Guest Column: Discovering John Rhys Davies


April 1, 2004

Another remarkable intersection of religion and film culture took place several months ago during the press interviews at the premiere of the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. John Rhys Davies, who plays Gimli, the dwarf, departed from the normal PC Hollywood script about multiculturalism, environmentalism, “spirituality,” and so forth when asked his view of the films. He declared in blunt, dwarvish fashion:

I’m burying my career so substantially in these interviews that it’s painful. But I think that there are some questions that demand honest answers. I think that Tolkien says that some generations will be challenged. And if they do not rise to meet that challenge, they will lose their civilization. That does have a real resonance with me.

Then to the astonishment of Hollywood, he went on to do the unforgivable: He pointed out the obvious by stating that Western civilization is a “jewel” and that we stand in real danger of losing that civilization to a radicalized form of Islam bent on the destruction of “Jews and Crusaders.”

So it was no surprise that Rhys-Davies drew the attention of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based group whose mission is precisely to preserve the jewel of Judeo-Christian Western civilization by promoting “ideas in the commonsense tradition of representative government, the free market and individual liberty.” Among their many good works, they sponsored Rhys-Davies to come to Seattle for an evening at Town Hall to chat with film critic and conservative pundit Michael Medved and elaborate on some of his views.

Rhys-Davies is a large man in every way. He is physically imposing at a height of around six feet, but he is large in mind and heart as well. He is what the term “magnanimity” was coined to describe. I was reminded of nothing so much as having your favorite uncle over to the house; the sort of uncle who comes into town once a decade from his fascinating world travels and whose arrival somehow attracts all the friends, neighbors, and children to your house to listen in. He is the sort of man to welcome into your living room on a cold evening next to a roaring fire, with your feet up and a brandy at your elbow.

Then, all you need to do is say, “So, John. Tell me about Africa,” and he will hold forth for the next two hours, regaling you with stories of the time his father put down a riot through sheer force of personality, with asides about what the dimwitted George III once said when he found himself seated next to historian Edward Gibbon and completely at a loss for words (“Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”), with anecdotes about filming movies that are now permanent fixtures of our culture, and with intelligent discussions of any assortment of issues. Periodically, he will leap out of his seat in animated excitement to recite a bit of poetry or some lines from Shakespeare. He will hold you captivated for well over two hours talking about politics, making self-effacing quips, and simply being the born raconteur that he is.

The format for the evening in Seattle was fairly loose. After Medved introduced Rhys-Davies as one of the few actors in the world who has something intelligent to say without a script in front of him, Davies made a few quips (“Ladies, I don’t have Orlando Bloom’s phone number. But if I did, I would give it to you out of pure malice”). However, he soon spoke to his central theme.

Civilizations, he observed, “are held together by more than the literal.” In the United States, he said, the Constitution holds something of the place that the monarchy holds in Britain. It forms a kind of focal point for a national myth. It is not merely a legal document but somehow captures the aspirations of a people. He noted that Tolkien also managed to create a myth. The “applicability” of that myth to present circumstance was not (as Tolkien fervently agreed) an allegory for something, but we could still see our struggle to defend a civilization from destruction in it.

Rhys-Davies related his experience of growing up in colonial Africa. He noted that in 1955, his father took him down to the quayside in Dar-Es-Salaam harbor. There “he pointed out a dhow in the harbor and he said, ‘You see that dhow? Twice a year it comes down from Aden. It stops here and goes south. On the way down it’s got boxes of goods. Coming back up it’s got some little black boys on it. Those boys are slaves. And the UN will not let me do anything to stop it.” He remarked that he never saw his father more “dangerously angry” than that day, and he repeated his father’s prophetic words that there was not going to be any war between the Americans and the Russians. “The next world war,” he said, “will be between Islam and the West.”

Rhys-Davies does not appear to be a particularly religious man himself (he mentioned a Welsh Methodist upbringing in passing), but he is a Western man who appreciates the gift the Judeo-Christian tradition has given the world. He openly scoffed at any attempts to create some sort of moral equivalence between radical Islam and “Christian fanaticism”: “Good God! As though there are gun-toting Methodists running about, blowing up mosques!”

The issue is a live one for citizens of the United Kingdom for a simple reason: An unbreakable tie to the European Union, Rhys-Davies said, is not necessarily a great idea when Europe’s demographics are such that it is rapidly becoming Muslim. Given that Islam’s borders tend to become violent virtually every time the Muslim population reaches a certain critical mass, that could put the United Kingdom in the situation of a lifeboat tied to the Titanic.

My two eldest sons, who thought they were going to get to ogle a star of one of their favorite films, wound up inadvertently getting a rather eclectic introduction to what liberal education was once supposed to do. A fine evening, well spent.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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