Robert E. Howard

Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane

2009

Davis Films

Directed and Written by Michael J. Bassett

Produced by Samuel Hadida

Based on the character “Solomon Kane” created by Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard is known mainly as the creator of Conan but as all us fans of his work well know he created many other heroes of equal power. They’re not as well known or as popular as Conan with the general public but in terms of characterization they’re more developed and more psychologically complex than Conan who pretty much was happy as long as he spent his days thieving and slaying and his nights wenching and drinking. Howard’s Pictish king Bran Mak Morn is obsessed with bringing the warring Pict clans together into a mighty empire against Rome and leaving a legacy to live on after his death. King Kull of Atlantis may be a barbarian but he spends just as much time in philosophical introspection as he does hacking his enemies into hamburger. And SOLOMON KANE is not only a swordsman of demonic skill and ferocity in battle, he is also a devout Puritan who has dedicated his life to God and to the vanquishing of evil.

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It’s his religious fanaticism that gives Solomon Kane his distinction in the pantheon of Robert E. Howard heroes and for me it’s what gives the movie an added kick of characterization. Solomon Kane’s quest is an unusual one, concerned with spiritual salvation and redemption as much as it is with lopping off as many heads of as many men as he can who stand in his way to kill the evil sorcerer Malachi.

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After barely escaping The Devil’s Reaper (Ian White) who attempts to take his soul, Solomon Kane (James Purefoy) retreats to a monastery in his native England. He covers his body with protective tattoos and Bible scriptures to keep The Devil’s Reaper at bay while he repents of his sins and embraces a life of peace. Even though he has renounced violence Solomon is destined for Hell for his past sins. Cast out from the monastery, he begins a pilgrimage to return to his family estates. As a boy Solomon was exiled by his father (Max Von Sydow) but now Solomon wishes to make amends.

He finds friendship with a Puritan family, William and Katherine Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite and Alice Krige) and their three children and travels with them. They are ambushed by the demonic soldiers of the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng) led by his brutal lieutenant, The Masked Rider (Samuel Roukin) In the ambush, all of the Crowthorns are killed except for Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) Solomon promises the dying William that he will rescue his daughter. And so, now believing that God’s plan is for him to once again become a killer, Solomon takes up arms and sets out to rescue Meredith. In the course of that quest, Solomon Kane will confront not only foes armed with swords and magic but wrestle with his own inner turmoil and crisis of faith.

Now, don’t get scared. This may sound like heady stuff for what is essentially a Sword and Sorcery yarn but trust me, it doesn’t get in the way of the killing, maiming, slaying of demons and zombies and buckets of blood any good Robert E. Howard story has. The movie is essentially an origin story for Solomon Kane and it’s been a while since I’ve read those original story I honestly don’t believe that anything in the movie violates what has been set down in those stories.  Although I do seem to recall that Kane was born a Puritan and he didn’t come from a noble wealthy family.

But it’s hard to argue with a couple of things that SOLOMON KANE may have gotten wrong when there’s so much that it gets right. The production values are amazing. They didn’t film this one on the cheap. And I liked how the landscape and location work are used to really good effect here to heighten the mood, tension and atmosphere in the various scenes. This is a Dark Ages that really is dark. It’s cold, it’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s snowy. In short, it’s a rotten time and place to be living in. And there’s no punches pulled when it comes to the violence which is raw and brutal. There’s some really impressive stuntwork being done during the swordfights.

I had long heard that James Purefoy was excellent in this movie and I’m happy to confirm that. I’m pretty confident that he read the original Robert E. Howard stories as he scarily and convincingly conveys the righteous anger that consumes Solomon Kane in combat. And in the quieter scenes where he’s given up his violent ways and is searching for God, he sells those just as well. The quest of Solomon Kane is not just a violent one but a spiritual one as well and James Purefoy does a wonderful job of giving us both sides of the character.

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Who else? There’s Pete Postlethwaite, who has always looked to me like Patrick Stewart’s meaner older brother doing his usual professional work. And it’s always a joy to see Alice Krige on screen doing anything and still looking beautiful and sexy even in Puritan clothing. Max Von Sydow makes the most of his brief but pivotal role as Josiah Kane, Solomon’s father.

The story of this movie’s production is a convoluted one as it was made in 2009 and only got to the United States last year. The only thing I can think of is that there must have been somebody getting paid under the table to keep the movie out of the U.S.  I have a long list of movies that should have been major box office hits and SOLOMON KANE joins that list. As a Robert E. Howard fan I was delighted and thrilled with this movie. It’s a genuine Sword-and-Sorcery epic starring one of the most intriguing heroes ever created for the genre. By all means, watch and enjoy.

104 minutes

Rated R


Conan The Barbarian (2011)

2011

Nu Image Films/ Millenium Films/Paradox Entertainment

Directed by Marcus Nispel

Produced by Avi Lerner and Boaz Davidson

Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood

Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard

I had high hopes for this reboot/re-imagining of Robert E. Howard’s magnificent creation in the first five minutes of the movie because we see for ourselves what Howard wrote in his stories: that Conan was born on a battlefield.  It’s a horrifically gory birth as Conan’s father Corin (Ron Perlman) performs a rude C-section in order to fulfill his wife’s last wish: that she see her son before she dies.  And as men fight, slay and die around him, Corin holds up his bloody son for the Cimmerian god Crom to see.

That’s the only bit of REH we get in the entire movie as the longer it goes on after that, the more disappointing and generic it gets.  Young Conan (Leo Howard) grows up with a wild, hot temper that his father tries to discipline and direct to no avail.  There’s a nice scene in here that echoes a similar scene in 1982’s “Conan The Barbarian” where Conan’s father forges a sword and Ron Perlman is easily as good here as William Smith was back then when he played Conan’s father.  Unfortunately, Mr. Perlman is never given any dialog anywhere near as good as the marvelous speech about The Riddle of Steel Mr. Smith gets to deliver.  Conan’s village is wiped out and his father tortured by Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) a powerful warlord hunting for the scattered pieces of The Mask of Acheron, a mystical artifact made from the skulls of long dead kings and consecrated in blood.  Whoever possesses The Mask of Acheron will have the power to conquer the world.  Khalar Zym wants The Mask in order to resurrect his dead wife, herself a sorceress of immense power.  Corin has a piece of The Mask which Khalar Zym finds with the help of his witch daughter Marique (Rose McGowan).

Twenty years later, now grown up to be Jason Momoa, Conan is a pirate who learns that Khalar Zym and his daughter plan to sacrifice a pureblood descendant of the wizards of Acheron to unlock The Mask’s power as he now possesses all the pieces.  Conan rescues Tamara (Rachel Nichols) who is the last of the purebloods but in a series of events that are horribly contrived and convoluted to give some sort of depth and meaning to the tired plot, she is captured by Zym and Marique and naturally Conan has to rescue her with the help of the master thief Ela-Shan (Said Taghmaoui).

Now, I’m sure this sounds to you like a thrilling movie but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Except for the scene of Conan’s birth, there is nothing of Robert E. Howard in this movie at all.  Despite the $90 million budget, this movie actually looks cheaper than the 1982 “Conan The Barbarian” and has none of the lush sets and exotic costume designs of that movie.  The big fight scene with sand creatures conjured up by Marique falls flat.  In fact, for a sword-and-sorcery movie there’s not much sorcery in it.

None of the problems with the movie I lay at the feet of Jason Momoa.  In fact, I liked him a helluva lot here and I only pray to Crom that he gets another shot at playing Conan as he did his absolute best and it’s not his fault he had to work with such a dull story.  And unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, he does a good job of showing Conan’s humorous side.  REH himself made mention in his stories that unlike most Cimmerians, Conan likes to laugh, have a good time and has a wicked sense of humor.  Jason Momoa gets that across.  Especially in a scene where he uses a bad guy to deliver a message via catapult.   And yet he’s totally serious when showing Conan doing what he does best: slaughtering by day, drinking and wenching by night.

Stephen Lang is an immensely talented actor and knows how to play a bad guy but the screenplay just doesn’t give him one to play.  And don’t ask me what my girl Rose McGowan is doing in this mess.  If you’ve been following my reviews you know I love Rose McGowan to death.  She’s enormously talented and due to her co-hosting stint on TCM’s ‘The Essentials’ where she displayed an extraordinary knowledge of classic movies I know she’s brainy as hell.  But this role is so brain-dead and devoid of anything meaningful I can only surmise she had hefty bills to pay and did this one for the money.

So should you see the 2011 incarnation of CONAN THE BARBARIAN?  I’m mixed on this.  On one hand, I say no because this is nothing but a generic barbarian movie that is Conan only in name.  Robert E. Howard’s character and his Hyborian Age do not come to life on the screen here. Stick with 1982’s “Conan The Barbarian” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John Milius as that is the superior film even after all this time.  Hell, even Albert Pyun’s 1982 “The Sword and The Sorcerer” is closer to REH than this movie.  Even the score is disappointing but then again, the only way this movie could equal the magnificent music of the original would be to have Basil Poledouris do the music and he is regrettably no longer with us.

But on the opposing appendage, Jason Momoa is terrific to watch and he nails the character.  It’s not his fault the director and screenwriters let him down.  And his performance in the movie deserves to be seen.  Otherwise 2011’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN is a major letdown for fans of Robert E. Howard.

113 minutes

Rated R

http://youtu.be/o1iJZIMddpM

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

1982

Universal Pictures

Directed by John Milius

Produced by Buzz Feitshans and Raffaella De Laurentiis

Written by John Milius and Oliver Stone

Based on the character/stories created and written by Robert E. Howard

I knew that director John Milius and his screenplay co-writer Oliver Stone got the character of Conan five minutes into the movie.  During the opening credits we see Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a mighty sword.  He then takes the young Conan (Jorge Sanz) to the top of a mountain.  He explains how The Riddle of Steel was stolen from Crom, the god of Cimmeria and that Conan must learn The Riddle of Steel for himself because as his dad succinctly sums up: “For no one in the world can you trust.  Not men, not women, not beasts.  But this-“ and he holds up the gleaming sword.  “-this you can trust.”

It’s not long after this that Conan’s parents, along with all the other adults in his village are slaughtered by the servants of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) a powerful sorcerer who is also the leader of a cult that worships the snake god Set.  Conan, along with other children are taken as slaves and chained to The Wheel of Pain, a gigantic mill which they push night and day, through weather fair and foul.  It’s torturous work but it has its benefits.  The young Conan grows up into Arnold Schwarzenegger as pushing that damn thing has built up muscles of Herculean proportions.  He’s bought by The Hyborian Age’s version of a fight promoter and wins fame as a gladiator.  He’s freed by his master and after meeting up with the master thief and archer Subotai (Gerry Lopez) takes up a career as a thief himself.

It’s during their attempt to infiltrate The Tower of The Serpent and steal The Eye of The Serpent that Conan meets swordswoman and thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) who will become the great love of his life.  It’s their successful and daring theft that brings them to the attention of King Osric (Max von Sydow) who hires the trio to rescue his daughter from The Cult of Set.  While Valeria and Subotai see this as a chance for a really big payday, Conan has his sights on taking the head of Thulsa Doom.

Now, you can say whatever you want about CONAN THE BARBARIAN but it won’t faze me because if nothing else, John Milius and Oliver Stone respected Robert E. Howard’s enough that they obviously not only read his stories but incorporated elements of some of those stories into the movie including what is probably the most famous scene in any Conan story; his crucifixion and his killing of a vulture pecking at his flesh with nothing but his bare teeth.

This movie, along with “The Terminator” launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career and it’s easy to see why.  Schwarzenegger at that time looked like he was designed by Frank Frazetta and he inhabits the role as well as Sean Connery did with James Bond or Michael Keaton did with Batman.  For those who claim that Schwarzenegger can’t act, I point out a terrific scene where Conan, Valeria and Subotai plan their assault on Doom’s stronghold.  While Bergman and Lopez have all the dialog, Schwarzenegger says far more than they do in the way he’s sharpening his sword.  And even though Schwarzenegger gets a lot of mocking for his dialog and accent in this movie, I like it.  I mean, the guy does sound like a barbarian from pre-history.   In fact, I like it that 90% of the characters have accents in this movie as they do sound as if they come from another age rather than modern day Californians playing dress up.

The supporting cast is outstanding.  James Earl Jones infuses Thulsa Doom with enormous presence and a true sense of not being entirely human.  His henchmen, played by Sven-Ole Thorson and Ben Davison are suitably impressive.  Bergman and Lopez back up Schwarzenegger well and create their own characters in some really wonderful intimate moments such as the one where Subotai tells the wizard Akiro (Mako) that since Conan, as a Cimmerian will not cry to show grief, Subotai must do it for him.  Mako contributes comedy relief without being buffoonish or degrading his own character.  But that’s to be expected because Mako is epic in everything he does.

And speaking of epic, the musical score by Basil Poledouris has become respected as one of the finest musical scores ever and rightly so.  A large part of the enjoyment of watching CONAN THE BARBARIAN comes from the sheer power of the score.  Poledouris also has done the scores for “Quigley Down Under” and “Lonesome Dove” that are easily as epic as the one for this movie.

So should you see CONAN THE BARBARIAN? No doubt you already have.  It’s one of those movies that everybody and their mother has seen, it seems.  Even chicks who normally shun this type of movie like it was the Ebola virus have seen CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  It’s violent, it’s raw, it’s sexy, and it’s fun.   There’s an excellent reason why CONAN THE BARBARIAN is rightly regarded as a classic.  It truly is inspired by the spirit of Robert E. Howard in a way that the recent remake never even comes close to.  If you’ve seen it, what the hell…watch it again.  And if you haven’t, I envy you discovering it for the first time.  Enjoy.

129 minutes

Rated R

http://youtu.be/RkYoIU-uRy0

The Whole Wide World

1996

Cineville, Inc./Sony Pictures

Directed by Dan Ireland

Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers

Based on “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis

Here’s a romance movie that I think is wonderful for a couple to watch but it’s not exactly the first movie that would come to mind when you and your sweetie hit the Netflix for something cuddle up with.  But you really should give THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD a try.  Let’s face it; aren’t you guys tired of seeing “Ghost” over and over and over?

In 1933, Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger) is an independently minded young woman living in rural West Texas who dreams of going off to college and maybe becoming a teacher.  She really aspires to be a writer.  She has these huge diaries she writes her daily activities in and has been sending off stories to the confession/romance pulp magazines with little success.  She desperately longs for someone to talk to about her ideas and stories and one day while sitting on her porch drinking lemonade, a friend of her drives up and asks her would she like to walk over to his car and meet the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world: Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio)

Robert E. Howard grew up and lived most of his painfully short life in Cross Plains, Texas and created what is probably the most famous pulp adventure character of all: Conan The Barbarian, the hero of short stories, novels, comic books and movies.  But Robert E. Howard created many more characters than that and wrote so prolifically that whole issues of ‘Weird Tales’ magazines were filled with his stories, written under half a dozen pen names.  Even today nobody is sure exactly how many names Robert E. Howard used or how many stories he wrote.  For me, when it comes to writing, Robert E. Howard has few equals when it comes to sheer storytelling power.  He wrote stories about lusty adventurers who spent their days hunting for treasure, fighting demons and roaming uncharted lands and spent their nights wenching, drinking and gambling.  There’s nothing but total testosterone in a Robert E. Howard story and it’s easy for me to understand why they were so popular during The Depression Era when so many men felt impotent and powerless.  After a hard day of trying your best to feed your family and keep a roof over their heads, for a man in the 30’s, picking up a copy of ‘Weird Tales’ and reading a Conan story where he kills a mad god and makes off with his priceless giant diamond is the equivalent to a modern day Joe Punchclock coming home from work and watching ‘24’ to cheer Jack Bauer kick terrorist scum ass and save The President from being blown up by a neutron bomb in his shower.

Novalyne is totally astonished at meeting someone who actually makes a living by writing and they begin a friendship that develops into a rocky romance.  Novalyne has a mind of her own and is ambitious with an independent spirit.  In that respect she’s somewhat more progressive than most of the other young ladies in the town but she’s never met anybody like Robert Howard who is socially inept and extremely close to his mother, who is in poor health.  When they go out on dates, Bob Howard prefers to take Novalyne on long drives where they can talk about the dreams and aspirations they have as writers.  As much as Novalyne grows to love Bob, she soon realizes that he’s not husband material.  Robert E. Howard is a wonderful man but he lives too much inside of his own head.  And while his incredible imaginative power and lust for life draws her to him, his emotional insensitivity and manic depressive moods drive her away.  They maintain their romantic relationship in a sort of on-and-off again basis but the real romance is between their imaginative minds and the love they both have of writing.

I really love THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD for number of reasons: first of all, while it’s not a straightforward biography of Robert E. Howard, we do get to see some very important moments in his life filtered through the eyes of Novalyne.  And there are some moments between Howard and his mother (Ann Wedgeworth) that are really touching.  You may remember Ann Wedgeworth as the sexpot neighbor on ‘Three’s Company’.  She does a really good job of acting here as Howard’s possessive mother who obviously loves her son a little too much.

The acting by Vincent D’Onofrio is first rate and convinced me that I was looking at Robert E. Howard in the scenes where he’s writing a Conan story and he’s speaking the dialog out loud.  There’s another scene where’s he’s walking down the main street of his home town, shadowboxing an imaginary enemy and mumbling descriptions of the fight that’s taking place as he works out a story in his head.  It’s made clear in the movie that Howard’s neighbors and friends think it’s pretty damn odd for a big grown strapping man such as himself to be making a living writing stories and talking to imaginary people in his head but D’Onofrio plays Howard with such an ‘I-Don’t-Give-A Damn-‘ charm he sells the performance.  Renee Zellweger is simply wonderful as Novalyne Price.  She understands Robert Howard.  She loves Robert Howard.  She thinks Robert Howard is the greatest writer in the whole wide world.  She just can’t allow herself to fall enough in love with him to marry him.  She’s smart enough to see that such a marriage would end in tragedy.   Novalyne Price went on to become a teacher and she wrote the book the movie THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was based on after she grew angry at reading so many articles that she felt distorted the truth about what Robert E. Howard was like.

The relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is handled with a great deal of romanticism and sensitivity.  Robert continually amazes Novalyne with the places he takes her to where they gaze upon beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  These scenes also give D’Onofrio a chance to show off the stare he learned from Stanley Kubrick when we worked on “Full Metal Jacket” as Howard tells Novalyne about his stories and in the background we can faintly hear swords crashing together, the curses and yells of men fighting and the sounds of war which get louder and louder until Novalyne says something to snap him out of it.  The thing that really comes across in the movie is that in a lot of ways, both Howard and Novalyne were born out of place and out of time and even though they were lucky enough to meet, they still could not connect on a lot of levels.  It’s a really classically bittersweet love story.

It’s a great movie for lovers of the work of Robert E. Howard as I think it really gives fans of the man and his work a really good look at what his everyday life was like.  It also works as a movie about writers.  Movies about writers are really hard to do since most of the work takes place between their ears.  Fortunately, Robert E. Howard was as big as life as the heroes he wrote about and his life makes for an interesting movie.  I really enjoyed the movie just on that basis since I identify a lot with Robert E. Howard.  Like him, I have no illusions that my work is great art.  I just like telling a good story and Robert E. Howard was one of the best storytellers ever born.  Vincent D’Onofrio does an excellent job of showing Howard’s sheer exuberance and delight at just being able to tell a hell of a good story and I felt that deeply.

So should you see THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD?  Absolutely.  It’s a movie that works as a biography of one of the most influential and popular writers of all time.  It also works as a movie about writers and their internal lives and how they connect, interact and deal with others who are not in tune with those wavelengths writers are in tune with.  And it most definitely works as a romantic film as the relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is touching, sad, funny, and poignant and I freely admit that the last scene of the movie is one that had my eyes watering.  Netflix THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD and watch it with a writer you love.

111 minutes

Rated PG