The King’s Man – An epic origin story featuring a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds

The Inspiration for writer-director Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to Vaughn’s previous two movies in the Kingsman film franchise came from the first Kingsman film, Kingsman: The Secret Service when Harry Hart explains the foundations of Kingsman to Eggsy. He re-read an old draft of the screenplay and thought ‘How do I now do a film about that speech?’ And it came to me…it happened in my head. I saw the whole film and wrote it.”

Ralph Fiennes, who plays the Duke of Oxford in The King’s Man says the Harry Hart monologue influences words of his own character. “A speech I have echoes Harry Hart’s speech from the previous one; what the Kingsman is about. It’s about protecting and preserving life. The Kingsman is an independent intelligence agency designed to be cut loose from the bureaucracy of a government-run spy organization in order to foster principles of peace and humanity. That’s what it’s there for. There’s a feel of the Arthurian tradition of the knights who are there to fight evil and injustice.”

Director Matthew Vaughn, Rhys Ifans, Tom Hollander and Branka Katic (back to camera) on the set of 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

In 2014, Kingsman: The Secret Service introduced the world to Harry Hart, suave gentleman spy, and Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, desperately in need of a father figure. Harry recruited Eggsy, trained him to be both a gentleman and a spy, and, alongside their Kingsman cohort, the pair took down evil tech billionaire Richmond Valentine. In the 2017 sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” we met the organization’s American equivalent in the shape of The Statesman, while the threat came via enterprising drug dealer Poppy Adams.

However, for the new iteration, The King’s Man, the story kicks off more than a century earlier and plays out in the shadow of WWI, explaining how and why the Kingsman agency began.

The King’s Man unfolds the origins of the very first independent intelligence agency through a story that features a collection of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds, gathering to plot a war to wipe out millions and the one man who must race against time to stop them, directed by Matthew Vaughn from a screenplay based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, a story is by Matthew Vaughn and screenplay is by Vaughn & Karl Gajdusek (The November Man, Oblivion).

“I wanted to do something different,” explains writer-director-producer Matthew Vaughn. “I wanted to do a huge, epic adventure. When I was a kid films like Lawrence of Arabia filled the screen and were epic but not boring. And I was thinking ‘I want to bring back that genre.’ So it was an itch I wanted to scratch.”

This meant that the tone had to change, fundamentally, as Karl Gajdusek, who co-wrote the screenplay with Vaughn, explains: “It started to become clear pretty quickly that we were going to write a film not inside the tone of the first two, but in its own new tone. It’s a remarkable mix of what is sort of a naughty, punky, edgy version of history, and what is also a quite serious and emotional look at the amount of death that came out of World War One.”

Daniel Bruhl, Tom Hollander and director Matthew Vaughn on the set of 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Gajdusek says that such an approach made attention to detail key. “Our dates are right, our events are right, everything that happens in history we give credence to. We just suggest that our stuff happened behind the scenes, in rooms unseen,” says the writer.

As for the plot, Gajdusek describes it as “the story of a father who has sworn a vow of pacifism and is trying to keep his son from that madness, and starting to suspect that that madness is perhaps not just arbitrary madness, but being directed by a dark force.”

Vaughn offers insight on another element of The King’s Man, saying,  “We’re really playing into the whole ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ thing. Fiennes’ character, Oxford, is not a snob and he’s figured out the best way to have a spy network is to have butlers, chauffeurs, nannies and maids, because back then when they were in the room they were ignored. So they could hear everything.”

Vaughn believes “The King’s Man” is a period piece that will speak to modern audiences. “I want kids to see that when crazy people are running the world, things can get out of control very, very quickly,” says Vaughn. “And we’re in a political climate which is very similar to the pre-World War One climate—where nobody thought there could be a war, then there was a war, and nobody understood why there was a war. World War One was pure madness and Kingsman was founded because of it.”

“The King’s Man” features a return to old-school filmmaking with long-lens filming on vintage lenses, with the director of photography Ben Davis leading the way. Davis and Vaughn last worked together 10 years ago on “Kick-Ass” and, in the years since, both men expanded their knowledge. Says Vaughn, “Ben went off and did some of the biggest movies of all time, and I’d done bigger films as well. So when we came back together, we both still had the same work ethic, but we’d both had a lot more experience and wisdom. I loved every minute working with him.”

Centre left (in hat) Daniel Bruhl as Erik and right, Valerie Pachner as Mata Hari in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Vaughn also wants audiences to see WWI in a new light: “When we were designing it, I commented that it wasn’t always disgusting. We always think of the black-and-white photography, but they would have had blue skies and sunshine in the summer. Sometimes it could have looked strangely beautiful. Then I saw Peter Jackson’s documentary [“They Shall Not Grow Old”] and that was exactly what I was talking about. I was arguing with my DP and production designer because they had this entrenched, dark, black-and-white feeling. It’s amazing how media reinvents and re-enforces images of history. I said we’ve got to show another side.”

Spectacular action has been a hallmark of the “Kingsman” films, from the breathtaking church massacre in “The Secret Service” to the high-speed car chase through the streets of London in “The Golden Circle.”But much of the time, that action has been futuristic and revolved around highly advanced weapons and cutting-edge technology. So in setting this prequel more than a century before, the filmmakers have had to re-think how to stage such sequences. “That’s really been the hardest part,” explains Matthew Vaughn. “Because if you look at how the action was done in the old days, it really was a wide shot, with 8 or 10 seconds of choreography, then coming into a close-up, then back. We did a few things like that, but I don’t think the audience is ready to go that far back. The action is definitely not as crazily stylized as the other films.”

Matthew Vaughn believes there’s a single element that ties the “Kingsman” films together and connects them to his previous directorial efforts: “If you really analyze my movies, they do have a heart. If there isn’t an emotional story, it doesn’t matter how good the action or the effects are, you don’t feel anything. It becomes noise.”

As for linking this period piece to the present-day “Kingsman” films, those connections are there, but subtle. “There are moments when we’ll have a wink,” Vaughn explains. “There’s an acknowledgement that we are ‘Kingsman,’ but we’re not trying to be ‘Kingsman,’ if that makes sense. I think people need an escape from life. But it’s definitely more dramatic. You can’t do jokes about World War One. You’ve got to be respectful of what it is, and we’ve been respectful to the history.”

(L-R) Director Matthew Vaughn, Joel Basman and Ralph Fiennes on the set of 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Ralph Fiennes believes that bringing historical figures and events adds a new dimension to the franchise. “I think audiences will be surprised by the breadth and scope of this ‘Kingsman’ film,” he comments. “They’ll certainly be surprised by it being so committed to a historical era, with historical figures in it. I think they’ll be surprised by the tonal shifts that Matthew is daring himself to bring off, from First World War horror and tragedy to ‘Kingsman’ joie de vivre, and sort of swashbuckling humour. I think it’s got weight. It’s weighted in a really very human story.”

Co-screenwriter Karl Gajdusek believes that the size and scale of the film takes the franchise to the next level. “I think what’s going to surprise people is the epic nature of this film. It uses lenses and extras and battle scenes in that tradition of great epic war films. This film has the scope and is at times very serious,” comments Gajdusek.

And for Matthew Vaughn, “The King’s Man” timeline is just getting started. “This is really the anchor and foundation of what ‘Kingsman’ is,” Vaughn states. “Hopefully this will go well enough that we can go through history—each decade—and show how espionage changed.”

The King’s Man is an epic adventure that will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will take you on a journey that you’re not expecting. If you are a ‘Kingsman’ fan, this will confirm why you are one. And if you’re not a ‘Kingsman’ fan, hopefully, this might convert you.”—Matthew Vaughn, Director

The Characters

Daniel Brühl, who plays the real-life character Erik Jan Hanussen in the film,  believes that there’s an educational element to the feature. “Yes, it’s an entertaining action film, with comedy and all the other elements, but it’s also a highly entertaining history lesson,” comments the actor. “So although history is reinvented, the conflicts are real and some of the characters are real, and it really intrigues you because you learn something or it reminds you of a certain chapter in history.”

Brühl adds: “I was blown away by the script. It was a real page-turner. It reminded me of doing ‘Inglourious Basterds’ with Quentin Tarantino. It’s similar in a way, in that it reinvents history and combines fictional characters with so many real characters—fascinating ones—and puts them together in a way that makes perfect sense.”

However, where Tarantino’s film re-wrote elements of WWII, Vaughn’s tackles the First World War. “From what I’m seeing, Matthew doesn’t shy away from the horrors of it,” reveals Ralph Fiennes. “The horror, the appalling loss of life, and the slaughter is a theme in the film. You could say there’s a serious side to this ‘Kingsman.’ But it still has recognizable ‘Kingsman’ elements, of humour, action and adventure.”

Fiennes adds that he is familiar with the kind of character that Vaughn and Gajdusek had put on the page. “I feel like I’ve met people like the Duke of Oxford,” comments Fiennes. “A certain kind of Englishman who isn’t around anymore, with quietly held chivalric principles. But I also like that Matthew doesn’t—in this era where we’re all sensitive about class and background—shy away from my character’s aristocracy. In terms of someone who is bred and brought up in a certain way, and embodies principles of courage and honour and kindness and service of others; the aristocratic mode of behaviour. So Oxford is a decent man. Very decent.”

Harris Dickinson as Conrad and Ralph Fiennes as Oxford in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

On casting Fiennes in the hero role, Vaughn comments, “When I write, I always have actors in my mind. And Ralph was in my mind. I always thought Ralph would’ve been a fantastic Bond for so many reasons. And when I met with Ralph, it was funny, because he’s incredibly Kingsman in a weird way, in that he’s an incredibly serious man who doesn’t take himself seriously, and he has a wicked sense of humour. But it’s sort of always bubbling underneath a serious subject matter, shall we say.

Co-screenwriter Karl Gajdusek describes Oxford as heavily conflicted. “He’s sworn a philosophical vow of pacifism,” remarks Gajdusek. “However, the events of his life point the other way. So he’s a man torn between violence and pacifism; between the protection of fatherhood and the need to let go of a young man. That’s pretty much his core.”

Tom Hollander, who plays three roles in the film, says of the villainy in play: “Jeopardy is coming from an axis of evil that is created by a whole lot of historical figures who weren’t necessarily connected, but are connected in this story. Mata Hari, Rasputin, Erik all know each other and are part of a sort of cabal of villainy connected by an invented character known as The Shepherd. And The Shepherd has a project, which is to destroy the ruling societies of Europe.”

Harris Dickinson, who plays the film’s young lead, Conrad Oxford, says of his character, “Conrad is a seventeen-year-old. He’s young, brave and aristocratic. His father is the Duke of Oxford, so he’s been living with him in this very grandiose, strict, upper-class lifestyle. He’s naive to the real world when we first meet him. The outbreak of WWI changes that, thrusting his character into adulthood. “He’s a budding soldier with a heavy appetite for the world, wanting to experience things first-hand,” says Dickinson. “He’s been held at home quite a bit, and protected heavily, feeling prohibited by his father’s boundaries and his father’s pacifism. Then there’s a kind of splinter point in the story where Conrad goes off, against his father’s wishes, and joins the war.”

Harris Dickinson as Conrad in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Vaughn says Dickinson’s ability to make Conrad relatable was key to making those war scenes work. “My fear about the role is that you’ve got a Duke and a Marquis’s son together, and do I really want to watch a movie with two very posh people in the leads? I always thought Bond worked well because Connery gave it more of an edge. I think if they’d cast a David Niven or a genuinely posh guy, Bond might have been too up there to relate to. Harris came in and he had what I needed—that charm. He is the real deal.”

Polly’s household counterpart is Shola, played by the aforementioned Djimon Hounsou.  “My idea about Shola was that Orlando was sent to Africa on a mission, and met Shola there,” explains Vaughn.  “Orlando ended up thinking what they were doing was wrong, so he returned to England with Shola, who came to work for him. They became really good friends. Oxford’s family is Conrad, Shola and Polly, and to the world, they pretend to be upstairs/downstairs, but behind closed doors they are an intimate family.” 

“He’s from different places in Africa,” adds Hounsou. “Because Shola seems to be from a French colony, like Senegal, yet also somewhere in East Africa. He’s obviously a very regal man. A man of great integrity. From a tribe that seems to be a warrior tribe.”

Hounsou describes Shola as a jack-of-all-trades, calling him a caretaker, servant and warrior who is always ready to fight, as well as a guardian who has formed a very close bond with Conrad.

(L-R) Harris Dickinson as Conrad, Djimon Hounsou as Shola and Gemma Arterton as Polly (in the distance) in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

A great adventure story needs a great villain, and for “The King’s Man” that is Rasputin, played by Rhys Ifans. “Rasputin is obviously a historical figure, entrenched in the Tsar and Tsarina’s court in Russia,” explains Ifans. “He’s a mystic and a priest, although the real Rasputin wasn’t officially ordained by the Orthodox Church. So he brings with him, I think, Christianity or the church as a kind of disguise, as really at heart he’s a flesh-eating pagan.”

“Rhys was a pleasure because he’s been obsessed with Rasputin all his life,” says Vaughn. “So when we went to cast it, I got a message that he’s always wanted to play Rasputin. I love passion and enthusiasm. I think the business needs more of it. So I sat with Rhys and we got on extremely well. He’s incredibly intelligent and just so focused. I couldn’t have created a better villain than Rasputin, but all we were doing was channelling the real Rasputin.”

Gajdusek agrees that the “mad monk” is the role Ifans was born to play. “He’s so magnetic, and with Rasputin, that was his thing,” says Gajdusek. “Rasputin supposedly walked into a room and you couldn’t keep your eyes off him. Even though he was this sort of smelly, crazy monk, you were drawn to him. And Rhys has similar energy. The two together are just merged into one character. It’s kind of amazing.”

Ifans himself calls it a “dream role” due to Rasputin’s magnetism, as well as his infamy. “He is such a mysterious, powerful figure, well-referenced in history, but so much of his life is a mystery,” offers Ifans. “Consequently people have made many wild assumptions about Rasputin. He has that place not just in Russian culture, but in world culture. In some ways, he was the first kind of renegade rock star. There’s also something of the Charlie Manson in him as well—the mystic charlatan who hypnotized and seduced a generation.”

(L-R) Ralph Fiennes as Oxford and Harris Dickinson as Conrad in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

The most audacious casting in “The King’s Man” comes courtesy of a single actor playing multiple roles. Tom Hollander plays three cousins—King George, the Tsar of Russia, and the Kaiser of Germany.

“When I was casting the King, the Kaiser and the Tsar,” says Vaughn, “I did my research and I found photographs. You literally could not tell the difference between the King and the Tsar. Then I read how they used to play pranks where they would swap each other’s uniform, and no one would know that the King was the Tsar and the Tsar was the King. There are some photographs where they’re wearing the wrong uniform and no one noticed, and then they admitted to it afterwards, thinking it was funny. And that, by the way, summed up the craziness of Europe being ruled by these cousins.”

Continuing, Vaughn explains, “So then we were wondering how we could find three actors who looked alike. I knew that Tom was a good actor and that he could play all three roles. It felt like it wasn’t a gimmick, because in history they looked so similar, almost like twins. Tom’s very Kingsman, and he knows how to be serious and funny at the same time. So he was a welcome addition.”

Hollander says he immediately saw the funny side of this approach: “It’s a clever idea of Matthew Vaughn’s because all the royal families were related, as we all know, and that’s why they fell into war. Because of their alliances and rivalries. And the three of them were cousins, so it’s a good joke to have them played by the same person. Two of them—George and Nicholas—did look very similar. So it’s the Kaiser who looks different. And the Kaiser is a bit like their bullying older brother in this version.”

On a more serious note, Gajdusek adds, “One of the things that the film is so good at doing is sort of tracing the routes of the conflict back to these crazy nursery conflicts between these three people…and in those characters, in some ways, is embodied the dumb futility of World War One. If that amount of slaughter can be assigned to the jealousies between three cousins, and if those three cousins are now embodied by this one actor, it creates a kind of sad schizophrenia that is just wonderful. I think people are going to be surprised, not only by the joyful differences of the performances but also by the melancholy message that is hidden under that casting.”

Charles Dance also plays a real-life character in the film—Lord Kitchener of “Your Country Needs You!” fame. “Kitchener is a boyhood friend of the Earl of Oxford,” Dance explains. “At the beginning of the story, we are in the middle of the Boer War, and both Ralph’s character and my character are much younger. It sets up our relationship, really. We go back a long way. Kitchener has known him for years. He was a very successful soldier. You know the expression about the First World War, that it was lions led by donkeys? Certainly, a lot of the generals were donkeys and behaved like donkeys. But Kitchener was not one of them. He was, a lot of the time, appalled by what was going on.”

Matthew Goode, meanwhile, plays a character connected to Kitchener. “I play a guy called Maximillian Morton, who is his aide-de-camp; sort of his right-hand man, who makes him all sorts of things,” remarks Goode, “and keeps him tucked up at night. A good soldier, keen to do well. He wants to serve his master and keep his men together, so he’s a good professional military man.”