Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wolfhound: Sword and Sorcery from Russia

Wolfhound is a fantasy film starring Alexander Buharov and Oksana Akinshina; directed by Nikolay Lebedev. Made in Russia and recently imported to the US on DVD. The tag on the cover says it is a combination of Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian. Watching the film I could see elements of both, and it is different enough from either to be its own film and a good one.

Wolfhound is set in a fantasy world in which the gods still move about the land, they channel their power through their worshipers, and others are locked away for good reason. Wolfhound is the title character who survives the massacre of his clan, the Grey Dog Clan, only to be sold into slavery. He escapes to wreak vengeance upon the men responsible for the destruction of his people, and the death of his parents.

He destroys one of his enemy’s called the Eater of Men, and rescues a young girl and a blind old wizard, Wolfhound reluctantly looks after the pair. He joins a caravan and protects a princess from his other foe, a druid and powerful priest to the dark powers. These events and companions set him on a course of the epic hero quest.

The story is well done, with the subtleties of socerous magic; a land gripped in an unnatural winter, blood to open the portals between worlds, and magical healing needing external sources to help it be effective. The special effects are top notch from what appears to be a low budget film, avoiding the cheese factor most movies seem to suffer from on the Sci Fi Channel. The acting, as I can determine because I watched the dubbed version not the one with subtitles, was good, the lines fitting the setting with verisimilitude. The characters looked to belong in such a setting. The women, though attractive, did not have an artificial beauty that so many actresses’ posses, that make them anachronistic within the world they should exist in. The men are hollow cheeked and hard featured, looking as if they had just dropped out of a history book. The one that deals with blood shed and barbarian hoards.

Wolfhound himself is dour and taciturn, there is little humor or warmth in the character, which is as it should be. This film was done as a serious fantasy movie should be done, without any slapstick antics, or witty banter that falls flat for being too modern in its application.

The film does have elements and acts that seem to be lifted directly from The Lord of the Rings and Conan; the aforementioned destruction of Wolfhound’s village. The style and cinematography seems to be borrowed from Peter Jackson, but resolve into a much darker and gritty tone that would have pleased Robert Howard far more than J.R.R. Tolkien.

I was impressed with Wolfhound with only a couple minor complaints that the pacing was a tad slow for me, which is not to say it was too slow, only that I enjoy my films with a little more alacrity. The other complaint is that the hero needs the direct intervention of the gods to accomplish his goals, where the film would have had greater impact had Wolfhound persevered by his own merits and skill.

My recommendation is that if you like fantasy films, good fantasy films, with a flavor that you will not experience from an American film then check out Wolfhound.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Solomon Kane: Swashbuckler and Hammer of God

“If I had to pick one Howardian character that I gravitate to the most, the answer is very easy. I would choose Solomon Kane as well. Kane was Howard's most unique character, and did not have to suffer the thousands of pastiches his barbarian characters had to endure. Kane wore his melancholy in plain sight, mirrored by his black garb and wide-brimmed hat. In many ways I always felt he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, as many good men do, and Kane was indeed a good man. He also balanced a strange duality in his nature, with a strong Christian drive to subdue evil in all its forms, and the savage pagan rage that would reveal itself during battle. Kane was the prototype for the theory of id vs. ego.”Mangus

So wrote my friend over at Sword & Sanity of the question I put to him about his favorite character in Robert E. Howard’s dark fantasy stable. His position sums up my own in words that I wish I had written.

Solomon Kane is the creation of Robert E. Howard; a swordsman, pirate, wandering adventurer, and puritan. Howard wrote about his black clad soldier of the 16th century between 1928 and 1932, seeing publication in Weird Tales. It had been often noted by many that the Kane proves that Howard was more than the sum of Conan. I would argue that Howard was never the sum of Conan or any one character, but rather each protagonist is his own man, his own world view, and his own story to be told. Solomon Kane is my favorite.

Solomon Kane was a creation of Robert E. Howard, a master of pulp fiction and one of the forefathers of Sword & Sorcery fantasy. Solomon Kane appeared in magazines from roughly 1928 through 1936 and reappeared in the late 1960’s on the paperback racks. He appeared in comic form for Marvel Comics at about the time their popular Conan series ran in the 1970’s and 80’s. Dark Horse, the comic company that has revitalized Conan in the graphic form has released two series of adaptations for the Puritan. A theatrical release is supposed to be released at the end of this month.

Who or what was Solomon Kane? Robert E. Howard described him in The Moon of Skulls thus: “He was a man born out of his time--a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more that a touch of the pagan, though the last assertion would have shocked him unspeakably. An atavist of the days of blind chivalry he was, a knight errant in the somber clothes of a fanatic. A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect--he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.”

Living in the age of Elizabeth I roughly between 1575 through 1610 or so, Solomon Kane is described as tall, gaunt, “darkly pallid” and dressed all in black, save for a green sash about his waist. He was armed with weapons of the period, usually two black powder pistols, a rapier, and in many tales a musket and/or a cat headed staff given to him by N’ Longa, an African sorcerer.

A questing knight six hundred years and more too late, a swashbuckler and Hammer of God; Solomon Kane was all this and more and that is why he is such an enduring and memorable hero. His adventures spanned the coast of England in Blades of the Brotherhood, also known as The Blue Flame of Vengeance; to the darkest heart of Africa in several tales like The Hills of the Dead and Wings in the Night. In almost every tale of Solomon Kane, the Puritan is driven to seek out revenge in the name of justice or otherwise defend the weak. The hero would cross continents and face the very demons of hell in Howard’s yarns of daring. Through out the man remained true to the convictions of his own personal honor and belief in the righteousness of his cause; for he had the fanatic’s zeal, tempered with practicality of the world weary adventurer

There was a power in Howard’s prose: to sum up a character so succinctly in one statement that the man himself uttered: Kane said to John Silent in the fragment The Castle of the Devil: “It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourns through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives.” Like all Howard’s creations, there was the simmering anger beneath the surface that all men seem to feel at the world as it is, not as it should be. This is what draws readers to Kane, Conan, and Kull. But with Kane there is more, there is a feeling of moral obligation to act on those impulses that other heroes do not answer to. Where Conan acts for gain in one aspect or another, Kane takes action because it is what must be done for the greater good, or the preservation of others. He will take the haunted road to rid it of the evil that stalks the path.

With the tragic death of Robert E. Howard many of the secrets that Kane held were never revealed. Where hence came the green sash that he wore, the only splash of color upon his whole person? Kane never had a love interest in the tales of Howard, another curious division from heroes like Conan. Perhaps that bit of gaudy cloth came from a lady? The poem Solomon Kane’s Homecoming suggests that he had loved once, but his wanderlust drove him away: “Where is Bess…..I left her—though it racked my heart to see the lass in tears….. In a quiet church yard by the sea she has slept these seven years…..” Did Howard himself even know the answers to Kane’s past? As he told others his heroes told him their stories, he only related them. Kane’s existence did not end with his creator’s death, but rather each generation is rediscovering the Puritan and his barbaric brethren as new media comes out and the old work is republished. Perhaps someone else will take up a pen and tell the rest of Kane’s story. Though I hope not, I do not believe anyone can truly tell the stories as Howard had, and some mysteries are better left undiscovered so one’s own imagination can fill in the blanks.

There are many resources on the Puritan swashbuckler on the web, here are only a few of the better examples I have come across: : the only place to start.

An excellent chronology of Kane.

The Return of Sir Richard Grenville : an independent film based on the poem.
Gary Gianni: the great artist behind some of the best Kane images, as the one posted on the blog from Wings in the Night.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dynamic Duos! The Importance of Sidekicks!

Sidekicks seem to be a staple of fiction since fiction was invented. Gilgamesh had Enkidu, all the way to Clive Cussler's modern action hero Dirk Pitt and his partner Al Giordino. Of course movies and literature are swamped with examples: The Lone Ranger and Tonto; Robin Hood and Little John; John Steed and Emma Peel; and of course Holmes and Watson.

The sidekick serves many story devices for the author, screen-writer, and for my role-playing friends the game master.

The story teller has been the role of many sidekicks. Dr. John Watson is one of the most famous examples, he served as the every man; he was the avatar we used to accompany Holmes on his adventures. The story teller allows us to experience the adventure through their eyes, see what they see, and experience their peril as close to first hand as we can. It also allows the author to hold back information from the reader because either the narrator/sidekick did not experience it, or the protagonist held back the vital clues. Again, Watson was the device Arthur Conan Doyle used to great effect in this example.

The foil, the sidekick is the person that keeps the hero humble, to show him his failings, or to play the fool for the straight man. Roy Rogers and Matt Dillion both had this individual in "Cookie" and Festus. The sidekick may make the hero appear more competent, or actually get the hero into a bigger pickle than he was in. This sidekick is actually used to drive story as much as to drive the hero to drink.

Many sidekicks bring complimentary skills to the alliance. Tom Selleck's Thomas Magnum of 80's fame would not have been nearly as successful without his exasperated friends to provide support in all its forms. Zorro's secret sidekick, Miguel, as a mute, believed to be dumb and deaf, could go where Zorro could not. He would hear vital information to relay in his own comical way to the Fox.

The sidekick can be simply the confidante, or the reason that the hero stays sane. Such a story device was used effectively in comicdom with Batman and Robin. Robin was necessary for Batman because he was more cautious; less willing to take deadly chances because his young sidekick would be put in even more danger than his red and yellow costume got him in to. Many partners serve as sounding boards for ideas, or even Father confessors for the hero.

The partner/sidekick can be used for dynamic tension, television shows such as Cagney and Lacey and newer ones like Supernatural capitalize on the tension that opposing personalities bring to tense partnerships. T.V. has had a long history of "buddy" adventure stories. Sexual tension is another story device that television and novels use to drive the story. For many the appeal of a program or story is the relationship. Detective style adventures are a prime example of this story telling device. Castle, Remington Steel, Farscape, and Moonlighting had and have huge followings because of the partnership dynamic.

Sidekicks work in fiction when they are employed correctly. They cannot overshadow the hero. If they are better than, cooler than, or more competent than the protagonist….make them the protagonist instead, or save them for another story. Do not short change the hero that should have center stage. Partnerships are a little different, then there should be camps arguing who is cooler, not that one dominates. Sidekicks should be a half a step behind, a little less competent; they might need saving once in a while. Of course it is always fun when those roles are reversed. If the sidekick is a stronger character like Hawk to Robert Parker's Spencer, then they should be in the background, coming on stage only when needed so they do not overpower the protagonist. The tight rope to walk is to make the sidekick fully fleshed out and an engaging character without making them more so than the hero.

The sidekick is an almost essential device to good fiction, even in Cast Away, Tom Hanks had Wilson. Many fall into the categories I have sketchily outlined, and many more are combinations of them. They are a great device and sometimes their personality or story is so compelling that they become the hero in their own right. Some even receive the dubious honor of the "spin off" either in fiction or celluloid. The sidekick is a wonderful story device in all their forms, bumbling partner, love interest, young ward, or best friend. They provide story, drama, and plot to all endeavors in the story telling field.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Never Tell the Villain's Back-Story! Or How George Lucas Really Ruined Star Wars!

All my friends know my feelings about the destruction of my childhood by the release Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy and the ruination of the original through Special Editions. Now, like most of the boys of my generation Star Wars: A New Hope was IT! Star Wars for us was the greatest movie ever. It was the story; the Hero Journey so well defined by Joseph Cambell: the archetypes of the Wizard, the Rogue, the Hero, and most importantly the Villain.

I contend the most important character in a story, whether it is a novel or a movie, is the villain. Without a great villain the hero becomes hollow. Without a strong antagonist, even if it is the very environment, a hero's journey is worthless. What would have Star Wars have been without Darth Vader?

Darth Vader was a villain for the ages. A survey once was done to decide the greatest cinematic villains of all time, Darth Vader was number two, Hannibal Lecter was number one. The sweeping black cloak, the eerie respiration, the expressionless face of a demon, and his power over the Force made him one of the greatest fantasy villains ever created. David Prowse created the physical presence while Bob Anderson provided the fencing finesse for The Empire Strikes Back. Of course by the end of the original trilogy we discover that Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker and father to Luke, the hero. This is where the back-story should have ended. Anakin's fall, and transformation into Darth Vader should have been left to the speculation of fans.

The draw of money and fan adoration pushed George Lucas to "complete" the story. He wanted to tell the fall of Anakin Skywalker and the rise of Darth Vader. By doing so he destroyed one of the most iconic villains ever created.

Let us set aside my personal assertions that special effects are not needed to make a good movie. Let us instead look at story and reader/viewer expectation.

When the prequels (1999-2005) were released the fans rushed to see how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. What the fans got was a whiny emo boy-band drop out played by Hayden Christensen. Now Kevin Smith, actor and film maker, said that of course someone like the character portrayed would become someone like Darth Vader. That might be so, but that is not what fans wanted to see, that is not the way it should have happened in their opinion. That is the point. Darth Vader was larger than life to the Nth degree, he was ten kinds of cool as a villain. The fans did not want to see a spoiled kid being pissy because he did not get to sit on the Jedi Council. This is the reason why the villain back-story failed. It was not as cool as the villain himself. It did not measure up to reader/viewer expectation.

As a writer I am very conscious of my villains, I do not want them to be so powerful so they overshadow and could crush the hero before the hero is ready to face them. That is why powerful villains have minions. These are the guys the hero goes through before they get to the boss. Frodo had a slew of orcs to get through before he dropped the One Ring into Mount Doom. This is why Darth Vader works; in the original trilogy Luke and crew are plagued by Storm Troopers, snooty Imperial officers, and bad ass bounty hunters. When Vader is on the scene the shite has hit the turbine. Vader rains all kinds of hell down on the rebels. He blows up planets for breakfast, and when Luke foolishly faces him before he is ready, he is crushed; escaping, but not unscathed, mentally or physically.

If I tell the villain's back-story it has to be in direct relation to the story I am telling. It also has to fit with what I have established for the character, staying true to who the villain is. If my villain is a coward and a scoundrel, then he was likely one before. If my villain was a noble knight who fell from grace there MUST be an event as epic as the fall. If there is a back-story it had better be equal to the villain it represents.

With the prequels Lucas and his sycophants forgot story and stuck with formula and special effects. He tried to parallel the two trilogies instead of writing them as their own stories that were connected through family ties. The character of Anakin Skywalker needed to be as dynamic and awe inspiring as the villain in black he would become. Instead we are handed a man-child who somehow earns the love and devotion of a queen? With the personality presented there is nothing to recommend Anakin as a man earning the love of such a woman as Padme' nor the love and respect of a Jedi like Obi-Wan who saw him as a brother.

Anakin should have been a great man, strong emotionally as well as charismatic. Even as a youth these qualities should have been evident. His fears should have been private, his love, not the mewling of a puppy, but bold and confident. His anger, a glimmer of which was seen when he destroyed the Tuskan village in Attack of the Clones, should have shook the heavens and made the gods quell. The Jedi Council should have FEARED the power that Anakin could wield, not just made cautious. Obi-Wan should have noted the darkness growing in his friend. One does not need the Force to see when loved ones are changing or in trouble. So the fact the Sith conveniently clouded the judgment of the Jedi should not have affected Obi-Wan's instincts.

There are a thousand little things that resulted in the failure of the prequels to many fans. The failure of Darth Vader to be fully realized as the hero before the villain can be endlessly nit-picked as well. The reasons can be attributed to poor direction, wooden acting, and the shear task of trying to fill the armor of such an icon. To me the story did not measure up. The actor was not up to the task. By comparison look at Ewan McGregor playing Obi-Wan Kenobi. He had the mannerisms of the Ben Kenobi as portrayed by Sir Alec Guiness. His performance seemed to please most fans, me included. Hayden Christensen worked hard on the physical aspects of Anakin's fighting skill, but he failed to study the mannerisms of Darth Vader provided by David Prowse. Prowse was conscious of the image he was creating and moved and stood in such a way as to present that character. One of the iconic poses of Darth Vader was the thumbs hooked in his belt, or arms akimbo, his head thrown back, held high, imperiously. All Hayden Christensen seemed to be able to do was cross his arms as if shutting himself in, drawing into himself, instead of standing tall and boldly. Prowse made a point of striding, causing the black cloak to billow behind him, forcing subordinates to trot to keep up. Christensen seems to almost meander when he moved, creating little dynamic energy.

I have stated on many occasions that special effects and flash leave me indifferent, it is the story I crave. When the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith I simply shrugged and walked out, thinking that I had wasted the eight bucks I spent. Not a reaction that an author wants when a reader closes his book, and not a reaction that a director/script writer/producer, wants when the credits roll on his movie.

The author may feel that his creation is his own, his vision the only one that matters, but when such things are given to others, it becomes a shared thing, a living thing. Becoming greater than what the creator intended. It becomes a sacred trust to others rather than a creative diversion to ones' self.