The “Kingsman” movies are conceptually simple. What if we lightly touched up pre- GrimDarkPseudoBourne era James Bond? A shadowy group of British secret agents stops various villains from blowing up the world (and saves some cash by not having a single titular franchise character). Sex is confusing and problematic to the target audience, so strip out most of it in favor of hyperstylized cartoon (rather than Gritty and Realistic) violence; throw in some light Hero’s Journey with a young protagonist instead of a walking archetype. Goldmine!
They’re not wrong; they’re on their third film with a fourth in production, plus a TV show. Even better, while Serious Works are too busy being Grim and Serious about their Themes of Environmental Destruction, there is a pattern in long running popcorn franchises of sneaking in something interesting, accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose. Interesting doesn’t necessarily mean good, but we can often settle for something unintentionally revelatory. “The King’s Man” is such a movie.
Setting the opening scene of your movie in the Boer concentration camps takes balls. They’re even explicitly referred to as “concentration camps” and use the “emaciated figures behind barbed wire” shot. The director and co-screenwriter, Matthew Vaughn, lifts what are by now completely proprietary film elements to tell a story that ends up being about Europe as a whole, rather than the group that typically monopolizes those tropes for their own mythology. What did he mean by this?
Well, we can start by noticing that he posits a shadowy, international cabal trying to set the European powers at war by whispering in the ears of a decaying European nobility. They intend to seize power in the chaos, once the governments and elites are discredited, millions are dead, and the continent is devastated. They successfully start the First World War, and are responsible for amongst other things the Bolshevik revolution.
They’re led by a guy who’s, uh, “Scottish”, who lives on top of a mountain and has a complicated relationship with goats, calling himself the Shepherd while being notably cruel to his flock. His description of his motivations is so lacking (“the English stole my mill”) that one assumes it is not meant to be believed, but he does mention “oppressing my people for 700 years“.
Opposing them is a nice English limousine liberal, Orlando, Duke of Oxford, and his son Conrad. Orlando is a bona fide war hero, with a Victoria Cross and such, but he’s a pacifist now, and thinks his son, who is clearly old enough to run for Congress, is too young and callow to join the army like every other 17 year old is doing at the time. His servants (an African and a woman) love him, and they chat, somehow, with servants in Russia and so on who provide evidence of the cabal’s existence and a plot to force Russia to sue for peace. Orlando decides “we cannot depend on politicians to do their job properly”, and they all trundle off to Russia to start assassinating members of the cabal. As a pacifist he feels badly about the murder and prolonging the war, but the fate of the British Empire is at stake.
The team having whacked cabal-ist Rasputin (to no ultimate effect, as fellow cabal-ist Lenin finishes the job of knocking Russia out of the war), Conrad turns 18 (lol) and is finally able to join the British Army against his father’s wishes, promptly getting his head blown off in the midst of heroically delivering proof the Zimmerman telegram was real, likely leading to America entering the war. Someone scores an advance copy of Wilfred Owen to read at his funeral, because we’re still pacifists. But it turns out Woodrow Wilson is being blackmailed, so Orlando has to fight his way into cabal HQ to secure a sex tape and ensure American troops arrive on schedule. As a pacifist he feels badly about murdering the various security guards, prolonging the war for another year, and condemning another few million to death, but the fate of the British Empire is at stake.
Nonetheless he carries on, and Britain “wins” the war. At its conclusion he sees the benefit of an “independent intelligence agency”, explicitly beyond political control but with the participation of both the King of England and the US Ambassador, with the hazy goal of “preserving peace and protecting life” – the titular Kingsman group. It is implied that they will be needed when Hitler, also a cabal-ist, finally rises to power and initiates another war.
In this telling, there is a dialectic to 20th century European history. The European Civil War is in fact a plot, by the “Scottish”, or more charitably one guy who is very into being and behaving “Scottish”, to foment chaos for their own advantage. Ideological or materialist forces are merely their own sub-dialectic, constituting the necessary chaotic forces to initiate the conflict, but not intended to “win” versus each other, merely to destroy. Standing in opposition to the forces of continental chaos is Anglo and later Anglo-American liberalism, which also seeks to covertly control world events, but for the benefit of their kinder, gentler, more servant-friendly order (of course, with the grown ups still firmly in charge).
Through this lens, Orlando’s refusal to allow his son to serve in the army takes on a more sinister note. Conrad’s justifications are what you would expect from an aristocrat’s son eager to join in the traditional pursuit of aristocracy, and we in fact saw that class fight and die in overwhelming numbers. On the other hand, Orlando’s facile and disingenuous “pacifism” ends up being more of an excuse for why his son should be reserved for an occupation where, instead of killing Germans singly with a rifle, he can cause the deaths of millions by manipulating events – and instead of delegating judgment to “his country”, he will be able to impose his own idea of what is best for them.
So this ends up being a remarkably personal story, in the sense of “which persons shall rule”. Lenin is merely the “left hand” of the conspiracy; Hitler is brought in circa 1919 or so (presumably coincident with his employment by German Army Intelligence) to “strengthen the right”. Their ideological differences do not matter, and are not in fact opposed to each other in any meaningful sense; what matters is that they in concert threaten British primacy – and what matters most of all on the British side is not any national or ideological decision, but the right person with the right access acting of their own volition.
This combination of parochial lumping-together of continental affairs, snobbery over the right kind of people being in charge, unlimited willingness to meddle in others’ affairs, while condescending to them that it is for their own good, is so stereotypically British that you might well hit the early life on Matthew Vaughn. To no one’s shock, it turns out he is the bastard son (not that there’s anything wrong with that) of a hilariously Norman surnamed aristo (“George Albert Harley de Vere Drummond”, I kid you not) prominent enough to be the godson of the King.
Turns out, some things are in the blood after all.