Manners maketh man, no matter the era. Still, some eyebrows were raised back when director Matthew Vaughn announced that the Kingsman franchise would open up the history books and head back to World War One to tell the origin story of the intelligence agency in The King’s Man.
For Vaughn – returning for the third time in the series – it wasn’t an issue. In fact, the initial roots for The King’s Man can be traced back to a surprising source: a cult classic involving movie icons Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
"I watched a movie I hadn’t seen for a long time called The Man Who Would Be King," Vaughn tells GamesRadar+. "It just reminded me of so many things I fell in love with about filmmaking. It was a genre where I thought ‘What happened to that?’ That sort of historical, epic, adventure, great characters, funny, serious, action – it had all."
Then, it clicked. "I thought ‘Hold on, what about The Man Who Would Be Kingsman?’" explains Vaughn, who also says Lawrence of Arabia and The Guns of Navarone acted as inspiration for The King’s Man. “"I remembered the folklore of Kingsman and [the scene] with Harry and Eggsy going down in the lift, Harry saying how Kingsman was founded and why. I was like, ‘God, that’s a good story.’ Suddenly, I saw this movie and I thought ‘Okay, it’s time to write it’ and off we go."
The King’s Man recounts the origins of the fabled Kingsman group. At its centre is Ralph Fiennes’ Duke of Oxford, a gentlemanly pacifist who has the ear of kings and kingmakers alike. For many, the Duke’s relationship with his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), will immediately draw comparisons for Kingsman fans to Harry (Colin Firth) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) – but they’re more than just a carbon copy. "For a start, they are real father and son," Fiennes says. "There is a father and son dynamic between Colin and Taron in the original, but this is an echo of that."
War and peace
That relationship soon becomes icy, with Conrad wanting to go and aid the war effort overseas while the Duke hopes to do his best work covertly and without bloodshed. "He’s someone who's not letting me explore the world," Dickinson says of Conrad and the Duke’s dynamic. "He's not letting me join the military because of his pacifism. So I think it's about trying to slow my character down and teach him the right way to do things. Maybe that feels like the direct sort of comparison with [Harry and Eggsy]."
Fiennes adds, "I loved our scenes. Some of them [were] painful scenes together: The pain of a father not wanting his son to go to lose his son… There's tension, there's emotional tension, but underpinned by real filial love between the two of them."
The Duke isn’t alone in his endeavor, however, despite his son’s best intentions to fly the coop. His house staff of Shola (Djimon Honsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), each provide unique skillsets to help avert The Great War. It’s here where the building blocks to what would later become Kingsman are formed.
On Polly’s role, Arterton says: "She’s the glue, really. Not only the emotional glue for the family, but she's the organizational glue. She is the mastermind of what they're gonna do in plans of action. She has a mathematical mind, she’s also an amazing markswoman and strategist. At the same time, she’s really good fun as well. She brings an element of fun and warmth to it."
In their sights? A shadowy cabal which features some of the era’s most despicable villains, including Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), aiming to ignite the powder keg of western Europe and fan the flames of political strife in the region. The King’s Man, inevitably, sets the Duke of Oxford and his team on a collision course with Rasputin who is essentially a Bond villain: a heaving, physical threat, blessed with a silver tongue, and his sights set on world domination.
On constructing such a multi-faceted villain torn from the pages of history, Ifans says, "I took the physical aspects from the iconic look. Even if you don't know your Russian history, you will be able to identify the figure of Rasputin, a kind of twisted, messianic silhouette, which seems to haunt the whole of Russian history from that period."
“But this is the Kingsman universe, so there's room to tinker and to tweak and to bend, and flex the rules, in terms of how you interpret a character… There’s also something quite sinister and strange and mysterious. Dare I say, a by-product of all those things, somehow a sexiness that we might want more of."
From Russia with Love
On one side of The King’s Man, then, you have the larger-than-life Rasputin, a figure drawn straight from the Kingsman lineage of colorful, over-the-top villains. On another more tragic side, a war in which millions of lives were lost and a generation was irreversibly changed by the events of 1914-1918. For Vaughn, The King’s Man acting as both a Kingsman movie and a war movie was a delicate balancing act to pull off.
"It was really tough," Vaughn says. "It was hard to balance it, but then I thought we’ll do the Rasputin stuff. That’ll be a bit more Kingsman-y and we’ll have a really fun moment – and then do the rug pull of going into a war movie for 20 minutes."
Vaughn adds, "You can see a hint of Kingsman, then you see the Kingsman stuff really go away and then be in a war film. Without the war, Kingsman wouldn’t have been born. So we had to show the reality of war."
As a tone, it’s immediately striking – but there’s always the chance it upsets Kingsman diehards who are used to a certain way of the franchise doing things. For his part, Vaughn is happy to go in another direction.
"It had to be different. Some people I know will go ‘Oh god, it’s too different, this is terrible!’. Other people will be like – if I had done it the same [as the Kingsman series] – ‘Oh, it’s too similar," Vaughn says. "You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. My job is to make the film that I feel like making, and hopefully people will like it."
Tom Hollander, who pulls triple duty as cousins King George V, Tsar Nicholas II, and Wilhelm II, feels that The King’s Man still retains the same DNA at the 2014 original, which took in $414m at the box office.
"It’s not completely different from the Kingsman films; it clearly inherits its roots from the Kingsman franchise we’ve already seen, even though it’s an origin story itself," Hollander says. "It has elements of the absurdity, and the sort of crazy, cartoony, miraculous heroism, the amazing fights, the derring-do, the tailoring, the elegance, the old-fashioned Britishness that is all in the DNA of the Kingsmen franchise, and it's in this film as well."
It all speaks to a director – Vaughn has directed a grab-bag of fan favorite movies, including Layer Cake, Stardust, and X-Men: First Class – that refuses to be pigeonholed. No matter the genre, he’s game. "I don't want to get bored. I would like to push myself," Vaughn says. "Sometimes to some success, other times maybe not as good as I should have done it. For me, I’m in a position where I can do things differently, so I’m going to do things differently. There are a lot of films that I feel are a little bit interchangeable, especially the third acts and the action. You're like, ‘Okay, I know what's going to happen.’"
The King’s Man is less by-the-numbers in that regard, but opens things up to a uniquely 21st Century Hollywood problem: where do we go from here? Vaughn, as ever, has a plan, that could potentially span decades.
"Ralph, myself, we all enjoyed making it. And I thought let’s carry on going through the history of the world and do the secret history of the Kingsman and show how espionage changed. For me, it would be unbelievably exciting to get to the Cold War with the Kingsman running around in the ‘60s. That is a film I would pay to direct."
That’s a path echoed by Harris Dickinson and Gemma Arterton: "It’d be pretty cool to do it in the ‘70s, wouldn’t it?” Dickinson suggests, while Arteton adds, "Imagine the style! Cold War stuff, it’d be cool."
For now, The King’s Man is keen to make history in its own inimitable fashion – but don’t be surprised if a sharp suit, Oxfords (not brogues), and killer one-liners crop up all throughout its fictionalized 20th Century.
The King's Man is released in theaters in the US on December 22 and in cinemas in the UK on December 26.