John Rhys-Davies has appeared in some of the biggest franchises in recent movie history, from Indiana Jones, where he played Indy’s friend Sallah, to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where he played the dwarf Gimli and provided the voice of Treebeard the Ent.
But in recent years he has also been involved with a number of Christian-oriented films, such as Return to the Hiding Place, the historical adventure Beyond the Mask, last year’s animated Pilgrim’s Progress and the Intelligent Design documentary The Privileged Planet.
He has also played a number of biblical characters over the years, from Paul’s friend Silas (in 1981’s Peter and Paul) to Esther’s cousin Mordechai (in 2006’s One Night with the King). I interviewed him when he was playing the high priest Annas in Killing Jesus, and that was one year after he had played Annas’s son-in-law Caiaphas in Saul: The Journey to Damascus. He also recently played the lead role in Peter: The Redemption.
Now Rhys-Davies is starring in a movie about Saint Patrick, the fifth-century bishop who played a key role in converting Ireland from paganism to Christianity.
I Am Patrick: The Patron Saint of Ireland, which comes to American theatres for two nights beginning on St Patrick’s Day (March 17), is produced by CBN Documentaries and is largely based on the historical Patrick’s autobiography, the Confessio. The film includes interviews with historians as well as re-enactments of key events in Patrick’s life, and connecting it all is Rhys-Davies, who narrates the film as the older Patrick.
Rhys-Davies spoke to me about the film from his home on the Isle of Man. (The Isle “has been described as 70,000 alcoholics clinging to a rock in the Irish Sea, but it is actually a bit nicer than that,” he says.) What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How familiar were you with the story of Saint Patrick? You say you’re in the Irish Sea, and of course you’re from the British Isles—
John Rhys-Davies: I am a Welshman, and I always like to remind my Irish friends that their patron saint was a Welshman originally.
Oh really? I thought Patrick was a Brit.
Rhys-Davies: At the period, he is British, but this is before the arrival of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, and the transformation of the Romano-Britons, who’d been Romanized for 400 years. They were driven into the extreme parts or marginal parts of Britain. But he’s really, yes, he was probably— He would probably have identified himself as a Celtic Briton rather than an Anglo-Saxon.
How well known is that in Wales? Is that something the Welsh like to talk about a lot, or is it sort of largely forgotten?
Rhys-Davies: Well, we generally talk about the Irish in terms of their ability to produce a damned good game of rugby. But we’ve got a lot of affection for the Irish, and yes, we do like teasing them about that.
But you know, this extraordinary man takes one of the most primitive, savage, brutal, pagan, human-sacrificing parts of the world and literally, within a couple of hundred years, because of him and because of the Christianization of Ireland, Ireland becomes one of the— It becomes the Athens of the north in a strange way, right on the extremities of the civilized world during what we tend to call, rather foolishly, the Dark Ages. It is one of the great lights of learning and scholarship. He manages to liberate the full intelligent scholarly genius of the Irish people just for the first time.
Did you learn anything in the making of the film that you did not know beforehand, in the course of reading the Confessio or preparing for the role?
Rhys-Davies: There are a number of things in it that I hadn’t realized before. But you know, yes, some of the things that just stick in my mind you will think are such incredibly trivial things, but they struck me with some force. I’m in a little round house that is a fairly good replica of a good house in Ireland, and I’m writing on parchment with a cut pen with ink that’s made from iron filings and vinegar, and just the business of having to dip your pen in the ink every few seconds just gives you a little bit more thinking time before you actually write, and the measured cadences in their passages come from having— They don’t have an instant ability to just pour out words as we do, they have to think, and that alone— Did I know it intellectually? Yes. But until you actually have the enforced discipline of using a quill, you don’t really, really know it.
Did you film your scenes before or after all the scenes with the young Patrick were filmed? Were you able to base any of your narration or performance on what the younger actors had already done, or did you do the narration sight-unseen?
Rhys-Davies: I did the narration before they started shooting, you see. And so, in a way, they are working— Look, the script was extremely good, and the scholarship is really the state of the art and impeccable, so I had these wonderful words to say — and all the hard work was done by the younger actors, and I just come in at the end and take the glory, you know? What is wrong with this picture, I always ask! (laughs) Very good. And they are marvelous. I think everyone in the piece is pretty marvelous. But you know, it was made on a shoestring budget, and it is remarkable for that. I mean, it’s remarkable by any standard, just in terms of performance and script alone, it is remarkable. But, you know, the producer, director has done a wonderful job with that. A wonderful job.
There’s some really nice cinematography there too, with you standing by the cliff with the sunrise or sunset or whatever it is. It looks very good.
Rhys-Davies: On that west coast of Ireland, where he’s looking towards you guys! Well, not your particular coast, but yes, Patrick is a man who was accustomed to living on a bare hillside when he was a boy because he had been kidnapped, with barely enough skimpy clothing just even to keep him half-freezing. He’s a giant. His Christianity is practical in the most severe and terrible circumstances, but he’s the real thing. He’s not just a glamour boy for a few minutes, it’s a life spent from being kidnapped from a privileged and comfortable background, to being as brutalized as a slave as a man can be, and finding his faith again and escaping, getting away with it — and, in a way, suffering from a strange sort of Stockholm Syndrome, isn’t it, where you have that need to go back and convert and forgive your abductors. He’s a giant. He’s a giant.
And I think the film also says that he came to identify with them. He says “we”, the Irish, including himself as one of them.
Rhys-Davies: That’s right! That’s right.
I interviewed you once before, in Morocco, six years ago when you were shooting Killing Jesus—
Rhys-Davies: Oh yes!
—and I was part of the roundtable interviews there. And you’ve done a number of other biblical films, and you’ve also done a number of other sort of low-budget Christian films like Beyond the Mask. You’ve been in quite a few of these films. What is it that keeps drawing you to them?
Rhys-Davies: Well, you know, it puzzles me greatly. Because Christianity is not highly regarded in Hollywood at all, and this wretched culture of ours wants to find fault equally, makes all religions equal. In other words, there’s no point in criticizing one culture’s religions because they’re all equally bad. And that’s not true.
Let me try to explain this. Look, as my Irish priestly friends would say, I lack the gift of faith, and yet I am absolutely certain that Christianity has had the most important impact on making the world a better place, if for only one reason — no, there are lots of reasons, but let me start with one. Our right of the individual conscience comes from second-century Christians declaring to themselves that they would not listen to the emperor’s insistence that they worship him, that he was the incarnation of God, or a god. It’s the right for me to have my own belief and my own faith. And from that has come all these other things: the right of free speech, the right to speak what you want, of your faith, and through that, the right to the belief that since all men are equal before God, in a way all men are equal, and should be treated equally before the law. So we get the Charter of the Forest, which is really the important part of Magna Carta, we get the Bill of Rights, we get habeas corpus, we get your Constitution, which is one of the glories of mankind — oh, actually, no, you’re Canadian — the American Constitution is one of the glories of mankind. And of course, we get the greatest single thing that any civilization has tried to do, the abolition of slavery. And if it was for nothing else, Christianity would be glorious in the history of humanity for the abolition of slavery alone.So I love the civilization, and you cannot the civilization without beginning to understand it, you can’t understand your literature without understanding it, but you cannot just take the benefits of a civilization without respecting how it came about, and who the heroes were, and respecting the power of faith. So it’s a paradoxical situation. I do not know why people keep asking me to do these things, but I’m happy to do them. And though I lack the gift of faith myself, I am adamant that those who believe shall not be despised and sniffed at and condemned for irrationality and things like that. Christianity is worth defending. Civilization is worth defending.
You mentioned slavery, and I just want to get your take on something here. In the film, they address the fact that Patrick came from a Roman Christian background, but they also mention that his family owned slaves themselves.
What do you make of the fact that these ancient Christians were slaveowners themselves? How does that fit into the trajectory of what you were describing, with the abolition of slavery under Christianity?
Rhys-Davies: Look, there are— At times in people’s history, there has been such a shortage of food, of housing, that actually people sold themselves into slavery. “You know what? I will work for you, I will do what you tell me, as long as you give me one good square meal a day and somewhere to sleep. Otherwise I’m going to die, my family is going to die.” And there are circumstances still like that in the world as well. I mean, there are worse forms of slavery, obviously. But why? Well, certainly in terms of Patrick’s days, his father may well have owned slaves, the family may have owned slaves, we’re a little bit uncertain as to what those things were.
Obviously, the Romans did have slaves. I mean, the whole thing was, if you were a Roman citizen, you could never be made a slave, hence the way when you did your— You might have been a savage raised in Gaul or Hispania or some other place, Thrace or something like this. You join the Roman army as a young man, they beat you into shape, and if you survive 25 years in the Roman army, you get three things: all the loot that you’ve managed to accumulate, and the tributes that have been given to the troops and this sort of thing, you’ve managed to save quite a little bit. They give you a plot of land as part of your pension, but not in the country where you were raised, because you knew how the Roman army fought, you knew Roman battle technique, you cannot go back home and then possibly use your learning to rebel against Rome. The land that you were given was in another country, and the third thing they gave you was citizenship, and if you were a citizen, you could never be made a slave, nor could your children. Roman citizenship really gave you an enormous amount of power. I mean, Paul himself says, “I am a Roman citizen, I appeal to Caesar.” Now, the death sentence may be certain, but you had the right. You had rights that nobody else had. And those rights were passed on to your children.
And so Romano citizenship, or Romano-British citizenship, gave you certain rights and certain ranks, and so it would be very unusual to find yourself turned into a slave. And that in itself, when you go back home, probably makes it more impossible to settle back into that society. “I now know what it’s like to have lost my liberty and all my rights, and I can’t abide this society, but what I have to do is now go back and meet my captors and persuade them that Christianity matters and that they should free their slaves.” It’s a complicated thing, and there’s a little Stockholm Syndrome, I think, in his mind at that particular point.
Slight change in topic: In addition to obviously Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings, you’ve also been in Star Trek episodes and a James Bond movie. Everything is franchises these days. Are there any other franchises that you would like to be in?
Rhys-Davies: I can’t say that the Marvel films have ever really appealed to me, though of course I did once play the Kingpin in [the 1989 TV-movie] The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, but that was really before the franchises got going, and a lovely bunch they were. Lou [Ferrigno] is such a nice man, and of course [Bill] Bixby himself is just a golden soul, really. Are there any other franchises? No, I don’t really, I’m not wild about franchises. The films that I’ve most enjoyed the last couple years would include The Death of Stalin, which is wickedly violent and funny, and Tolkien, which is a wonderful explanation of the background and life of young Tolkien. So by and large, I’m not really a franchise man. But I’ll look at the next one that comes along! I somehow don’t think, though, that with my penchant for doing less politically-correct things that I’m Hollywood’s first choice.
Has there been any talk about getting you into the next Indiana Jones movie?
Rhys-Davies: There’s been no word of it whatsoever. And the fact that Spielberg is out, I don’t know whether that means that there’s a possibility. To be honest with you, I don’t think they’ve got a script yet, and I think that’s really the cause of the delays. Getting a really good script is the whole basis of the thing. The last one didn’t really work. I did get asked to do a tiny bit in that one, but I thought the character actually deserved a bigger part than just appearing at the wedding at the end.
(A publicist says it’s time for Rhys-Davies to go on to his next interview.)
Rhys-Davies: Was that okay for you?
That was awesome, thank you very much.
Rhys-Davies: Ah, thank you. I hope we get to talk again some time. And by the way, Killing Jesus? Terrible script. Did I say that out loud? I told my manager, I said, “This is a terrible script,” and he said, “No no no, it’s going to be a huge hit.” And I said, “Well, I have to differ.” He said, “John, trust me, this is going to be a big one! You gotta do it!” I did, but it was very interesting, though, because for the first time in many years I was working with a director who clearly didn’t want me in the part — and that’s such a valuable thing, because it makes you re-evaluate what you’re doing, and in the end, you have to sort of throw yourself up in the air and say, “Is it me or is it him?” And I kept saying to him, “You don’t actually need me, you don’t like my performance, just cut it. The only thing that matters is that funny little thing, that little scene right at the end.” I don’t think he actually understood that as far as the Israelites were concerned, the high priest was the nearest they had to the most important person in their society, that King Herod was not regarded as being anything other than a Roman construct forced upon them. But it was very interesting, and I’m glad I did it, but it did not surprise me that it did not seem to add anything, whereas the book, I think, did. Anyway, enough of that. There you are!
— I Am Patrick plays in theatres across the U.S. March 17-18. Check Fathom Events for details.
March 17 update: The theatrical release of I Am Patrick has been postponed because of the current pandemic situation, but the film can be ordered on DVD via the CBN website or by calling 1-800-700-7000 or texting “Patrick” to 71777.