In Kingsman: The Secret Service, Colin Firth’s perfectly poised character, Galahad, tells the chavvy Eggsy that one is not born a gentleman, one becomes a gentleman. In addition to revealing the heavily constructed nature of this social role, the film highlights a continuing cultural fascination with the figure of the gentleman. It’s 2015; didn’t we leave this figure behind long ago, perhaps in the trenches of the Great War? A cursory reading of texts such as Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End might suggest that the gentleman has no place in modernity: Ford’s Christopher Tietjens is forced to galumph off into obscurity, as critic Austin Riede aptly puts it. But though Ford sings an elegy to the gentleman, he and successive generations of writers have refused to let the figure go entirely. Christine Berberich, author of The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature, argues that the gentleman is still a significant and lively element of the English consciousness. And it would seem that he is no longer content to be like Tietjens and while away his time in some Arcadian idyll; rather, he is intent on swinging into full view, brandishing his umbrella-gun.
Yet, despite his cultural prominence, the gentleman is still idealized as a man who fades into the background. Despite his striking bespoke suits (“never off the peg,” Galahad tells us), and his charisma, the true gentleman is supposed to be self-effacing. Galahad papers the walls of his study with tabloid headlines (“Brad Pitt Ate My Sandwich” is my favourite) from the days on which he accomplished something particularly profound in his work. None of these headlines mention his work; he does this to remind himself that accolades do not matter, that he does not matter, only his duty matters.
But the film’s flashiness belies this self-effacement. We are invited to become obsessed with the material presentation of the gentleman, from his confident walk to his suit-cum-armour. How can the gentleman possibly fade into the background? We can’t take our eyes off him. We continue to be obsessed with him, long after writers like Ford thought that the gentleman was obsolescent. This tension between the gentleman’s prominent “I” (his self, his ego) and his sacrificing of self for duty is by no means unique to Kingsman. The film is fascinating because it treads old ground that has been by now stamped into nearly featureless mud by Oxfords-sans-broguing (I personally like a little broguing). In order to train Eggsy, Galahad must take him from a Savile Row tailor to a super secret spy academy that is located in, of course, a country house. Could this film be any more English? And by “English,” I mean mythically English, stereotypically, unrealistically, aristocratically English.
Kingsman superficially suggests a new take on the gentleman: Galahad chooses as his protégé a petty criminal who is far from being Oxbridge stock. Gentleman aren’t born, they are bred! This, too, is an old idea, a conception of the gentleman dating from the nineteenth-century, a bourgeois ideal rising out of the growing middle-class that sought to clamber up the class hierarchy. Here education and deportment matter over inherited wealth. Anyone can be a gentleman, we are allowed to believe, so long as he is loyal, dutiful, and self-effacing to the point of self-annihilation. Eggsy’s willingness to die on the train tracks makes him an heir to the men on the Titanic whom Berberich opens her book by describing:
[T]he steel-heir Washington Augustus Roebling was last seen ‘leaning against the rail, light[ing] a cigarette and wav[ing] goodbye’ after helping several ladies into the boats; and the writer and editor William T. Stead ‘retired to the first class smoking room with a book’. Particularly powerful are the following examples: Benjamin Guggenheim and his secretary gave away their lifebelts and ‘now stood resplendent in evening clothes. “We’ve dressed in our best . . . and are prepared to go down like gentleman”‘, eyewitnesses report them explaining. And Mr. Walter D. Douglas answered his wife’s pleas to join her in a life-boat with only ‘”No . . . I must be a gentleman”‘, a sentence which summarized all his values.
“We’ve dressed in our best.” It’s significant that, in order to be a true gentleman, Eggsy must become a Colin Clone.
He must adopt the accoutrements of the upper-class. He must disguise his lower-class upbringing under pinstripe, because, although anyone may become a gentleman, a gentleman is still defined by aristocratic men with “silver suppositories”. Anyone can be a gentleman, Kingsman tells us, so long as he wears a bespoke suit that would cost thousands of pounds even without being bullet-proof. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” my friend cackled under their breath in the theatre when Galahad was telling Eggsy how to become a gentleman. Indeed. Or, rather, pull yourself up by your sock garters.