25 years ago, I came to St. Andrews and joined WARSoc, the Wargaming And Role-playing Society at the University. I fancied giving wargaming a try, but everyone seemed to be involved in role-playing games instead. I was pointed at one particular group who were using miniatures, because that was about as wargamy as it got.
For the next five years, until he drew it to a close, I played in flybynightpress's historical fantasy game, New Jerusalem. NJ was a town on the border between eastern Germany and Færie, probably somewhere in what is now modern Poland. The inhabitants were godly puritans who stood fast against the encroachments of witches, Papists and particularly the abominations in the wilderness that surrounded the town (i.e. creatures of the Devil such as goblins, hobgoblins, trolls, giants, etc.).
It was a fantastic introduction to role-playing. The town of New Jerusalem was a classic Base Under Siege, and player characters had to deal with paranoia (their own and that of other citizens, PC and NPC) and issues of faith. Whether your character really believed or not, the appearance of belief was not optional. There was an ever-present threat of being burnt at the stake if you were found to be ungodly. Characters who did believe had to deal with shades of grey; when you went out into the wilderness you tended to discover that while the “abominations” might sometimes have interests that were inimical to yours, they were sometimes nicer people than the adventurers… Definite anti-hero territory.
It’s with that background that I chose to nip along to the NPH to watch Solomon Kane. I haven’t read Robert E. Howard’s original stories, nor the comics from the 1970s and 1980s; so really I wanted to see whether it was “NJ, the movie” (and maybe compare with The Last Valley, the movie that flybynightpress credits with giving him the idea for NJ).
To a certain degree, yes, it is “NJ, the movie”.
Let’s get the nitpicking out of the way first. Solomon Kane starts out as a bad guy. After receiving a not-so-subtle indication as to where he’s going to end up, he does a bit of heavy-duty repenting and becomes a puritan. In a monastery. Ahem. In fact, almost all the hard evidence of Christianity we see in the movie is clearly Catholic, rather than Protestant: monks, priests and crucifixes. Oh dear. This may not seem like a big deal in our age of ecumenicalism, but in the 1600s Catholic and Protestant are at each others’ throats, and a crucifix (rather than a plain cross) would be regarded by a puritan as wicked Papist idolatry.
To extend some credit to the film-makers on this point – probably too much – he’s only explicitly referred to as a puritan once, as a term of abuse by an opponent; and although he dresses in a puritan style, perhaps it’s just what’s practical for travelling, especially once he’s given away his wealth.
It’s quite surprising to see one old woman who is vocally Pagan, but not regarded as a witch. One tends to feel this would not have occurred.
There are some predictable elements to the plot, which I won’t put the tin lid on by spelling them out. I found their predictability disappointing when it seems it would have been relatively easy to take another path and present something fresh.
My other main criticism isn’t entirely negative. For an action movie, the pace is a little slow immediately after the introduction, as our hero becomes a pacifist until later forced back into violent ways. Sometimes too, the story-telling feels a bit disjointed, as we switch scene to somewhere where it’s not immediately obvious what’s going on or what relation it bears to the tale so far. Characters we might expect to be a presence throughout the movie either fail to survive, or don’t appear at all until late in the film. I’m a bit ambivalent about these points. They gave the film an uneven feel, but ultimately I rather liked them. Although they did jar the suspension of disbelief a bit at times, over all I felt they added something to the realism. Of course, if for you the disruption is greater than the benefit, then these features of the movie are not so good.
Its NJ-ness comes from the anti-heroic nature of Solomon Kane and the internal conflicts he faces, the downbeat rural feel of the setting (it’s almost always either snowing or raining, and seems to take place mostly within a limited region of the South West of England), and, while they might not transfer directly into NJ, the types of enemies and situations Kane faces. The traps in the opening sequence felt like something we might have come across in a moment of particularly high adventure. There are untrustworthy mercenaries. There’s a fallen priest. There are odd and dangerous things living in decayed places. There are more out-and-out bad guys than would actually have been the case in NJ – unless, of course, you restrict yourself to the conventional town view that all abominations were necessarily evil, in which case it’s entirely accurate. The ending sparked memories of the climactic battle underneath Hrelya’s castle in NJ – although the circumstances were slightly different. We had just agreed to clear out some vermin from the giantess Hrelya’s cellars, and it turned into a bit more than we’d been expecting.
(Since my main character in NJ, after the unfortunate early demise of Markus Holzberg under the wheels of a cannon and many tons of rock in Spring 1644, was Malachi Stark, I think it’s necessary to point out to any former residents of New Jerusalem who may be reading this that the mysterious Malachi in this film bears no resemblance to my character. Keep your tinder to yourself; there’ll be no burning today.)
If comparing with The Last Valley, The Last Valley is a better film. It doesn’t have the supernatural element, and is an excellent little slice of life showing conflict between groups and individuals with different interests, in an interesting historical setting. Solomon Kane is more fun, if less worthy, and has some of the fantasy flavour of old New Jerusalem. See ’em both, but they’ll suit different moods.
What stands out for me about this film is the unfashionable motivations of the lead character. Religious beliefs and his word are important to him; the closest we usually see to this sort of thing in modern films is pasteboard heroes with an unquestioning faith in “freedom” and the American way. Kane’s motivations are not always unselfish – his soul is on the line – but they’re driven by a depth of belief that the West as a whole currently finds difficult to relate to. And there’s realistic doubt; setting aside filmic expectations, it’s not obvious that Kane’s choices are going to work out well.
Whether or not you’re religious yourself, I think that getting a feel for religious belief and developing a sympathy for how it can drive people would help to make the world a more peaceful place. While I don’t condone what people sometimes do in the name of religion, I think it’s helpful to recognise that it’s the people who’re doing the bad things, not the religions. Many more people draw comfort and moral guidance from religion than the few who use it as a crutch for intolerance. Intolerance of religion, in return, feeds into a vicious circle. By all means debate with religion if you don’t agree, but be careful about stepping over the line and applying undue and intolerant pressure. For people with a strong belief, faith can be as powerful a motivation as love, but while love gets plenty movie time as a motivation, religion doesn’t get much attention unless driven by an interest group. This film, unusually, gives a good portrayal of someone driven by what he believes, without attempting to sell a particular religious viewpoint itself, and that’s something valuable.
This is not a great movie, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but in my opinion it’s worth seeing. In fact, I would like to see more of Solomon Kane’s adventures, but given there were less than ten people sharing the cinema with me, I fear that may be all we get.