“The King’s Man” is the third film in a series based on the Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic book, “The Secret Service.” As a prequel it attempts to maintain the tone set by the first film, the 2014 “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” and yet add a poignant note to give an emotional center to the piece. It doesn’t work and instead seems like two films battling out for your attention.
The first film establishes the Kingsman as a group of well-dressed men in a secret organization based in the confines of a Savile Row tailor shop in London . The organization operates above politics and government, but always in the Queen’s service.
While the 2017 “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” brought the action to North America with some cooperation between the Kingsmen with the United States-based Statesmen, this film begins on another continent where all men aren’t equal: Africa. Here’s where things get dicey. Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), is an aristocrat coming to inspect a concentration camp under the wings of the Red Cross in South Africa. The year is 1902, so this would have been the end of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The first Boer War was from 1880 to 1881. To understand what was going on, you need to know that the British weren’t the first Europeans in South Africa.
The Portuguese “discovered” South Africa in 1487, but it was the Dutch who colonized it. The Dutch traders brought their enslaved people from Indonesia, Madagascar and eastern regions in Africa. The free citizens who became independent farmers on this African frontier became known as Boers. The Boers formed alliances with certain tribes (Khoisan) in battles against the Xhosa. The British came in and took Cape Town (1795-1803) because they didn’t want the French to have it. Parts of South Africa briefly went back to the Dutch before returning to the British in 1806.
Diamonds were discovered in 1867. Gold was discovered in 1884. These discoveries led to conflict between the people from Europe or of European descent and the Boers and the British. There was an Anglo-Zulu War between the UK and the Zulu Kingdom in 1879. The Boer Republics resisted the UK during the first Boer War, but the British didn’t give up. Hence, there was a Second Boer War.
The use of concentration camps drew heavy criticism. Social reformer Emily Hobhouse inspected the camps (much to the ire of the military) and publicised the terrible conditions. British Liberal Party leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman declared them ‘methods of barbarism’. As a result of public pressure, the British authorities belatedly made improvements and the death rate fell.
At the end of 1901 these criticisms, combined with a desire to end the war, caused the British to adopt a new policy towards displaced Boer families. Rather than being removed to camps, they would be left to fend for themselves. The aim was to burden the Boer commandos so that they would be unable to continue their guerrilla campaign.
The suffering experienced in the camps left a lasting legacy of bitterness amongst the Boers. Between 18,000 and 28,000 Boers died, 80% of them children. The British did not bother to keep records for native Africans housed in camps, but it is believed that their death toll was similar to that of the Boers.
According to another source, these were the first concentration camps in history. As one might expect, there were separate concentration camps for White people and for Black people. The mortality rate of children was alarmingly high in these concentration camps.
Emily Hobson did not die during the Second Boer War. She was an anti-war activist who lived until 1926 and also campaigned against the First World War.
The King’s Man
Back to the film, “The King’s Man.” Orlando isn’t alone in South Africa. With him are his young son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), and his wife, Emily Oxford (Alexandra Maria Lara). The concentration camp comes under attack and Emily is killed, but she makes Orlando promise to keep her son safe from war. The family also has a faithful Black warrior who helps protect the son, Shola (Djimon Hounsou). How Shola fits in to the British imperialism isn’t clear. Nor is it clear why Shola would leave his family in favor of the young Conrad and the aristocratic Orlando. Conrad plays a game with Shola wherein he identifies people are knights of the Round Table. Shola, if I remember correctly, is Merlin. Orlando is King Arthur. Emily is Guinevere.
As people aware of history will expect, Conrad–now played by Harris Dickinson–comes of age as the world (Europe) is heading toward World War I. In the Kingsmen universe the center of the problem is three cousins: King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia, all played by Tom Hollander with variation of facial hair and uniforms Yet engineering the conflict is a mysterious man who has recruited various people, many historical figures such as Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans). We only see the leader from the back of his head, but he does speak with a Scottish accent. Remember that the United Kingdom of Great Britain wasn’t so united and there was plenty of historical grudges and prejudices that pitted White Christian people against other White Christian people. Think of what happened to Mary, Queen of Scots.
The group working against Great Britain in “The King’s Man” meet on top of a high plateau in Russia, only reachable by a primitive lift. The plateau is home to a farm that raises goats and these hoofed beasts are important to the story. Considering the nature of transportation in this time period, this location and the assembled people who sit on this rustic rectangular table of evil are a major loophole.
Since his wife’s death, Orlando has become a pacifist, but that doesn’t mean he stays out of political affairs. With his faithful servants Shola and Polly Wilkins (Gemma Arterton), he has a network of spies–servants. Wilkins has servants everywhere, including the Unites States, who listen at doors or while they are invisible in their service capacities. From them, she gains intel on everyone, and Orlando, Shola and Wilkins meet for their spy activities in secret rooms on Orlando’s palatial mansion. Orlando invites Conrad to join and they attempt to stop the acts that will lead to war. This will take them to the court of Tsar Nicholas. The Tsar and his Tsarina are under the control of Rasputin with the help of drugs and a bit of delusion. Rasputin swaggers like a rock star who is addicted to mascara and enjoys the company of glamorously tarted up whores. He enters with one prostitute hanging on each arm into polite aristocratic society with a sneer. He has a taste for young boys and while Conrad is used as bait, it turns out that Rasputin has his eyes (and will eventually have his tongue) on Orlando. Orlando has an old wound from the Boer War which has left him with a limp. Rasputin declares he can cure him, but Orlando must take his pants off. What follows is both ridiculous and weirdly sexual (the cure) but also inspired (the battle choreography to classical music).
Most people know what happened to Rasputin and that he was not easy to kill. Audience members will also know that we did not avoid World War I. “The King’s Man” has a fanciful explanation for how World War I came to be and the great mysteries of this cinematic journey are who is that Scottish mastermind behind these machinations and how does Conrad figure into the creation of this secret agency called the Kingsmen. I won’t give spoilers here, but the Conrad story doesn’t tonally fit in.
There are other problems with the imperialism of German, Russia and Great Britain–their respective colonies were drawn into the war. India, as part of Great Britain’s war effort, had troops who fought (1.3 million) and died (over 74,000). Moreover, World War I did include other countries such as Japan and China. Both were allies of Great Britain. In this respect, “The King’s Man” perpetuates a vision of Whiteness guiding history.
“The King’s Man” is a fun yarn that unfortunately despite some diversity casting and scripting, seems suspiciously like a whitewashing of history with tokenism to shield it from accusations of pushing white supremacy. Originally scheduled for a November 2019 release, the film was theatrically released on 22 December 2021 in the United States and 26 December 2021 in the UK.