Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane may well be the best epic fantasy adventure you don’t get to see on the big screen this year. Far too often the success of a movie is not a matter of good film-making but of distribution and unfortunately, as Solomon Kane proves yet again, good film-making does not itself guarantee good distribution.
This year we’ve watched in frustration as two excellent movies, Valhalla Rising and now Solomon Kane, struggled to secure wide distribution outside of Europe, with both becoming available for sale in the UK before any scheduled theatrical release in North America or Australia. And now, if you can believe it, Neil Marshall’s Centurion looks to be heading down the same path to theatrical oblivion with a theatrical release in the US slated for August at the same time that it’s being released on disc in the UK. You can be damn sure that no one is serious about the theatrical release of a movie that can be picked up on disc and readily downloaded from the web, so don’t expect to find it playing at many venues come August.
What these three movies have in common, other than a legitimate claim on originality (unlike the flood of remakes, reboots, and regurgitation of tired old ideas that typically clutter our cinemas) is that they are not produced by American studios (which are responsible for most of the aforementioned clutter). Not being American is clearly a liability when securing distribution in the all-important US market and it’s unfortunate for both filmmakers and audiences. When a big studio remake as mediocre as Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans can flood the market, and a far better movie like Solomon Kane can’t secure even the most limited theatrical release, it’s not only filmmakers who are robbed of an audience, but the audience which is cheated of a great cinematic experience. What we’re left with is cinema that is risk free, bland and immediately forgettable, none of which can be said of Valhalla Rising or Solomon Kane.
Frankly this sucks, particularly in the case of Solomon Kane as Bassett has done such a fine job. As writer, he has crafted a captivating story about an evil man’s redemption, and as director he’s told the story in an engaging and exciting way, capturing superb performances from a cast that includes the likes of Pete Postlethwaite as the Puritan patriarch William Crowthorn and the legendary Max von Sydow as Kane’s father. And the film looks great. The camera work and the cinematography of Dan Laustsen are impeccable, shifting seamlessly from beautifully framed winter landscapes that reflect the bleakness of Kane’s soul to frenetic action as the Puritan warrior bursts into vengeful action. The fighting choreography is faultless too, and for the most part the effects are excellent, notably the Balrog-like demon in the closing scenes.
Although the plot of Bassett’s adaptation bears no relation to any of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s stories, Bassett has captured their spirit remarkably well. What he has crafted is an origin story that explains how the Puritan warrior of Howard’s stories came to be the man he is: where Bassett’s film ends with Kane on the war path against all that is Evil, Howard’s stories kick off. In Howard’s tales Kane is little more than a force of nature in the blind pursuit of justice, and like a force of nature, he is just as self-aware: which is to say, not at all. Allowing Kane to have a back-story is a great move as Bassett can humanise the warrior and allow the audience to engage with the character.
The one word then that sums up Bassett’s treatment of Kane is redemption. The first in a planned trilogy, Bassett’s movie traces the origin of Kane, a formidable fighter who is little more than a pirate when we first encounter him in North Africa, vicious and cruel and driven by greed. A terrifying encounter with the Devil’s Reaper reveals to Kane that he has damned himself with each cruel deed and that his soul belongs to the Devil. Kane escapes the Reaper and flees home to England, and there we find him a changed man, a virtual recluse in a monastery. He has renounced his former life believing that any further act of violence will confirm his damnation. But although Kane is now a man of peace, in truth he is motivated by fear of Hell rather than a desire to do good: it’s not the Light that he’s seen, it’s the Darkness and it terrifies him.
God, it seems, has a different use for the man and Kane is forced to leave the monastery and return to the world where he takes up with a Puritan family on their way to the New Land. The Devil also has other plans. Refusing to be cheated of Kane’s soul, Hell’s agents manipulate Kane into having to choose between betraying his friends or taking up arms, thereby damning himself for eternity. It’s a powerful moment when Kane decides once more, as we know he will, to be the man of violence that he truly is, aware now that he is damning himself in the process. It’s a selfless act, the ultimate act of sacrifice, and we know that Kane is truly now a reformed man.
For all Bassett’s excellent writing and direction, it’s hard to imagine that the film would be anywhere near as powerful without the remarkable talent of James Purefoy as the grim and spiritually tormented Puritan warrior on a mission to save his soul and bring bloody and righteous vengeance to Evil. Purefoy is simply superb, well up to the physical demands of the role and ideally suited to convey Kane’s spiritual journey from vicious killer motivated by greed to tormented penitent to force of righteous vengeance.
So what chance now of a trilogy? Next to zero I’d have to say and that is truly disappointing. For all that Howard’s stories are repugnant for their blatant racism (a racism that is difficult to excuse but must be recognised as a symptom of the times in which Howard was writing), they are exciting and enthralling tales and Bassett and Purefoy have established the best of foundations for some thrilling cinema. Let’s hope against the odds that I’m wrong and we’re treated to another Solomon Kane movie sometime soon.