“The King’s Man” is Matthew Vaughn’s prequel that is set against the backdrop of the First World War, wherein it shows the war being masterminded by a villain without a face. Our British protagonist, Orlando, has to do whatever it takes to prevent Germany from storming England’s borders.
‘The King’s Man’ Plot Summary
It’s the year 1902. As part of their Red Cross routine, the Duke of Oxford, Orlando, his wife Emily, and son Conrad visit a concentration camp during the Boer War. But the camp is attacked, and Emily is killed by a sniper bullet. Orlando vows to a dying Emily that he will protect their son Conrad and promises to do all in his power to prevent the world from falling into the clasps of war.
Twelve years later, time decides to test Orlando’s oath as Europe finds itself on the brink of war with the British, German, and Russian monarchs (and cousins too). Orlando gathers intelligence which serves as proof that a shadowy villain is pulling the strings. He understands that only information can prevent the war and gets to work, aided by his comrades Polly and Shola. But this doesn’t make him change his mind about discouraging his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from enlisting in the army. An adamant Conrad enters the army against his father’s orders and, as fate would have it, dies on the battlefield.
A lost Orlando retreats from work and is almost on the brink of a mental collapse after the news of his son’s death. It is Polly who brings him back to his senses, telling him that he has to clear his son’s debt. Orlando realizes the greater need and, accompanied by Polly and Shola, taps into their extended network, ranging from Russia to America, that exists on the concept that servants are invisible. Plans are chalked out to recover a sensitive piece of information that can help bring in America’s aid to England, which will be essential for defeating Germany. Ultimately, they get their hands on the information and are successful in defeating the villain, which ultimately results in Germany’s defeat. To ensure that the world doesn’t fall into chaos, Orlando establishes an independent intelligence agency that will function at the highest level of discretion to serve the purpose of preserving peace and protecting life. Thus, the Kingsman agency comes into existence.
Facts for Fiction?
“The King’s Man” borrows a handful from world history, both in terms of people and events surrounding them. This is to give the film a touch of realism, which works really well. All these people are strategically placed to take the plot ahead, not just to showcase them.
- King George V of England, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany: All three were identical, and thus director Matthew Vaughn wanted Tom Hollander to play all the three roles. Even the cause of the squabble between the three that resulted from Nicholas and George bullying Tsar for his “deformed” (undersized) left arm is true.
- Archduke Franz Ferdinand- He was the heir presumptive to the throne of Austria: Hungary whose assassination by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb. This led Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, an act that set off a chain of events in Europe and led to World War I.
- US President Woodrow Wilson and Mata Hari: He had made up his mind not to join the war, but a secret message, the Zimmerman Telegram (a historical fact) that proposed a Germany-Mexico alliance gave him enough reason to do so. The director connected this with Mata Hari. She was a Dutch exotic dancer who was convicted of German espionage.
- Jan Erik Hanussen: Supposed clairvoyant and mentalist who hid his Jewish ancestry and eventually became Adolf Hitler’s confidant. His identity was eventually discovered, and he was shot to death in 1933.
- Rasputin: He was a Russian mystic and a self-proclaimed godman who earned the loyalty of Nicholas II of Russia through his deceit act of saving Tsarevich Alexei from death by internal bleeding. This led to the couple’s faith in Rasputin’s divine intervention.
- Vladimir Lenin: Russian revolutionary, founding head of Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union.
- Adolf Hitler: Dictator of Germany from 1933 till his death in 1945.
Mathew Vaughn, by incorporating these events, compensates for the surrealism that we have come to expect from a Kingsman movie. Spy movies set in the present, like James Bond, don’t have to rely on factual events to establish their plausibility. This is because such films analyze the possibilities and dangers of the future through the exploitation of technology. “The King’s Man,” on the other hand, is an exciting historical revision that gives the movie a stronghold over our minds.
The Protagonist and His Pacifism
While most of the characters in “The King’s Man” are borrowed from history, our protagonist, Orlando Oxford, is a fictional character worth exploring. A husband and a father, Oxford’s pacifism is a sign of his military history and the very theme of “The King’s Man.”
After Kitchener’s death, Oxford agrees to make his son Conrad a part of his mission alongside Polly and Shola. He clearly states that his character finds it easier to be involved in what’s required of him. This nature of his character seems to have bred his promise to his wife. His way of keeping his word to his wife was by not letting his son serve the country. But he was always prepared for war if need be. This is visible when he breaks his oath of pacifism for the sake of his word to his wife. Furthermore, the fact that the mission will go “unnoticed” enables him to use it as an excuse to keep his word. Perhaps he still yearns for the action of his youth, which is why he set up the meeting room and formed the “club” at the first sign of trouble (possibly even before the meeting with Kitchener at the Kingsman shop).
The formation of the club doesn’t bring his pacifism into question but does mark it as conditional pacifism, i.e., opting for circumstances where death or war can lead to less suffering. A single death is used here because a war (World War I) will follow anyway. It’s just that the single death will increase the chances of Germany’s defeat. So, without further ado, and glad that his son won’t mention the war, for the time being, Oxford and his club chalk out a plan to bring down Rasputin. Rasputin’s death does affect Oxford as it broke his vow of pacifism, but the pain is only temporary as he evidently comes out of it by the end of the “The King’s Man.”
The Hidden Meaning and Irony of ‘One Life to Save Millions’
The phrase “one life to save millions” is extremely important in this context. Rasputin’s death only made the Kaiser opt for an alternate plan, which was to ask Mexico to invade America and divert America’s attention to Mexico. Despite intercepting and cracking this coded message, the US president denies going into war, questioning the deciphered message’s credibility. On the other hand, Conrad has already joined ranks on the battlefield. He recovers a piece of information that can end the war. But a misunderstanding leads to his death. As it turns out, the information was the original German handwritten telegram about the Mexico attack. This is the concrete proof America needed to go into war, which it did. So, does the “one life” refer to Conrad’s and not Rasputin’s? Oxford breaks his vow of pacifism and breaks his promise to his wife. He drowns himself in pain and drinks. But it is from this pain that emerges the motivation to be the man his son wanted to be. Thus, it is Conrad’s death that leads Oxford to “let go” of Morton, the villain, and thus his pacifism. This is what resulted in the establishment of the Kingsman agency.
All in all, it is Oxford’s duty that takes over his ideology, something which is a fact of life. It is not who we are underneath, but what we do that defines us (guess who said this?). But this doesn’t take away Oxford’s description of a gentleman: brutal and ruthless. The Kingsman agents are harsh and cruel but only last resort: when their motto “manners maketh man” is ridiculed.
There is another funny suggestion. ‘One life to save millions’ echo the words, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” These were the words carved in the ring (in Hebrew) presented to Oscar Schindler by the Jews before he fled with his wife after World War II ended (watch Schindler’s List). This makes sense since both Oscar and Oxford saved lots of lives. And it is perhaps a divine coincidence that Ralph Fiennes was chosen to play Orlando Oxford, the same guy who played the sadistic Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List. It seems that although he isn’t able to redeem his wife’s death in “The King’s Man,” he has been able to redeem his actions in Schindler’s List finally.
‘The King’s Man’ Ending Explained
The shady villain chalking out the plans that will bring England to its downfall goes by the name of Shepherd. He is Scottish, and his plans are a part of his revenge on England for oppressing his motherland, Scotland, for over 700 years. Using a fictional character as a villain allows the creators of the “The King’s Man” to connect the different historical events depicted in it with ease. The Shepherd pulls the threads, and each member of his flock does the needful, e.g., the Serb Princip for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the monk Rasputin to gain the trust of Nicholas II of Russia, the Mata Hari to compromise US President Woodrow Wilson’s decision on joining the war, and the mentalist Jan Erik Hanussen to manipulate Kaiser Wilhelm II. All these grave concerns have England on the receiving end.
Finally, we find out that the Shepherd is actually Morton, Kitchener’s aide-de-camp. To have made his way so deep into the British military so as to be a British Army officer’s aide-de-camp is no small feat. This shows his highly skilled and motivated self, something that is evident in the ways he plots the different facets of his plan, as he reveals at the end of the “The King’s Man.” That he is well-trained in combat is also visible when he fights Oxford. At the end of everything, Morton is a person who, being unable to defend his homeland (Oxford’s words to his son Conrad after showing him the Victoria Cross), decides to avenge it. As we mentioned earlier, Morton hails from Scotland, which has been oppressed by England for more than 700 years. His actions are all outcomes of his want for his country’s retribution that results from its failure to defend. On the other hand, we have Oxford, who, as he tells his son Conrad, turned to his Red Cross efforts after questioning his own right to take, if not steal, the riches of people defending their homeland (Scotland being one of the many homelands). Thus forms the dynamic between the hero and villain – Both Oxford and Morton are outcomes of war, but while Oxford turns beneficent, Morton turns nefarious.
‘The King’s Man’ Post Credit Sequence – Will the Kingsman Face the Third Reich?
The Shepherd dies at the end of “The King’s Man,” and a post-credit sequence that introduces Adolf Hitler as the right hand, as opposed to Lenin as the left, with Jan Erik Hanussen as the mediator. It is important to note here that, historically, Hanussen was in contact with Hitler for quite some time, reading his hand and giving him assurance of his rise. In the aftermath of World War I, the seeds of World War II were sown. And the introduction of Hitler is a sign that Matthew Vaughn will incorporate him (alongside Hanussen and Lenin), his army, the Third Reich, and other major WWII events into the second prequel of this suave-spy franchise.
“The King’s Man” is a 2021 Action Thriller film directed by Matthew Vaughn.