Solomon Kane (2009) Revisited

Five years after Van Helsing brought curdled reviews but box office gold, Kane seemed calculated to fit that film’s mould but also to stretch it, and carve out a bigger space for dark fantasy and horror in a historical setting. However, despite its connection to the British folk horror film tradition, Michael J. Bassett’s film never quite found its audience. Today is the 115th anniversary of Robert E. Howard’s birth, so let us meet again one of his most battle-scarred sons. Perhaps with the passage of time, we can see him a bit more clearly. 

Our introduction to Kane (James Purefoy) recalls Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). It feels as if it was made for the trailer instead of the film,  and is not very Howardian. Thankfully, there’s a lot more of Howard in what follows. It is the year 1600, a time of casual cruelty, when the only light comes from the flames of battle. Ruthless and greedy, the privateer Solomon Kane meets his match in the Devil’s Reaper, who accuses Kane of having made a Faustian pact, and threatens to collect his soul. Next, we find Kane as a tortured monk, complete with ecclesiastical serial killer wall, tattoos and scarification to protect him from evil. As the wealth he’s donated can only make up for so much screaming, he’s booted out. The monks foresee purpose for him out there: “There are many paths to redemption, not all of them peaceful.” 

What if…

Not all paths are well defined either, and the film feels scrapbook-like, taking set-pieces and ideas from films from films like Plague of Zombies, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. Solomon Kane is definitely the spiritual child of the Hammer era, and had it been made back then, you can imagine Peter Cushing portraying Kane with both humility and righteous fury. As it is, James Purefoy gives us a Kane who is convincingly haunted, and the film also successfully borrows its precursors’ sinister atmostphere, as Kane travels misty roads and gnarly woods. 

Dead people hang by the roadside and Kane has his own unburied dead to contend with: his early refusal to become a priest, the legacy his father denied him, and accidentally killing his bully-boy brother. Redemption is the film’s big theme, and has to carry the film’s forward movement in lieu of a tight plot. But what is the price of redemption, and who pays it? Kane’s guilt keeps him from violence at first, but evil follows him like flies on shit. Purefoy’s performance evokes pity – he clearly feels as vulnerable as those whose lives he’s destroyed. This film is about a man of privilege who learns he’s no different – and cannot separate himself – from the rest of humanity. 

Puritan family Idyll – William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite) holds court.

Set upon by robbers, he’s rescued by the Puritan family of William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite). Their daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood) sees the good in Kane, and even sews him a Puritan outfit, complicating the film’s theme of wicked paganism versus pious Christianity. Of course this is the writers shoehorning in his Weird Tales costume, but you also sense Meredith’s hope that the clothes maketh the man. Even Kane seems almost to believe he could be one of them. But the contrast with Kane’s broken family history and lonely future is acute: he cannot have a family like this, and when William (God love him) actually shows Kane a locket with pictures of his family, we know that by saving Kane they have doomed themselves. 

A band of raiders “recruits” villagers as thralls of the sorcerer Malachi. His lieutenant, the masked Overlord, does this by grasping their faces in his bare hands. It’s half contagion, half demonic possession – fitting in a time of plague (theirs, and ours). Of course, they meet our travellers. This is why Postlethwaite was cast: you can see his own soul escaping as he realises Kane cannot, will not, risk his soul by fighting and saving his son. The Crowthorns can’t look at Kane the same way now, and when he finally unleashes his wrath, it’s too late: Meredith is taken, and William mortally wounded. With the forbearance of one who truly trusts his God, he urges Kane to save his soul by rescuing his daughter. Then he dies in his wife’s arms. 

Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood), doffing her bonnet

After some sojourns – cue the crazed priest who tends to his flock-turned-zombies in the ruins of his church – Kane hears that Meredith is dead and goes looking for his soul at the bottom of a bottle. By coincidence (the borderlands of Somerset and Devonshire are a small place apparently), he meets some old shipmates who are rebelling against Malachi, and gets crucified alongside them. It’s Conan’s Tree of Woe all over again. Seeing Meredith alive, with his last strength he tears himself off the cross. The “pagan bad, Christian good” formula is disrupted again, as the rebels’ healer and seer tells him, “There’s more power here than your Christian god; you would do well to remember that.”

Juxtaposed against the simple and good Crowthorns are Kane’s own family. Back at the Kane family home we find out that Kane’s brother lives and – this is hardly a spoiler – is Malachi’s masked lieutenant. The sorcerer was brought in by Kane Sr. to save his son, and the magic made Marcus into the masked Overlord. So, this whole contagion of evil, this blight on the countryside, is the result of the power struggle in the local noble family. Toxic masculinity indeed! Kane gets to make up with his father, tossed in the dungeon for his troubles, and release him to whatever awaits beyond death. The final battle in the family’s great room then falters; it’s stuff we’ve seen in swashbucklers from the Douglas Fairbanks era onwards. Unmasking Marcus, of course, does not come without the tedious ableist trope of villains with facial differences. 

Masked villain

And far be it from me to suggest that more films kill women to motivate men, but to dangle Meredith’s fate, then reveal that the ritual to summon Kane’s infernal doom will leave her enough blood to get home on, feels anticlimactic! The demon coming for Kane’s soul works better; the human scale of Kane’s previous supernatural foes make this confrontation impressive. Anyway, Meredith safely delivered to her mother, Solomon’s vow is to continue his fight: “But evil is not so easily defeated, and I know I will have to fight again. I am a very different man now… I have found my purpose.”

Solomon Kane gets righteous

However, an intended trilogy never happened. Lest we sound overly negative: it’s not a bad film, not at all. For all of Kane’s searching for his own, the film has a soul. It has engaging characters and where the plot may not be surprising it at least has the familiarity of your genre favourites happily revisited. Instant nostalgia. Also, there is clearly an appetite for 17th century supernatural stories, given the later success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), beautifully shot using available light to tell an even more claustrophobic tale of a Puritan family stalked by a supernatural evil. But The Witch benefited from the folk horror revival then reaching critical mass. Add Game of Thrones to that, stoking an unsuspected mainstream appetite for fantasy in gritty (pseudo-)historical settings, and you wonder whether Howard’s ‘doleful knight’ would’ve fared better in different circumstances. Perhaps, if the Netflix Conan project is successful, the Howard canon will be ransacked and Kane will ride again. 

Conan the Barbarian (2011)

The prologue of Conan the Barbarian immediately makes clear what sort of hero we must make do with. According to the voice-over it’s ‘between the years that the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the Sons of Aryas’. On a battlefield we find a woman clutching her belly with one hand and a sword with the other. She’s in labour, but only by being cut from her womb will the baby deign to emerge, as her dying lips whisper his name-to-be.

A teenage Conan pays no heed when his father, the tribe’s blacksmith (Ron Perlman), tries to teach him the riddle of steel whilst forging him his first sword. In Celtic tradition a smith was half village elder, half shaman, but what should be a key scene of the film is understated, the mythological quality lost. This is typical of a film that turns out to be about an obnoxious murderer instead of a hero.

Conan’s father (Ron Perlman) teaches his son the Riddle of Steel.

The torturously unpleasant violence from the movie’s opening continues when the village is invaded. Every bone-crunch of teenage Conan’s counter-attack is amplified, while the powerful character moments between son and soon-to-die father are lost, the filmmakers assuming we’re only interested in seeing Perlman get molten metal full in the face.

This tone persists. The adult Conan does unspeakably nasty things to captive baddies, and frees female sex slaves only to leer at them himself, then get them re-employed as tavern sluts. It’s a far cry from John Milius’ 1982 Conan the Barbarian, of which the current film is ostentatiously not a remake, despite the many recurring tropes.

Both films are about a man who seeks out and ultimately destroys the wizard-king who wiped out his tribe. But where the old Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had innocence to balance his inherently thuggish life, the sum of his years spent at the Wheel of Pain and in the arena, new Conan is no better than the villains he dispatches in endless sword fights.

Jason Momoa as Conan

Lead actor Jason Momoa definitely shows a certain charisma and would be perfect in the role, particularly after playing the similar, but more nuanced, Drogo in Game of Thrones, were he not let down by the unimaginative direction and the shoddy script. It’s all stuff an adolescent’s dreams are made of: flashy gore and nastiness, grotesque villains and buxom damsels, but the film is light on the truly mythic, interesting character dilemmas and narrative logic.

The action sequences are cut too fast, disorientating rather than immersive, and quickly become repetitive and dull. The script, meanwhile, seems to have been cut to less than the bare minimum to get from one fight to the next. Character motivation is as scarce.

Conan (Jason Momoa) and Tamara (Rachel Nichols)

Indeed, about the women: Tamara (Rachel Nichols), goes from being an implausibly good fighter to a helpless puppet when the script requires it. When Conan claims her as his slave and gags her, it’s played as funny, not as a violation.

‘I live, I love, I slay… I am content,’ Conan mumbles halfway through the movie. As a motto it really holds no candle to his former incarnation’s answer to what’s best in life: ‘to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women’.

The producers have already blamed the failing box office figures on insufficient brand recognition, even though Robert E Howard’s pulp hero is doing well in every other medium, from comic book to video game. More likely, audiences aren’t fooled by ‘product’ slapped together for the lowest common denominator.

(This review appeared on the Culture Northern Ireland website)

Chariots of Ire

Tell me, Oh Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide.”
Homer – The Odyssey

The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, much like Fantasy, is supposed to be about adventure, ingenuity, and working together to overcome obstacles. And yet, there was so much opposition to the idea of battle wheelchairs. Because they’d be unrealistic. Or cumbersome. Or any other reason you can imagine for disabled characters to be excluded from Fantasy. But, in a world of elves, trolls and -indeed- dragons, how unrealistic is disability, actually?

Sure, a powerful enough wizard could magic any disability away, but would your character have access to that magic? And if you’ve got that wizard at hand, why not also solve whatever quest your DM has set? A magical ring needs to be dumped into a volcano in the badlands? How about a transportation spell, roll your D20, and with a bit of luck you can put your character sheets away again before you’ve even set off. Then again, that wouldn’t be much fun, right? So, if you’ve got Fantasy realms with hobbits schlepping through marshes, then your party can also deal with a wheelchair and the disability that requires it – or whichever disability your player would like to be represented with.

Over the last decade we were lucky to see quite a bit of disability representation in Game of Thrones. It’s done -eh- less well in other areas, but there is that at least. Anyone hoping it would set a trend in representation will have been disappointed though; in The Witcher, we’re back to the cliché of disabled character who wants nothing more than to be cured, gets her wish and only then can be a major character. No hanky-panky with our freezer-sized hero if she’s not conventionally hot! Does The Witcher represent a look back in time, an artefact of it having been written decades ago? Or was GoTs disability representation not progressiveness, but instead – like its standard rape and objectification of women – part and parcel of Westeros’s grimdark identity?

Part of the answer to these questions is that every story’s resonance is at least partly created by its wider cultural context, and it helps create our collective culture in its turn. The more popular a show or book, the bigger its cultural footprint, and the more it should move the needle. We cannot expect one book or one series to be everything to everyone. Nor – as shown by the widespread “huh?” reaction to disabled people delighted by GoT’s finale – can we expect all of the audience to catch up at once. We can only hope that creative teams at least consider their impact, and realise their potential for disabled inclusivity. And disability is not a monolith, or a single item to tick off a checklist. Inclusion is the beginning, not the end, and should be as varied as disability itself, in all its physical, intellectual, mental health and social communication dimensions.

We’ve moved – through decades of dedicated activism – from the medical model of disability to the social model, in which disability is understood not as being caused by an impairment, but by society’s failure to accommodate us. This idea too is a beginning, not the end of a cultural discussion, and perhaps neurodivergent conditions illustrate this most of all. The social model of disability cannot account for all disabled experience, and for many disabilities; some of the disabilities we ourselves have would suck even in the most accommodating and understanding society, and some of them we’d want cured if we could.

The point, however, is that there is a persistent focus in fiction on the cure (or lack thereof), and it still is the obvious default in how most fiction about disability (in Fantasy and other genres) is played out. It’s an incredibly mainstream idea: disability becomes the story, instead of part of the character’s make-up. This is why disability activists picketed the premiere of the film adaptation of Me Before You (the “better dead than disabled” romance movie): unless a reader/viewer is actively seeking out a wider range of perspectives, that’s usually what they will be served when they consume content with disabled characters. That, also, is the context in which people who aren’t conscious of knowing disabled people in their own lives form opinions about disability. It drives how they vote, how they think and talk about disability, and how they teach their children about interacting with disabled people: disability is a cross that we have to bear, or are nailed to, and for that we are to be pitied, or santified if we show enough courage in holding up.

Disabled characters in fiction often are looking for a cure or have no hope of one. That’s their story. For the heroes a cure will bring salvation, for the villains a cure would come with a heavy price for others. And if there is no cure, then disability becomes the cause for revenge on society for the villains, and time for either bearing up heroically or fading inspirationally into the night, like in Me Before You, but also The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, The Sea Inside, and half a dozen Stephen Hawking biographies.

And that’s the context in which The Witcher was written, both as a book series and, well into the 21st century, a TV adaptation. Writers had every opportunity to do something different, but they chose not to innovate. There definitely is a story to be told about a woman who’s told she can’t become a powerful witch without being abled and conventionally beautiful. It shouldn’t be the most prominent story, though: it’s been done to death – much like disabled people in the real world. This is why we’d love to see more stories where our lives, with our disabilities, are shown as worth living.

You can’t be what you can’t see. If there are no characters with disabilities, in various forms in different phases of their lives, you not only lack representation, you also lack examples. Not having had this ourselves has had an impact for Angeline in particular, and it was difficult to envison herself as being older, with disabilities. Seeing realistic disabled characters with succesful, or at least normal lives would have been a comfort and, perhaps, taken away some fear of death. If the only stories with young people with disabilities are about them languishing or dying, you don’t really believe middle age exists for you.

As it is, while stories about cures, or the lack thereof, are a dime a dozen, you’ve got to look hard for stories that reflect the life someone with a disability actually has. We find it important for stories to exist, and to be widely read and viewed, whose message is: “You can still lead a good life with disabilities; you can still self-actualise; you can have friends and lovers and family and a job. You can still be a witch, if that’s your genre.” Just imagine The Witcher‘s Yennefer trying to magic away her disability, to then decide: “You know what? Not at this price! I’ll accept myself as I am, and so can you!” Her newly found self-acceptance is what’s needed to unlock her magical potential, and it’s her self-assurance, her sass and her personality that makes her attractive to The Witcher, not her t & a. Attractive and worth spending time with, for both Witcher and audience.

It’s getting better. Slowly. Very slowly. And encouragingly, some of that storytelling is on Netflix too, though it tends to be small moments in ensemble dramas, and that glorious biographical dramedy exception that was Special. But it shouldn’t be special. Decent disability representation should be the norm.

In our stories, we try to include elements of disability that we are familiar with ourselves, or from our surroundings. They may inform the characters, but they won’t inform the stories; disability won’t be the story. In the titular story of The Red Man and Others Ymke lives on a farm and has badly treated hip dysplasia, much like one of our relatives, who worked as a maid on a farm as a teenager. We imagine that there’s magic in her world (our S & S has been rather light on S) but it’s not available to her to fix her. There’s not much beyond a willow bark extract from the hedge witch for her. That doesn’t stop her from going forwards, limping at times, having adventures, loving and being loved. We foresee a future in which her disability will get worse, and she’ll have to adjust. We’d like to imagine the world around her being one in which she can still maintain herself and thrive.

We’ll make sure of that!

You can buy these excellent wheelchair miniatures from Strata Miniatures. 25% of your purchase will be donated to


A commentator has recently made some waves in S&S and Fantasy circles by claiming that it would be impossible for swordswomen to exist because, basically, they’re feeble and no match for a man. This, of course, is nonsense. By the same argument, a poorly armoured foot soldier would be no danger to a knight in full metal on horseback. And yet, medieval wars were full of simple foot folk. Could it perhaps be that there’s more at play?

No medieval battle was a simple equation. How many troops do you bring to the field? Your superior horseman won’t fare well against twenty peasants with pikes. Where is the fight? Does your army have to cross a stream, to be picked off by archers? Staircases in castle towers wind a certain way so that defenders have a nice reach for the sword in their right hand, while it’s hard going upwards. Have your generals made the right tactical choices? There’s so much more to add to the mix than “one woman, one man – pah!”.

Being a good swordsman also is not simply a matter of superior weight and strength, of course. Why have tournaments otherwise? Just put them on the scales, have them lift weights and appoint a winner. No, that’s not how it works. How fit is the fighter? And how quick and nimble? Looks to me as if speed and technique could have an edge over brute strength. Not everyone can be a champion, or even adequate, and many did not go enthusiastically: either you went because you were poor and had no other choice, or your were the second son of a rich family and it was expected of you.

Kaila, one of the heroines in our stories

And then there are other circumstances, where it came down to ‘defend or die’, rebellion, uprising and other situations were the rules of warfare were blurred. And my guess is that you’d definitely find women holding swords then; sometimes by choice, sometimes out of desperation, or spurred by a calling – or revenge. In our stories in The Red Man and Others we’ve introduced the female sell-sword Kaila. We very clearly wanted to give counterweight to the big, manly barbarian of Sword & Sorcery, so she’s not only a woman, she’s also small. When we ‘found’ erstwhile weightlifter and now fitness instructor Samantha Wright, we were convinced it’d work.

Kaila will get a bit of a backstory in which we’ll also meet the woman who trained her. Of course, it was a woman. Kaila is originally from her world’s equivalent of the Middle East, and she made her way north to land, on the other side of a mountain range, in the care of a retired female warrior. I asked a colleague from Ukraine whether she’d know a suitable name for Kaila’s mentor, and she pointed us towards Nastasia Mikulishna (Настасья Микулишна).

Nastasia Mikulishna

She’s a famous woman warrior from Russian folklore, appearing in the cycle of tales around the Bogatyr, comparable to the knights of the Round Table. She’s the daughter of the epic hero Mikula Selyaninovich, and when another knight, fresh from killing a dragon, seeks to conquer her, she literally grabs him by the golden curls, drags him off his horse and sticks him in her pocket. She decides that if he’s good looking she’ll marry him, but that she’ll kill him if he disappoints. This blog post from the Russian immigrant Nicholas Kotar gives a nice overview of the different Russian valkyries.

The Eastern European swordswoman we’re most familiar with in the west, at least by name, will be Red Sonya of Rogatino. She was introduced by Robert E Howard in 1934 in the pulp story The Shadow of the Vulture. The chain mail bikini of her later comic book incarnation Red Sonja is nowhere to be found. Instead: “She was tall, splendidly shaped, but lithe. From under a steel cap escaped rebellious tresses that rippled red gold in the sun over her compact shoulders. High boots of Cordovan leather, came to her mid-thighs, which were cased in baggy breeches. She wore a shirt of fine Turkish mesh-mail tucked into her breeches. Her supple waist was confined by a flowing sash of green silk, into which were thrust a brace of pistols and a dagger, and from which depended a long Hungarian sabre.”

Roy G. Krenkel’s illustration of Red Sonya of Rogatino

Red Sonja, with a “j” (this blog goes into the particulars) meanwhile was very loosely based on Sonya in the ’70s by Roy Thomas, for Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comics. She’s had enduring popularity, now via the same Dynamite shelf that brings similarly (un)clad female heroines such as Vampirella, and Dejah Toris of Mars – they even teamed up. Some may find Red Sonja overly exploitative, some may find her a strong female character (particularly when handled by writers like Gail Simone); I’ll leave it up to you, but it was not greeted with enthusiasm when Marguerite Bennett and Nicola Scott ditched her chain mail bikini: the Mary Sue liked it, bros on the internet didn’t. Bros won out.

Nicola Scott’s redesign of Red Sonja

In Sword Woman Howard launched another heroine; Dark Agnes de Chastillon, who killed her groom and fled an unwanted marriage, then gets trained with the sword. He wrote three stories about her, which didn’t sell during his lifetime. He sent them to colleague pulpster C.L. (Catherine) Moore, who wrote: “My blessings! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman”. It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures.” Moore could know; she’d already launched the successful stories around the warrior queen Jirel of Joiry.

Maybe a rake thin and scantily clad Red Sonja is more comforting for certain men than a tough-as-old-boots Red Sonja would be: it keeps it firmly in the realm of Fantasy. And when writers start to challenge this image there are protests. “Game of Thrones? Unrealistic!” – dismissed off-hand, while physically Brienne of Tarth actually can measure herself against most men, and has had the training too, while Arya Stark is plausibly a dab hand at fencing and makes her size and appearance work for her as an assassin.

Gwendoline Christie as GoT’s Brienne of Tarth

Robert E Howard was widely read, knew his classics, and perhaps he’d read Thomas Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne. In it we find the saga of Bradamante, a female Christian knight who falls in love with the Saracen warrior Ruggerio, provided he renounces Islam. So he does, but meanwhile Bradamante’s parents have another knight lined up to marry her. Eventually, she’ll consent to marry only he who can best her in a fight; only Ruggerio is up to the task. Shadows of Roy Thomas’ Red Sonja too here, with her vow of chastity; no surprise, as in his series Arak he introduced the paladin Valda, daughter of Bradamante. There is a lot of suspension of disbelief needed in Bradamante’s tale – there’s her magic lance and the wizard Atlantes for instance – but it strikes me that for a Renaissance, well-bred audience closely familiar with sword fights, the central premise of a warrior woman must not have sounded too ridiculous to believe.

Alex Kingston as Boudica, Queen of the Iceni

It seems that the further we go back in Western history and legend, the less the sword becomes a male privilege. There’s Scáthach, the Scottish warrior who instructs the legendary heroes of Ulster, amongst them Cú Chulainn. And more firmly rooted in history we find Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who led the combined Celtic tribes against the Roman army in AD 60/61. It’s hard to believe that hundreds of thousands of rebels would have followed her if she had until then confined herself to the kitchen. With an eye on what we now know of Celtic history, it’s equally hard to believe that amongst her army there were not a fair amount of women, willing to fight for justice and their freedom.