John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) is one of the most ferociously Godless films ever made.
In one early scene Conan discusses theology with his companion Subotei the archer. Conan speaks fondly of his warrior god Crom, stressing his power and roundly mocking his friend’s simple-minded animism (“Crom laughs at your four winds. Laughs from his mountain”). Subotei listens politely to Conan’s tirade and then points out that Conan’s god may well be powerful but in order to wield his power from his mountain he must walk beneath the sky, thereby making himself subject to Subotei’s divine winds and sky. This suggestion that organised religion is arguably inferior to a pantheistic respect for nature sets the tone for a script that relentlessly takes pot-shots at the idea of a divinely ordered universe.
Indeed, the film’s main bad guys are the leaders of an aggressively expanding snake cult. A cult that reveals itself to be little more than a retirement home for ageing barbarian raiders. Raiders who have figured out that, rather than riding around the landscape threatening people into giving up their goods, it is much easier to simply set up a temple and wait for people to surrender their money of their own accord. Not content with suggesting organised religion is nothing but a rogue’s retirement fund, Conan the Barbarian also goes out of its way to mock the icons of real world religions. For example, we have the infamous scene in which Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. But rather than allowing himself to die and for god to resurrect him like Jesus or Aslan, Conan refuses to accept his fate and so he eats a vulture and then gets his friends to make a pact with dark forces in order to bring him back from the dead. Similarly, the ‘Riddle of Steel’ comes across as a mockery of a Zen koan as not only is there an answer but the answer is that the source of all power in the world is not steel or magic or the gods but humanity.
Even when Conan does pray to Crom he admits that he has no tongue for it and his prayer is less an act of supplication or veneration but a threat and an ultimatum : Grant me victory or to hell with you! Of course, Conan is granted his revenge but Crom’s presence is conspicuously absent from the battle. Crom, much like all non-existent deities, is evidently the kind of god who helps those who help themselves.
This sense of godlessness is arguably also present in the source material for Conan the Barbarian, the writings of Robert E. Howard and so it is delightful to see the same muscular atheism appear in a film featuring another of Howard’s creations : Solomon Kane. Michael J. Bassett’s Solomon Kane addresses the issue of God’s apparent absence head-on by asking whether, in a world where God does not exist but the Devil clearly does, is it ever possible for humanity to achieve redemption?
The film opens with Kane (James Purefoy) as a sea captain who is leading his men into battle as they ransack a Muslim city. Kane is a terrifying figure, as he moves through the battle he plunges his sword and dagger into the bodies of his enemies with all the hesitation and regret of a man simply drawing breath. “I am the only devil here!” he growls at his cowering men as he leads them into a ghastly hall of mirrors. But alas, Kane is sorely mistaken…
As Kane steps into the city’s throne room, a great creature comes forth. It informs Kane that his time is due and that the Devil has decided to collect his soul as he has been judged, found wanting and utterly damned. The terrified Kane engineers a narrow escape and flees back to his native England where he cowers in a monastery, covering himself in religious tattoos in a superstitious belief that if he coats his body with images of salvation, some degree of salvation and purity might creep into his soul as though by osmosis. Eventually, Kane is kicked out of the monastery and told to return to his family’s lands in the south-west. Upon the way, Kane is adopted by a puritan family who see the good in him. However, Kane’s family’s lands are now under the control of Malachi (Jason Flemyng), a sinister sorcerer who rules the land under the aegis of his hooded and faceless lieutenant (Samuel Roukin).
Solomon Kane’s England reflects both the macrocosm of Howard’s godless universe and the microcosm of Kane’s soul. Barrett depicts Somerset as an all but barren wasteland completely devoid of warmth or shelter. There is no sovereign power to protect the people from the depredations of a satanic warlord and there are no towns where people might find refuge. Instead there are only burned out buildings, gallows filled with hanged men and the wonderfully bleak cinematography of Dan Laustsen (who also worked on 2001’s Brotherhood of the Wolf). It is a land that offers no safety and no protection from the evils of the world. Evils that very obviously exist. Indeed, aside from the magical creatures that Kane has to combat, Kane’s world is also one in which the taint of evil upon a man’s soul has a very physical manifestation. When Malachi’s lieutenant recruits men to his army, he transforms their bodies with a touch, physically manifesting the rotten and depraved condition of their souls.
When Malachi’s men take the daughter of the puritan family, the dying father (Pete Postlethwaite) makes a promise to Kane : Save my daughter and save your soul. The fact that he makes this offer and Kane accepts it is genuinely fascinating. The puritan is no theologian capable of interpreting the bible and applying it to Kane’s case, nor is he a Catholic priest capable of standing between Kane and his god in order to broker an agreement. Instead he is just a man. It would appear that, much like the world of Conan the Barbarian, the world of Solomon Kane is one in which talk of redemption and salvation carries no more metaphysical weight than any other human utterances. They are just words. Words that have meaning only because humans choose to grant it to them. You cannot be saved because there is no God to save you. There is only your conscience and the opinions of your fellow men. Indeed, when Kane eventually does encounter an actual priest he finds not a man with an insight into the secret workings of the universe, but a half-demented conspiracy theorist squatting in a burned-out building whilst tending a flock of flesh-eating monsters. Tellingly, when Kane does eventually rescue the girl, there is no visual sign that he has been graced. In fact, he looks just as damned as he ever did and evil still very much walks the land. So how do we know that the film has a happy ending? Well, Kane gets the girl. He gets his father’s title. He gets his family’s lands. But as for metaphysical and spiritual rewards… God alone knows.