Director Matthew Vaughn has had fun playing with spy tropes in his two previous The Kingsmen movies, based on the comic The Secret Service, by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. But for The King’s Man, a prequel set in the World War I era, he found inspiration from a cult historical action film from the ’70s.

The whole prequel project happened “due to this weird itch I got from watching The Man Who Would Be King,’” Vaughn said at the press event for The King’s Man. “I rewatched the movie and afterwards joked saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make The Man Who Would Be Kingsman?’”

His inspiration is certainly well deserved: The Man Who Would be King was directed by legend John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) and stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine in a story based on one of author Rudyard Kipling’s best-known stories.

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin (carrying) Alexander Shefler as Tsaravich Alexei, Tom Hollander as Tsar Nicholas (left back to camera), Branka Katic as Tsarina Alix (right back to camera) in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Although not on a lot of people’s top ten lists (and the fact that both the source material and film are steeped in colonialist narratives doesn’t help), The Man Who Would Be King is nonetheless a beloved cult film among a bunch of viewers (myself included) for its great performances, sense of derring do, building sense of doom, and an ending that is shocking, macabre and absolutely unforgettable.

What does that have to do with The King’s Man? Well unlike, the previous Kingsmen films it’s set in an actual historical period and the real players of the tumult of the day all have a part to play, including Kaiser Wilhelm, King George of England, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, President Woodrow Wilson, and above all, Rasputin, the bigger-than-life mystic who mesmerized the Russian royal family and died a death straight out of a comic book.

The Man Who Would Be King’s unforgettable storytelling found struck a chord in Vaughn. “It reminded me why I fell in love with cinema. The idea of an epic historical adventure film, but with great actors, great characters, humor, pathos, just pure escapism and entertainment.” Recalling Harry’s speech to Eggsy about the origin of The Kingsmen, a dapper group of spy/adventurers who secretly fight to uphold justice and a hot cup of tea, Vaughn fell on the idea of an origin story set in the tempestuous period of 1914-1918 — although he initially thought World War I ended in 1919.

“I wasn’t that great at history at school!” he jokes. “But I’d always been obsessed with Rasputin for all the wrong reasons, but I found him fascinating.  Then it all came together.”

In The King’s Man we meet a consummate gentleman, the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a friend to kings, but also a humanitarian and skilled swordsman who is raising his son after his wife was killed in the Boer War. If you immediately think of Fiennes for this role, so did Vaughn. “Ralph was the top of the list, along with — Ralph probably doesn’t know this — David Niven.  David Niven couldn’t make it for certain obvious reasons (the star of The Guns of Navarone died in 1983).  We begged Ralph to say yes.”

Centre left (in hat) Daniel Bruhl as Erik and right, Valerie Pachner as Mata Hari in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Luckily for all, Fiennes was attracted to the wide-ranging nature of the story — and the chance to do some sword fighting. “I love films where sword fighting has been the center, like Ridley Scott’s The Duelists,” he said at the press event. “And, I’ve loved watching those old Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn, Robin Hood, brilliant films. Those actors of the ’30s and ’40s really knew what to do with the sword.”

Fiennes is joined by Harris Dickinson as his son, Conrad, Gemma Arterton as Polly, a housekeeper who is also a crack shot, Djimon Hounsou as Shola, his sidekick, and in an eye-popping outing, Rhys Ifans as Rasputin. Ifans is currently being seen reprising his role as The Lizard/Dr. Curt Connors in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but Rasputin is arguably an even more colorful character — and one who actually existed!

This cast comes together in a fight scene (liberally seen in previews) involving Russian dancing, martial arts, a frozen river,  sexual innuendo and general mayhem. It’s a truly inventive scene that taxed even the more experienced members of the cast.

Two-time Oscar nominee Hounsou was familiar with training for action films but found The King’s Man to be on another level. “I thought with my background of mixed martial arts and boxing, I could handle this one quite easily.  And, to my surprise, [Matthew] had an expectation for action choreography that I hadn’t experienced anywhere else.  The level was a bit challenging.  [Luckily we were] working with a bunch of guys that were an absolutely gifted stunt team.”

Fiennes had to do his own training but found working with Ifans inspiring. “The tone of it was great to try and pull off. Working with Rhys, who is continually inventive in every shot, I think we riffed off each other, and we played off each other, and continuing into the scene where he tries to drown me. It’s lovely to work with someone, and you just throw the ball back and forth, as it were.”

Even with the stunt team standing by, Ifans had to pull off some action moves for the very first time. “Unlike Djimon, I was, shall we say, an action virgin prior to this film,” he confesses. “So I would walk past gyms and suddenly, you know, I found myself in one, readying myself.  All of us  had to get to a level of fitness, not just strength, but just stamina, to just complete a working day.”

The grueling sequence took two to three weeks to shoot. “We were working with a trainer, and with this brilliant stunt team, initially trying to find a physical vernacular that was specific  to Rasputin,” recalls Ifans.  “And then I remember Matthew in yet another light bulb genius moment of his, came up with quite possibly one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard.  He came into the stunt room one day and he went, ‘Russian dancing, martial arts…mix ’em up.’”

Ralph Fiennes as Oxford in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“Rhys scared me, ’cause I realized he could take my crazy ideas and take it to a level that I couldn’t even imagine,” Vaughan confirms. When Ifans and Fiennes had a scene together, “I was mesmerized watching how they took the dialogue, and they lifted it to a place that wasn’t on the page. I felt like it was McCartney and Lennon riffing off each other, creating great music.”

Compounding the difficulties of the scene, Vaughan fell ill during shooting. (This might even explain some of the fever-dream quality of this entire sequence.)

Much like her character in the film, Arterton managed to miss some of the worst days of the shoot and walked in to a memorable tableau. “I just remember turning up after having had, like, a nice eight days off.  Everyone was completely wrecked, and Rhys just had cake all over his face, Matthew in the back, ill. I was like, ‘What happened here?'”

Viewers will be able to find out on December 22nd, when The King’s Man opens in theaters.