen, Kane is a dour 17th-century Puritan adventurer, devoted to traveling the world in quest of evils to destroy. This isn't a lot of motivation for a movie to work with, so it's natural enough that Bassett sought to "psychologize" Kane somewhat.
The film opens with a rather confusing scene of Kane serving alongside a gang of reivers, only to be confronted by a genuine hellfire-demon. Said demon informs the future hero that his soul now belongs to Satan, even though Kane hasn't signed any pacts that he knows of. Possibly the scene, awkward though it is, serves two purposes. First, it establishes for the audience that Kane's world is inhabited by real magical beings. Second, the revelation scares Kane straight, sending him to the bosom of a monastery, just long enough to instill in Kane a desire to do good.
Various flashbacks transpire to delve into Kane's history and psychology. Bassett doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel as he resorts to that old favorite, "daddy issues." However, there's at least some attention paid to the archaic milieu, as the story's first in that British-born Kane is the second son of his aristocratic father Josiah. Whether or not the film accurately describes English customs of the period, the script implies that it's axiomatic that only the elder son Marcus will inherit the entire estate of the Kanes. Kane objects, claiming that Marcus is nothing but a brute. To add oppressive fatherhood to neglect, Josiah wants Kane to join the church. Josiah gives no reason for this demand, but one may fairly assume that Josiah wants Kane to devote his life to God so as to give Josiah an "in" with Heaven while he has Marcus take care of the estate's temporal affairs. However, we learn through Kane's frequent flashbacks that Kane defied his father, and that before he could leave the estate, he had a fight with his brother that ended in his brother's apparent death.
Kane tries to turn his back on violence, but violence comes looking for him, principally in the form of a band of slave-taking raiders commanded by a magican, one Malachi. Kane also befriends a family of pilgrims, and when their young and pretty daughter is abducted, it doesn't Kane long to ride the revenge trail. The trail does take him back to his ancestral home, so that Kane is forced to confront the familial past he left behind.
The FX and fight-scenes are solid, James Purefoy gives a strong perf as Kane, and Bassett is consistent in projecting a sense of how grimy and violent things were in the 17th century. I speculate that the filmmakers may have wanted to avoid the original context of Howard's character: that he was usually riding around messing in the business of foreign nations, with at least two tales set in early colonial Africa. Avoiding this political hotspot may have been prudent, though if there was ever a Kane sequel, I would hope that they'd find some way to address the Puritan's complex relationship with "darkest Africa," politically incorrect though it might be.