The King's Man: Review of the new film set in World War One

Forces News' James Wharton reviews The King's Man, the third Kingsman film from Director Matthew Vaughn.

The word 'woke' carries a lot of baggage these days. And because of that, its original and intended meaning has become somewhat diluted. 

Matthew Vaughn has achieved something remarkable with his latest film, The King's Man. He has produced a movie that deals with old-fashioned themes of empires and war yet presented them through a modern lens, awoken to the realities of that past.

At the centre of his plot lies the First World War. The film notably apportions blame on the petulance of Europe's ruling class for causing the conflict and the many millions of deaths resulting from it. Its leading man is the Duke of Oxford, played by Ralph Fiennes, a man uneasy about his so-called honour, directly tackling issues of colonialism and empire. 

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The King's Man is set in World War One. Picture: 20th Century Studios / Disney.

In our interview about the film, Matthew Vaughn told me that it was "important" his film challenged some of these darker elements of Britain's history. He said:

"The reason we made the Duke of Oxford an ex-soldier who becomes a pacifist is, and some soldiers might agree with this, there has got to be a bloody good reason to have a war. 

"World War Two made sense. There was a bad guy, a dictator, that we had to get rid of. Then sometimes when you have wars, like [weapons of mass destruction] and there isn't any ... or if you look at Afghanistan right now, for them to just say, 'hey we're getting out', you're like, 'what the hell are we fighting for?'

"So, the point we were making is World War One was a pointless war. There was no reason for it, and nothing better came out of it"

Corps of Drums at King's Man premier
The real life Kingsmen from the 1st Battalion Duke of Lancaster's Regiment were guests of honour at the world premier of The King's Man. Picture: 20th Century Studios / Disney.

The plot follows the Duke of Oxford's primary mission to protect his son and heir from enlisting in the British Army to fight in World War One. While doing so, they are both recruited into a shadowy operation to hunt out a group of shady villains committed to forcing Russia's Tsar Nicholas III (Tom Hollander) to pull out of the war, an action that would leave Britain without its most crucial ally in the fight against Germany.

Rhys Ifans plays the gang's chief baddie, Rasputin, a mystical character who possess a strange hold over the Tsar's behaviour and choices. If Rasputin can succeed in tricking his master into withdrawing from the war, Germany will win. 

Ifans told me that he had fun playing the "dangerous and disturbing" Rasputin, particularly so grotesquely. He also commented on preferring to lightly research the true history of the infamous man before placing his own interpretation on the role. Interesting, given Vaughn paid enormous energy in keeping as much accurate history in this fictional tale as possible. In this sense, where a true-life character features, their circumstances generally conform to the historical record. For example, Rasputin's seemingly undefeatable ability to evade death is a characteristic of his place in Vaughn's movie.

Rhys Ifans and Tom Hollander for The King's Man
Actors Rhys Ifans (Rasputin) and Tom Hollander (King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas III). Picture: 20th Century Studios / Disney.

Likewise, I asked Ifans' co-star, Tom Hollander, who plays three roles in the film, the King of England, the German Kaiser, and Russia's Tsar, which he found most fun. He said the costumes created by Michele Clapton for Wilhelm II, whom he performs with vigorous attention to the infamous king of Germany's irascibility, offered most pleasure. Personally, I thought the manner in which Hollander performs George V, a visible pain etched on his frowning face due to the millions of young men dying on the fields of Belgium and France in his name, was an extremely watchable turn.  

King's Man movie poster.
The King's Man is released in cinemas on Boxing Day. Picture: 20th Century Studios/Disney.

A crucial sequence in the film is situated in the trenches of Belgium and France. Taking us into that drama are satisfying visual effects that transform the beauty of green fields into the muddy and bloody hell-like scenes of battle. It could be Somme; it might be Passchendaele. Amid it all, Vaughn's film sets on record the human cost of grinding away, day after day, for a few more feet of land and the brotherhood among the men handed that dreadful task. We are left pondering, how could this possibly have happened? The film's most touching moment comes when two soldiers cradle each other while awaiting what they both know to be imminent death. Vaughn reminds us that these handsome young men all died for nothing, another woke moment, perhaps, and an opportunity to reflect on the tedious reasons behind the First World War. 

This film will entertain viewers from the Armed Forces. They will undoubtedly spot the little things like an authentic Household Cavalry-issued state sword and the more obvious matters such as scenes shot on location at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. It's action-packed, historically revealing and populated with more than a couple of moments of enlightenment.

The King's Man is woke. And proudly so.  


The King's Man is released in cinemas on Boxing Day and rated 15.