Not everyone was happy about a crucial 20-minute scene that grounds an epic new movie.
When the franchise is known for outlandish, cartoon violence such as a rainbow-coloured sequence of exploding heads, you don’t expect the third instalment to be a relatively sombre historical epic.
But that is what The King’s Man, in parts, is.
A prequel to Kingsman and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the film flashes back to tell the story of the secret spy agency’s origins, a nugget that had been planted in the original film.
The King’s Man, starring Ralph Fiennes, is set in the lead-up to and during World War I, and features a raft of historical figures including Rasputin, Kaiser Wilhelm and Mata Hari. It’s a who’s who of real-life villainy.
But what really grounds the film in its historical context is not the Russian mystic and his wild ways, but the grief of wasted lives in a futile war.
“Even as a kid learning about World War I, a history teacher said to me, ‘Well, it was basically a family squabble’,” The King’s Man director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn told news.com.au.
“And that stayed in my head for a long time. I was just like, ‘What? These people are all cousins, are all related to each other? And millions and millions of people were dying because of nothing, basically.
“World War I was such a tragedy and thought, ‘Well, why not do a movie where kids can also watch it and see the history in a context that they might find interesting, not just coming out of a textbook with no flair.”
Vaughn, 50, for many years was a producer for Guy Ritchie before hitting it out on his own as a filmmaker, directing the likes of Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and the Kingsman series.
His vibe is pacy and exuberant, with more than a smattering of stylised violence. There’s a touch of the Ritchie in there too, but Vaughn’s movies tend to hit stronger emotional notes, without the smugness of his compatriot.
Vaughn’s blend of pathos and anguish with the irreverent spirit of the Kingsman series makes The King’s Man an entertaining but poignant film.
Getting the balance between the two wasn’t easy, and a lot of it comes down to Fiennes’ affecting performance as a pacifist lord whose son is desperate to enter the war and a 20-minute-long sequence in the middle of the film set in the muddy trenches of No Man’s Land, the notorious, deadly stretch between the two fronts.
Vaughn said he had some push-back about the scene, which captures the mess, trauma and jeopardy of No Man’s Land.
“Some people are saying, ‘Oh, I’m not sure you need this part”, and I said, ‘Am I really meant to make this part fun? What the hell are you guys talking?’
“So, when we get to the trenches and there is a 20-minute section where it gets pretty heavy. There’s no other version of doing this without it being heavy.
“We had a few scenes that were actually quite fun in there. Because the way a lot of soldiers deal with the trauma of war is through humour. We did have some other scenes which were actually quite funny, but I decided not to put then in because I was worried that some people would be offended. It was tricky.
“It was a tonal balance, but also a respectful balance where I wanted people to understand.”
Vaughn recalled a moment during filming where he and the crew, decked out in boots, gloves, hand warmers and high-end Canada Goose puffer coats, were trudging through the mud of the No Man’s Land set, and they were moaning to each other about how tough it was before a sense of perspective hit.
“Then we all looked at each other going, ‘Are we really complaining?’. It was a moment where we all thought, what these young men and boys were put through is beyond comprehension, beyond anything.
“So, we had to treat it with respect.”
Delving into one of the darkest moments of modern world history isn’t lost on Vaughn, who hints at some parallels with contemporary times.
“Like I always say, be careful who one chooses as your leaders because the world could get pretty screwed up. We’re all part of it at the moment.”
Even though The King’s Man was originally to be released before the pandemic, the horrors of World War I resonates now on a different level.
“The world [now], we’ve all crossed a Rubicon into, I don’t know what. I don’t think any of us know right now. The world has definitely changed forever.
“Bad things happen in history, but we get through it. I’m an optimist deep down but I’m also a realist. When the s**t hits the fan, deal with it and then feel happy.”
The King’s Man is in cinemas now
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