Solomon Kane, Redemption and White Supremacy

Critique, Screen

Solomon KaneMichael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane is taking its good time to make its way to screens around the world. With a strangely staggered release since late 2009, it has so far only been shown widely in France, Russia and Spain, and is scheduled for a 19 February release in the UK. There’s still no word about dates for the US, Canada, Australia … the list goes on. Which is all the more peculiar because the audience reaction has generally been positive in the markets in which it has been shown: on its opening weekend in Spain, we’re told, it came in just behind the monster hit of Avatar at the box-office.

We haven’t yet had a chance to see the movie, but I have taken the opportunity to revisit the stories by Robert E. Howard on which the movie is based, stories I first came across in my teens (many years ago) when devouring Howard’s better known stories about Conan the Cimmerian. Howard’s savage tales of Solomon Kane are seriously grim and grimly serious short stories about one man’s blood soaked and gore-splattered quest for redemption. At least that’s how I remembered them. I picked up a copy of The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Del Rey 2004), which contains all of Howard’s stories, story fragments and poems about Kane, and read it cover to cover, enthralled and repulsed in equal measure.

The best that can be said about Howard as a writer is that at his best he is an outstanding story-teller, perhaps heroic fantasy’s greatest exponent. He is not, and had no pretensions of being, a “literary” writer: he wrote the Solomon Kane stories for the pulps, Weird Tales, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, setting them in a crude, brutal and violent period in which the ascent of reason was in conflict with superstition. Howard’s broad strokes capture this kind of brutality better than many other writers.

What’s apparent from the various movie trailers and interviews with writer-director Michael Bassett is that the movie adaptation is only very loosely based on Howard’s writing. Bassett’s Solomon Kane shares a name with Howard’s hero and a similar profile: Kane is a sombre and no-nonsense 16th Century Puritan soldier, a great swordsman and ruthless killer in the cause of good. It appears that little else has made its way from Howard’s pages to the screen, and the plot of the movie, as far as I can tell, bears no relation at all to any of Howard’s stories.

Most interestingly, the motivation of the two versions of the hero is vastly different. In Howard’s writing there is only the merest hint that Kane perhaps has a less “noble” past. In The Blue Flame of Vengeance (aka Blades of the Brotherhood) Kane confesses that he did once lead “… a rout of ungodly men, to my shame be it said, though the cause was a just one. In the sack of the town you name, many foul deeds were done under the cloak of the cause and my heart was sickened…”; and later he states “I come out of the sunset and into the sunrise I go, wherever the Lord doth guide my feet. I seek – my soul’s salvation, mayhap.”

Far more forcefully and in many more instances however it is stressed that for reasons unknown even to himself Kane has always already been driven to fight injustice, save the innocent from harm and right wrongs wherever he finds them. In The Moon of Skulls (1930) it’s said that:

“He never sought to analyse his motives and he never wavered, once his mind was made up… An atavist of the days of blind chivalry he was a knight errant in the sombre clothes of a fanatic. A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect – he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.”

Clearly, Howard’s Kane is no conflicted soul. What he is, is no more nor less 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. Howard provides no back-story, but then again there’s not really a back-story to tell. Kane is as he has always been.

On the other hand, the one word that sums up Bassett’s treatment of Kane is redemption.

No, it’s not particularly original, (redemption is surely the prime motivator in 80% of movies in recent years) but it does allow Bassett to endow the character of Solomon Kane with a compelling back-story and, I suspect even more importantly for modern audiences, Bassett humanises Solomon Kane. The first in a planned trilogy, Bassett’s movie traces the origin of Solomon Kane, a ruthlessly efficient killing machine in the service of the Crown (and the coin) who comes to the realisation that with each bloody act he has damned himself in the service of the Devil. Turning his back on this brutal life he strives to be a man of peace but Fate, the Devil and his own violent nature have other plans, and circumstances inevitably draw Kane back to the field of battle. So it is that on the path to Hell, Kane renounces violence in order to save his soul (think William ‘Bill’ Munny in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven). The possibility of redemption arises with the chance to put his fighting skills to use in the service of Good.

Returning to Howard’s written word: at least half of the savage tales of Solomon Kane take place in Africa and it’s here in particular that the writing is in equal parts enthralling and repulsive. Some of the most entertaining stories are in this African sequence, but Howard’s depiction of Africans is very much a product of its time and place, America in the 1920s and 30s. There’s no point gilding the lilly, these stories are quite simply and very blatantly racist. The superiority of the white man is fundamental to Howard’s world view.

And before some apologist for the author pipes up in his defence, it’s not that Howard has successfully captured the values of the times about which he was writing – the 16th Century. Frankly, his writing is not that sophisticated. Africans are characterised as sullen, wide-eyed, ignorant and superstitious. While they are often physically powerful, they are depicted as barely more than beasts. A subtle though telling distinction is drawn between Europeans and Africans when referring to colour: Howard invariably refers to a European as a “white man” but frequently refers to Africans simply as “blacks”, only very infrequently referring to an African as a “black man” (and never referring to “black men”). Wings in the Night (1932), a great story, but otherwise repellent, epitomises this entrenched racism. Kane has defeated a bunch of harpies, famously dealt with in an earlier age by the Greek hero, Jason:

“Kane stood, an unconscious statue of triumph – the ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth, whether he be clad in wolf-hide and horned helmet, or boots and doublet – whether he bear in his hand battle-ax or rapier – whether he be called Dorian, Saxon or Englishman – whether his name is Jason, Hengist or Solomon Kane.”

It’s not often I say this, but for once I’m looking forward to the adaptation in the hope that it improves on the source material.

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