Because of the 1982 Arnold Schwarzenegger film, the Robert E. Howard character most familiar to audiences by far is Conan the Barbarian, and the aforementioned film has gone on to be considered one of the classics of the sword-and-sorcery genre. However, the character of Solomon Kane was created by Howard four years earlier than Conan, but it wasn’t until 2009 that he got his own film. It did very poorly at the box office, only making back about half its budget, which is a real shame, because while it will never be as iconic, it’s every bit as good as Arnold’s Conan.
James Purefoy is Solomon Kane, an English mercenary leading an attack against the Ottomans in North Africa. After capturing a fortress, he encounters the Devil’s Reaper, who informs him that his soul is damned because of all the terrible things he’s done. Fleeing in terror, Kane makes a new life for himself at a monastery in England, hoping that by showing devotion to God and renouncing violence his sins can be absolved. Unfortunately, a new evil soon arises, requiring Kane to take up arms again, and thus risk damnation for himself in order to defeat it.
The story is, in all honesty, nothing remarkable, and the final villain Malachi (Jason Flemyng) only appears for the last ten minutes and is not very memorable. All the same, Purefoy’s performance is excellent, perfectly embodying the tormented Kane, and appearances by Pete Postlethwaite and Max Von Sydow are very welcome. The atmosphere more than makes up for the relatively weak story, with the muted colours, bleak landscape and chunky violence creating a strong sense of a land on the brink of destruction. The action sequences are a particular highlight, a good combination of blood and brutality with genuinely skilful choreography; the fact that the characters wield guns as well as swords, rare in this genre, allows for a lot more variety than other films.
It’s wonderful how all-inclusive Solomon Kane is for the fantasy genre. Along with the expected knights and mercenaries, there are witches, undead, ghosts, and an enormous fire demon straight out of Hell. It takes somewhat of a kitchen sink approach, throwing everything it can think of into the melting pot and seeing what works. In a lesser film the abundance of magical elements could be a weakness, but it’s executed so well and played so straight here that it’s hard not to be drawn in; another film might be ashamed of its pulp fiction origins, but Solomon Kane wears them proudly on its sleeve and elevates them to genuine quality, despite the fact that the plot has very little resemblance to Howard’s original stories.
If you enjoy sword-and-sorcery films, I can’t recommend Solomon Kane highly enough. It leaves itself open for a sequel, which is unlikely to be made because of the very poor box office returns, but it’s still an excellent standalone film. It will never be as famous as Conan the Barbarian, not least because, while a much better actor, James Purefoy is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, but in a lot of ways it’s a better film, and is certainly the best epic fantasy film this side of The Lord of the Rings.