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. 

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 ehlers-danlos.org