The King’s Man true story – what’s fact and what’s fiction in the Kingsman prequel

The King’s Man true story – what’s fact and what’s fiction in the Kingsman prequel

Before now, the Kingsman franchise has never exactly been too concerned with delving into real history – with the first two films telling modern-day stories about an entirely fictional spy agency.

And while new prequel movie The King’s Man concerns the origins of that very same fictional agency, it also contains several nods to true events, taking place against the backdrop of the First World War.

Only this isn’t quite the First World War as we know it. Yes, there are rising tensions in Europe, and yes, we watch Archduke Franz Ferdinand gunned down in the street in Sarajevo – but beyond the basic details, the film very much forges its own alternate history.

In Vaughn’s version of the war, a mysterious organisation of criminals led by a bitter Scottish nationalist is largely responsible for the conflict, manipulating the situation in Europe to start the war and keep it going for as long as possible – with their ultimate goal to bring about the destruction of England.

One of the criminal’s right-hand men in this endeavour is notorious Russian monk Rasputin, and although this version of the figure is suitably exaggerated, star Rhys Ifans told that his portrayal was at least in part based on the historical record.

“Most of what we know about Rasputin anyway is arguably fictionalised,” he said. “He does remain in our culture as a kind of anti-superhero already, so he lends himself wonderfully to a vehicle like the what-if-ness of the Kingsman franchise.

“And he has such a specific look as well that’s instantly recognisable – even if you know nothing of Rasputin generally, that kind of silhouette is instantly recognisable.

“And then it was a case of learning who he was or what we know about him,” he added. “We know he was mysterious, he was very powerful, he was physically very strong, he had zero table manners, he was very difficult to kill, and he was a healer – arguably a very successful one. There’s a lot of what-ifs around Rasputin himself basically, so it’s on a plate a little bit in terms of what you have to play with as an actor.”

He continued: “The film gives us more information about Rasputin than we might think it’s doing, and what we might assume is fictionalised actually isn’t.

“The two examples from the top of my head: in Rasputin’s assassination there were actual members of the British Secret Service present in the planning of and the execution of the assassination. And then Rasputin famously had awful table manners and ate like a pig. But where we part ways is he wasn’t obviously a champion Cossack kung fu dancer. But then again – who knows?”

One star who plays not one, not two, but three historical figures in the film is Tom Hollander who stars in the triple role of King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. In the first act, the film gives us a brief history lesson as to the relationship between the three monarchs, all of whom were first cousins, and although much of what happens thereafter is fictionalised the background itself is based in fact.

“There’s a book called The Three Emperors by Miranda Carter, that was very, very helpful about the whole period,” Hollander explains when asked about the true history behind the characters.

“I had also played George V once before, so I’d done a certain amount of research about him,” he added. “But when you’re playing a historical character in someone else’s version of a bit of history, they’ve made a lot of the decisions about the presentation of that character.

“Sometimes when you do research you encounter details which are not consistent with the version of the character that you’re being asked to play – and you need to focus your work on the script to make that version of that character work. But Miranda Carter’s book helped me, it just stimulated my imagination to know what the real people were like.”

There are other historical figures who appear in the film too. For example, Charles Dance takes on the role of Herbert Kitchener, who was the Secretary of State for War during the start of World War One, and whose death onboard the HMS Hampshire is recreated here, albeit in a heavily fictionalised manner. (It’s perhaps worth noting that while he’s portrayed in the film as a purely heroic figure, this glosses over the fact that in real life Kitchener was also responsible for expanding concentration camps and bringing about the scorched earth policy during Britain’s Boer War campaign.)

Meanwhile, other characters in the film who are based on real figures include Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl), Prince Felix Yusupov (Aaron Vodovoz), Alfred DuPont (Todd Boyce), Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Branka Katic), Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) and Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman).

The long and short of it, then is that while the central storyline and the key characters played by Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickenson, Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou and Matthew Goode are entirely fictional, there is at least a grain of true history in the film – albeit one that bears little resemblance to what was really going on behind the scenes.

The King’s Man is out now in UK cinemas. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or visit our Film hub for all the latest news and features.

This year’s Radio Times Christmas double issue is on sale now, featuring two weeks of TV, film and radio listings, reviews, features and interviews with the stars.

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