In the 1920s a new form of literary entertainment was born. Called pulp fiction, for the poor quality of the paper it was printed on, you could literally still see the wood pulp embedded in the pages; the stories were high on action and low on any redeeming literary qualities. Whether lurid crime fiction or brutal sword and sorcery fantasy very few of the stories have survived and their authors have been largely forgotten. However, one whose work has lived on long after both he and the magazines have perished is Robert E Howard.
Best known as the creator of the character Conan the Barbarian whose exploits have been seen in films, books and comic books on a regular basis, he also created numerous other characters. While there have been attempts to create films based on the adventures of other heroes aside from Conan in the past, most of them have been about as tawdry as their original publications. Even the adaptations of Conan to the big screen, especially the ones staring a certain Austrian body builder, have been a bit of a joke. However, the adaptation of another of his character’s adventures, Solomon Kane, to the big screen, now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, is quite a number of steps up in quality from anything anyone has done previously.
For while the story follows along the same rather simplistic moralistic lines of all Howard’s work involving the forces of good fighting the force of evil, casting an actor the quality of James Purefoy in the lead role ensures this movie a depth the others have lacked. For instead of the rather cartoonish figure of a muscle bound lout hacking and slashing his way through a world of armed men and monsters, we are presented with a character of complex emotions, motivations and conflicting desires. Purefoy is able to take what in the hand’s of a lessor actor would be a one dimensional character and create a truly troubled soul.
To give you some indication what Purefoy brought to his performance, in an interview with the actor included on the Blu-ray edition, he talked about his preparation Not only had he read all of Howard’s stories about Solomon Kane, he also read up on Puritanism in England in the 1600s and the various beliefs in witch craft and other black magic common to the era. From this research he was able to understand the mindset of his character and bring a level of credibility to his actions another actor would not have been able to communicate to the audience.
When we first meet Kane he is corsair in the employ of England. Which meant he had a licence from the crown to commit acts of piracy as long as they were against people considered enemies. Unfortunately while the crown was okay with him letting him rape, murder and pillage his soul has no such dispensation. In the midst of sacking a Turkish palace he and his crew are confronted by demons from hell. While his crew is destroyed Kane barely escapes the Devil’s reaver who had come for his soul.
When we next meet him he has taken refuge in a church. Kane believes the only way he can save his soul is by never committing a violent act again and he feels he can only do this is by hiding away from the world. Unfortunately God has other plans for him and the priest in charge of the church he’s staying in tells him he must seek redemption out in the world. As he’s travelling he meets a family of Puritans on the road. While he initially refuses their offer of a ride, they end up rescuing him after he’s set upon by outlaws. Refusing to offer any resistance he is struck over the head and left for dead. When he comes to he finds himself in the back of the Puritan family’s wagon being tended to by their daughter.
The head of the family, the wonderful Peter Postelthwaite, tells Kane the family is on the way to Portsmouth where they will catch a ship to the New World. Unfortunately that’s not to be. For there’s something evil afoot in this part of England. Raiders led by a mysterious masked man with strange powers are rounding up people and taking them into slavery for their mysterious master. Naturally Kane and the family run up against them, and when they kill the family’s youngest boy Kane makes the choice to fight back. While he’s able to defend himself well enough he’s not able to prevent the daughter from being taken captive and the father from receiving a fatal wound. With his dying breath the father tells Kane he can save his soul by rescuing his daughter and there is redemption to be found in fighting evil – in being a warrior for good instead of for selfish purposes.
So you can see where this is going can’t you. Kane begins to cut a swathe through the evil doers in an attempt to rescue the daughter. While the story is fairly predictable, filled with all the usual sword and sorcery violence and blood shed one would expect from pulp fiction in all its gory detail, there are some nice twists and turns to the plot which elevate it above the usual slash and chop movie. However, it’s the brooding presence of Purefoy at the centre of the movie which really makes this movie worth watching.
In most of the roles I’ve seen Purefoy, he’s either been an uncomplicated heroic type or it’s been a case of still waters running deep with a rather placid exterior hiding some mystery. Here though he’s gone against type and is playing a character consumed by passions, whether the violent man we meet as the film opens or the man driven by the desperate need to salvage his soul and find redemption. When he finally allows himself to pick up the sword again, although it costs him a great deal, you see how it almost comes as a relief to him to be able to fight back. When he is given absolution to kill in the name of God it’s like he’s been returned to normal.
The Blu-ray edition uses the technology to great advantage; both the sound and the picture are crystal clear and sharp. What I really appreciate is no matter how loud the sound track is, explosions and such, there’s never any problem hearing the dialogue. So those of you who like to feel explosions as well as hear them will enjoy this version as much as those who appreciate being able to hear what the actors are saying.
Besides the interview with Purefoy, the bonus features also include a commentary track with Purefoy and the director (Michael J Basset), an interview with the director, a making of the movie feature and a couple other bits about the special effects for one scene and the original concept art for the movie.
While the story of Solomon Kane follows along the expected path for a sword and sorcery type movie what raises it above other movies of this ilk is the performance of James Purefoy in the lead role. It’s not often a movie of this type is blessed with an actor of this calibre, and its much better for it. While it will still appeal to those who like a good chop and hack movie, if you can stand a little gore, those of you who watch movies for the quality of the performances will appreciate it as well.