Unlike the first two instalments of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman trilogy, The King’s Man places itself right at the centre of real-life history. Or more appropriately, the theatre of war.
The highly-anticipated prequel explores the origins of “the first independent intelligence agency” against the backdrop of World War I. There’s blurring the lines between fact and fiction… and then there’s The King’s Man. It’s to the point where we anticipate many will be crying out “revisionist history” – but what’s Hollywood entertainment without a spoonful of artistic liberty?
Here’s a quick breakdown of the fact and fiction behind The King’s Man.
[WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
At the request of General Lord Herbert Kitchener (Charles Dance), Duke Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) accompany the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ron Cook), and his wife Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg (Barbara Drennan) during their pivotal visit to Sarajevo.
Conrad thwarts the first attempt on the Archduke and the Duchess’ life in Bosnia, attempted by one Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman). Later on, as fate would have it, Princip finds himself sitting at a cafe where the Archduke and the Duchess’ car makes a wrong turn. As they reverse from the dead end, he draws his pistol and neutralises them both, effectively lighting the fuse to instigate WWI.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was an event that almost deserves its very own film. Similar to what was depicted in The King’s Man, there were multiple attempts on his life before mission success – but at the hands of multiple assassins, not just Gavrilo Princip. The first two were Muhamed Mehmedbašić and Vaso Čubrilović, who both failed to get the job done armed with a bomb and a pistol. Further down the road, Nedeljko Čabrinović lobbed his own bomb at the convertible, which bounced off without any intervention by an umbrella.
The remaining co-conspirators – Cvjetko Popović, Trifun Grabež, and of course, Gavrilo Princip – all missed their initial chances when the motorcade sped up to flee from danger. On the Archduke and the Duchess’ return journey from the town hall meeting, however, Gavrilo Princip would achieve his objective almost exactly in the same way as the film; sans cafe happenstance and revised affiliation with another shadowy organisation. The car made a wrong turn, the engine stalled as it was reversed, and Princip seized his opportunity at point-blank range.
Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) isn’t just a key player in The King’s Man, he’s also the standout character. The reason? The legendary mystic, self-proclaimed holy man, and “mad monk” Rasputin had convinced Russia’s last emperor Nicholas II to withdraw from the Allied powers, effectively threatening to give the Central powers the upper hand.
The British contingent’s original plan was to lure Rasputin into their private chambers using young Conrad as a honeypot, wherein the former would satisfy his craving for sweet treats by partaking in a cyanide-laced pie. But as you may recall, much like his real-life inspiration, Ifans’ Rasputin is a hard man to kill.
While the majority of Grigori Rasputin’s life seems ridiculous enough to be a product of fiction, a great deal of the mythology included within The King’s Man is steeped in fact. For one, the man was a proper lothario, known across the lands for shagging just about everyone… although apparently not the fellas, diverging from Rhys Ifan’s portrayal in this aspect. He once complained about monks “engaging in homosexuality” during his time at the St Nicholas Monastery at Verkhoturye circa 1897.
For another, his influence on Nicholas II and Imperial Russia was quite evident. And that wasn’t a good thing, hence why people came for his head. As alluded to in the film, Rasputin was rumoured to have dosed himself with cyanide every day – which essentially made him impervious to Prince Felix Yusupov’s assassination attempt involving cakes and Madeira wine laced with “enough potassium cyanide to slay a monastery full of monks.”
When the cyanide failed, they shot him in the head. Prince Yusupov checked whether he was really down for the count, only to be met by a resurrected Rasputin who leapt straight back into attack mode. It wasn’t until he was double tapped by right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich that he went night-night.
Incidentally, there has long been a theory that agents of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – otherwise known as MI6 – were the actual culprits behind Rasputin’s death. This was said to be under the command of senior politician Sir Samuel Hoare and MI6 intelligence officer Oswald Rayner, who attended Oxford University with Prince Yusupov. And for precisely the same reason which motivated Duke Orlando Oxford, Conrad, Polly, and Shola to undertake their mission in The King’s Man.
In terms of historical validity, several authorities do not consider this assertion credible. According to biographer Douglas Smith, “There is no convincing evidence that places any British agents at the murder scene.” Furthermore, historian Keith Jeffery states that if British intelligence agents had indeed played a part, “I would have expected to find some trace of that” in the SIS archives. Which there apparently isn’t, even 100 years later.
The Entry Of The United States Into World War I
Despite Germany’s submarine attacks against United States passenger ships as well as the famed Zimmermann Telegram, President Woodrow Wilson refuses to join the Allied powers. Unbeknownst to the public, he’s actually being blackmailed into complacency. After the material is destroyed once and for all, the US immediately rallies the troops to finish the ongoing conflict.
Granted, the United States didn’t really stir until April 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson came before Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. But it had nothing to do with blackmail nor Bill Clinton-esque deeds in the Oval Office. Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare by attacking passenger vessels – in addition to courting Mexico for an alliance against the US – was enough cause. In December that same year, the US would also declare war against German ally Austria-Hungary.
The Shepherd & His Flock
The misfortune witnessed in The King’s Man is orchestrated by a mysterious Scottish figure known as The Shepherd and his “flock.” This is an organisation of terrorists comprised of Grigori Rasputin, Mata Hari, Gavrilo Princip, Austrian political animal/publicist Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl), Vladimir Lenin himself (August Diehl), and plenty of others.
None of this was true. Obviously.
… and as for The King’s Men themselves?
Unfortunately, A Complete Fiction
As far as we know, The Kings’s Men weren’t founded during World War I (nor do they exist at all). MI6 and MI5, on the other hand, were established around this time period in 1909 and were initially branches of the British armed forces. Both the Secret Intelligence Service and Security Service focused heavily on the activities of the Imperial German government prior to the First World War.
Throughout WWI, however, their efficacy was mixed. As it was unable to organise a functioning network in Germany, MI6 relied on military and commercial intelligence via networks in neutral countries, occupied territories, and Russia. MI5’s war effort yielded better results. In the 24 hours post-declaration of war alone, the agency managed to arrest no fewer than 22 spies within the UK. History regards this as a “devastating blow to Imperial Germany”, as it deprived them of its entire domestic spy ring.
The King’s Man hits Aussie cinemas on January 6th of 2022.
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