Orlando Oxford is a pacifist.
Never mind the Victorian Cross he earned for hacking and thwacking and otherwise exterminating his enemies back in the day: That’s all behind the nobleman now. He’s long since traded his bluster guns for olive branches, and he couldn’t be happier.
And if Orlando has his way, he’ll not be the only pacifistic Oxford in the House of Lords. He promised his wife (as she lay dying in her own spilled blood) that he’d protect their boy, Conrad, from any literal slings and arrows that might come their way. Oh, and bombs and bullets, too.
But in 1916, that promise is mighty hard to keep.
Conrad loves his peacable pops. But the 18-year-old loves his country, too. And with the Great War raging and millions of people dying, this gentleman-in-waiting is ready to risk, and perhaps spill, some of his blue blood for ol’ Britannia.
Oxford sympathizes—and he lets the lad in on a little secret. While his pacifism is real, Oxford’s no stranger to conflict. And as such, he’s started a little, shall we say, club behind a secret panel in his study. His manservant, Shola, is a member. So is Polly, Oxford manor’s housekeeper. Together, they’ve stitched a spy network across much of Europe (comprised primarily of maids and butlers and the like), and they’ve uncovered something that might change the course of (what would eventually become known as) World War I.
Meanwhile, Rasputin—a reputed religious renegade revered by Russia’s ruling Romanovs—is pushing the family to pull Russia out of the war. That would leave Britain to fight Germany alone (apparently forgetting, y’know, France and Italy and stuff) and end the war in Germany’s favor. And despite Oxford’s pacifism—who’d one would think would favor a quick end to hostilities—that just won’t do.
It seems to Oxford that this little band has but one solution: Kill Rasputin. And Oxford will need Conrad’s help to do so—as bait: Rasputin, it is rumored, has a soft spot for (ahem) young men.
Conrad was willing to fight for his country. Why, he was even willing to die for it. So if Britain needs him to canoodle with a smelly, bearded, not-so-holy monk, it’s the least he can do.
The King’s Man offers us two worthy morals. One, that risking one’s wellbeing for both one’s country and one’s principles is a good and noble thing. Two, war is really, really awful, and we should do everything we can do avoid it. Oxford apparently embraces both principles wholeheartedly—holding these two seemingly opposed principles in tension. (He does a better job than the movie holding these tensions, as we’ll get to later.)
Oxford also loves his son—despite his willingness to, essentially, pimp him out to Rasputin. And by movie’s end, his dutiful and courageous boy becomes Oxford’s hero, not the other way ’round.
So, Rasputin. He does indeed call himself a holy man, though he’s anything but—as the switchblade hidden in his crucifix suggests. We’ll detail some other examples later, but for this section, I’ll give you this:
Rasputin poisons a piece of candy and gives it to Russia’s crown prince (Alexei), who quickly collapses, apparently near death. He tells the royal parents that Alexei is a symbol of Russia herself, and that to “heal” the country, they must withdraw from the war. When Nicholas protests, Rasputin thunders, “You dare question the vessel of the Lord?!” When Nicholas relents, Rasputin leans over Alexei and begins humming and chanting unintelligibly, and the boy soon revives.
Rasputin does have the apparent ability to heal people (through some rather disgusting methods). Soldiers fill a church as the priest holds a service to send them off to war. (An inscription above the altar reads “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”) A funeral service is held in a church.
The movie’s main antagonist is called “the Shepherd” by his cadre of lackeys (which includes Rasputin and the man who shot the Archduke), and one of his subordinates seems to address him almost as God. “Thy will be done, my Shepherd,” he says. Shola says he doesn’t care for airplanes, using the old saw, “If God wanted man to fly, he would’ve given him wings.” (The man he’s talking to says he’s being hypocritical: Shola drives cars, but he wasn’t given wheels.)
In the movie (as apparently was the case in real life), Rasputin is a hedonist. He escorts two women—scantily and provocatively dressed for the period—to a lavish dinner party, and he kisses one passionately at the table. He says (in really crass terms) that he never discusses important matters unless he’s eaten or had sex recently.
A woman named Polly tells Oxford that Rasputin has a weakness for “sweet cakes and even sweeter boys,” which is why Oxford brings conrad to Russia. And when Conrad’s introduced to Rasputin, some lewd conversation ensues.
But Rasputin’s not interested in Conrad (perhaps because he suspects the trap). Instead, he and Oxford head to a private dining room so that Rasputin can ostensibly look at Oxford’s injured thigh. “Take your trousers off and sit down,” Rasputin says, and so Oxford does. We see the gentleman in his boxers for several minutes during the scene that follows, including a strange scene in which Rasputin licks the wound and Conrad gasps and groans.
We see a woman passionately kiss a man. Men fight shirtless.
As mentioned, Oxford is a pacifist. The movie itself does not share Oxford’s peaceful tendencies.
It’s to be expected. The Kingsman franchise was built, in large part, on showy, often laughable, over-the-top violence. But this film takes a curious turn into grittier territory—the trenches of World War I. We see people try to cross the infamous No Man’s Land between the trenches (as soldiers shoot at them and explosives go off around them), and we see a man trapped in a crater there—his leg blown off and bone showing through the stump (bearing a torniquet made with a Union Jack). One man who improbably survives No Man’s Land is promptly shot by his own kin, a victim of mistaken identity. Several people are perforated by bullets or punctured by knives. Explosions injure some. A soldier weeps from the horror of it all. A graphic poem by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” is read at a funeral.
A number of swordfights take place. Naturally, this leads to a lot of stabbing and one dramatic beheading. Two fencers practice their craft until one fires a gun hidden in his sword, killing his opponent. Someone dies when an elevator plummets to the ground. A guy is run through the leg by a goat’s horn. Lots of people are shot: Many die, their blood spraying as the bodies fall. Someone nearly has his head ripped clean off by another combatant’s bare hands. Another nearly dies in an airplane crash. A bomb is chucked at a car holding some important officials. Someone bats it away like a cricket ball, saving its intended targets, but it lands underneath another car and blows it up. A man is pin-cushioned by thrown knives (but seems to handle the wounds rather stoically, all things considered).
A man physically abuses a goat. A ship explodes via torpedo, presumably killing all onboard. A woman is shot and killed in an ambush, dying in her husband’s blood-stained arms. We see large burial grounds. Throats are cut. Chests are stabbed. A woman is choked and nearly strangled. A couple of people nearly drown each other in icy water. A family is executed as they pose for a picture. Arsenic pills hide in the rings of the Shepherd’s lackeys. A training fight still leads to its participants suffering plenty of knife cuts. A grenade explodes, sending someone flying.
More than 20 f-words and three s-words. We also hear “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “pr–k” and the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is abused four times.
Rasputin consumes some sort of drug from an eye dropper. We hear a reference to opium use.
When Oxford interviews the Archduke’s assassin, he at first claims that it was the alcohol. “I was overcome,” the man insists.
A despondent man drinks himself into a state of near oblivion. A toast is raised to a new spy organization being created. People drink alcohol during dinner.
Rasputin grossly devours a huge chunk of a tart-like cake and, shortly thereafter, vomits it up in a fashion familiar to Monty Python fans. “Your cake didn’t agree with me,” he says. Another man aboard a ship says he feels sick, and he heads to the deck for some fresh air.
The King’s Man is a movie that doesn’t understand itself.
Revolving around some real events that took place in World War I, it aspires to be 1917 for about a fifth of its runtime. For the rest, it’s gunning for a really violent Forest Gump-type vibe.
And that feeds into the movie’s biggest paradox: the pacifistic message set in a story that glories in killing.
We hear a great deal about Oxford’s pacifism. And while he eventually comes to understand that killing is sometimes a good thing (which seems a mixed message from the get-go), the movie still sympathizes with his moral stance. It tries to drive home the horrors of war in tremendously graphic ways. Isn’t all this bloodshed terrible? The movie says with a metaphorical sigh. Isn’t it senseless?
And then it gives the audience exactly what it came to see: Terrible, senseless, showy, exuberant violence. Isn’t this cool? It tells us. Isn’t it fun?
The King’s Man feels a bit akin to an adult movie star giving the keynote at a purity conference whilst shilling tickets for her latest flick.
Add to that The King’s Man’s other issues, and you’ve got a pretty messy movie.
Those familiar with the Kingsman franchise know the organization’s deceptively encouraging motto: “Manners Maketh Man.” There’s truth to that, I believe. If only the movie’s makers tried to be more mannerly.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.