Actor John Rhys-Davies on Playing St. Patrick, a ‘Man of the West’

The Lord of the Rings actor — playing Ireland’s patron saint in a faith-based documentary in theaters two nights only — takes on topics ranging from Christian civilization and slavery to clerical celibacy and hearing the voice of God as a non-Christian.

John Rhys-Davies portrays St. Patrick in I Am Patrick.
John Rhys-Davies portrays St. Patrick in I Am Patrick. (photo: NorthStar Studios)

John Rhys-Davies is never at a loss for words.

Equal parts raconteur and provocateur, he holds forth in conversation like his most famous character, Gimli the dwarf, regaling Eowyn in The Two Towers with outrageous commentary on the elusiveness of dwarf women, their physical similarity to dwarf men, and the speculative spontaneous generation of dwarves from holes in the ground.

Now 75 years old, the Welsh actor’s distinctive, cello-like voice remains as rich and expressive as ever, gleefully following sometimes unpredictable lines of thought to favorite destinations.

Like so many others, I first encountered that voice in his performance as Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ve gone on to enjoy him in productions from the sublime (the BBC’s I, Claudius) to the ridiculous (the Jackie Chan trifle The Medallion).

It’s always a pleasure to recognize his cadences in voice-over work, whether in animation or CGI-heavy blockbusters like Aquaman. (He also voiced Treebeard the Ent for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, with some digital tweaking and sound mixing.)

In a way, though, it was in Gimli that Rhys-Davies found not only his signature role but also a kind of big-screen alter ego. Scrappy, clowning, defiant, Gimli stands foursquare with Aragorn and the armies of Gondor and Rohan whom Aragorn exhorts by the appellation “Men of the West.”

Western civilization — or the “Western European Christian intellectual tradition” — has long been a favorite theme of the actor’s. He wasn’t shy with his opinions on this topic at a Return of the King press junket where I sat at a roundtable interview with him, and, as I discovered when I caught up with him by phone recently, the ensuing years haven’t ameliorated his passion for the subject.

Though not religious, Rhys-Davies’ appreciation of Christianity’s cultural legacy is reflected in his work in religious and biblical productions, from the Old Testament romance-novel adaptation One Night With the King to the revisionist Bill O’Reilly adaptation Killing Jesus.

In I Am Patrick, a faith-based documentary slated for a two-night Fathom Events theatrical exhibition, Rhys-Davies plays the father of Christian Ireland — and also, in a way, the father of medieval Christian civilization, as Thomas Cahill argues in How the Irish Saved Civilization.

On occasion, the shadow of Gimli over religious productions featuring Rhys-Davies has been long, as filmmakers directing the man behind Tolkien’s dwarf have been unable to resist evoking The Lord of the Rings. (The forging of a sinister metal trinket in a voice-over flashback prologue at the outset of One Night With the King is only the beginning.)

From swirling drone footage of caped characters running through the rugged Irish countryside to echoes of specific moments in LOTR (horsemen ominously circling uneasy travelers in the wild, as if Patrick had hailed them with “What news from the Mark?”), the spirit of Peter Jackson is almost as palpably present as that of Patrick himself.

Talking-head interview clips alternate with dramatic reenactments from Patrick’s youth and young adulthood (with Robert McCormack and Seán T. Ó Meallaigh, respectively, playing Patrick before he ages into Rhys-Davies maturity, thoughtfully reflecting on his life while penning his Confessio) to recount the whole arc of Patrick’s life and career.

I Am Patrick is scheduled to be in theaters Tuesday, March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), and Wednesday, March 18.

 

If you’ll indulge me for beginning this way, 17 years ago I sat across from you at a roundtable interview for The Return of the King, and you —

Ah! Was it 17 years?!

 

(Laughing) Believe it or not!

How terrifying! Well, my dear chap, how have you been? Has life gone well for you?

 

It has indeed! But I wanted to begin with something you said then. You talked about the values of Western civilization and concluded, “[Hang] it all, I am for dead-white-male culture!”

(Cackling uproariously) Still am, dear boy! Quite unreformed, quite politically incorrect. Yes, I am. If you start dismissing Sophocles, Plato, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Locke … well, what else have you got? A sort of Confucianism that can be turned into communism, an acceptable variant of statist beliefs that would be approved by the Communist Party of China?

No, I’ll stick by that: The Western European Christian intellectual tradition has brought about more good than it has bad, and its great glory still remains, to me, the abolition of slavery.

 

And can I ask you to talk about that in connection with St. Patrick’s legacy?

One of the reasons that Patrick resonates with me is I do have the most remote and absurd connection with his slavery.

I was brought up in Africa. My father was a policeman in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. One day he came home from lunch, and you could see he was very angry. We went down to the dockside, and he said:

“You see that little Arab ship there? Twice a year, that ship comes down from Arabia, down the Somali coast, stops in Mombasa, and then goes on to Beira in Mozambique. But on the way back from Mozambique, they always have two or three little black boys, and they are being taken back to Saudi Arabia as slaves. And the United Nations will not allow me to do anything about it.”

That was 1955. Saudi Arabia didn’t officially abolish slavery until 1965, 10 years later. It always affected me so deeply because I could see his disgust and anger.

 

Are you familiar with Thomas Cahill’s thesis in How the Irish Saved Civilization?

I am indeed. And it’s really down to Patrick. [Ireland] was a savage, brutal country before Patrick Christianized it. I mean, human sacrifice and the sort of terrible fear that level of superstition can have just cripples and deforms people.

Patrick was able to demonstrate that a life in Christ, or for Christ, or of Christ actually was a better life. It was a great struggle.

In a way, Ireland was ripe for it, because their conditions were hellish. And in time Ireland became the Athens of the north. When other countries are falling into barbarism, there is a time when scholarship, learning, is kept alive by Ireland.

And that is directly a consequence of this extraordinary Welshman called St. Patrick.

 

What do you think it was about Patrick that made him so effective in Ireland, where other missionaries and bishops who had come before him had not had such a transformative effect?

(Chuckling) Well, you know, a true Christian would say that of course what made him effective was God.

You understand that I don’t consider myself a Christian, because I’m just too bad a person! My respect for the Western intellectual tradition, the Western moral tradition, is great, and you do not take the benefits of that and just ignore or pooh-pooh the things that made it.

I consider myself obliged to defend Christians and Christianity, because right at the moment they are under attack. It is unfashionable to be a Christian.

Why was he effective? A combination of time, circumstances obviously, but also his own extraordinary resilience, his own willingness to try and find his own way through this, and his absolute faith.

I also think his personality, which comes through uniquely in that period. The Confessio is really the first autobiographical piece of what I was taught to call the Dark Ages (they aren’t regarded so now). He’s just very remarkable.

I admire Christianity immensely, and I have met real Christians. And I have delighted in being defeated in argument by very bright Christian men. But I do not think of myself as one who can call himself a Christian.

 

You’ve read history and knew about Patrick before coming to this movie, but I’m curious as to whether playing Patrick and being in this project has changed your perceptions, or challenged you personally, in any way.

I can’t say that I know the intimate details of the lives of every saint, but I know a little about Teresa of Ávila. Mother Julian of Norwich. I’ve really no idea really who St. Andrew is, quite — I mean, yes, I do sort of know. Mother Teresa is a real woman as well as being a wise saint. She is practical, commonsensical; she’s wonderful.

But Patrick seems to me to be in a way the most human of the saints that I know. I love Patrick because he is one of those guys who realizes what he’s meant to do and goes out and learns on the job how to do it. He makes mistakes, and he’s constantly correcting himself and learning how to do things in different ways.

He’s doesn’t really think, sometimes, that he is much of a Christian; all he hopes is that God will accept him, because God is talking to him. “I am Patrick. I am a sinner.” He was constantly reminding himself that, without the grace of God, he is nothing. Reminding himself of that is an important need for him. Why? Because he’s very human.

In The Confessio, that accusation comes against him of gathering gifts for the Church for his own purposes and own use, and being a glory-seeker, and all that. You can sense the deep indignation, the annoyance of the man. It’s almost like he’s saying, “How dare they do this to me! Of course I took the money — how the heck do you think we are going to send new priests out into the fields? How do you think I can get into the top echelons of these tribal societies unless I can give gifts and things like that? It was not for me; it was part of the job, for God’s sake!”

At the same time, he’s saying, “I’ve got to love my neighbor, turn the other cheek, but right now I’d like to punch … no, no I can’t.” There is such a humanity in his sainthood!

 

You mentioned Patrick’s sense of God talking to him. Granted that you don’t consider yourself a Christian, can you think of any time in your life when you felt as if possibly God might have been talking to you, or leading you in any particular way?

There are a couple of occasions. One I’m not going to discuss, because it — well, let me tell you about the one that I will.

I was in Croatia, a country where every time I go, my life comes curiously close to ending. On this occasion I was filming in Rijeka, and they put up a temporary wall at this castle to block off the view, with big, heavy, ceramic roofing tiles on it. It was a very windy day, the wind charges through Yugoslavia in November, and it blew the wall over on top of me and really almost killed me.

I’m in this little hospital in Rijeka, which has got holes in the asbestos ceiling and blood and excrement on the walls, so I put on the usual actor’s bluff and said, “Six weeks? I’ll be out of bed in six days!” Which meant, of course, that I was taken to the hotel. You would sleep at night, you’d fall asleep eventually, and in your sleep you would move slightly — and the pain just went right through you, and you’d wake up. And one night I had a fanciful conversation that went like this:

“Are you awake?”

“Yes, yes, you know I’m awake.”

“Oh, how are you feeling?”

“I’m all right, sir, I’m all right, but I have a question for you. Why drop a wall on me?”

“Well, you know, you very important people — sometimes it’s a bit hard to get your attention …”

The conversation went on like that. You realize at certain moments why certain oddities exist. For instance, the celibacy of the priesthood.

In a way, it matters, because it is in those moments where we are defenseless we become accessible to the word of God, or the imagined word of God, or whatever it is. The dialogue that we have with the Creator, with whatever — I am a theist, actually; I do believe; I’m pretty sure that God is a certainty, really, given the size of space and things like that. It’s those moments when God gets a chance of getting our attention.

Whereas, if you’re married, and you wake up in pain, and the wife is there, she says, “Oh, let me get you something,” and that sort of thing. Sometimes the psychology of our relationship with God works when we are alone and we have nothing better to do than listen.

And that, of course, takes you right back to Patrick and those days guarding the hills, guarding the sheep on the hills, absolutely alone for years: the effects of pain and loneliness on the imagination. Or perhaps, really, that’s how the divine actually talks to us on a personal level.

Your story reminds me of a famous line from C.S. Lewis: that God “whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts to us in our pains.”

Oh, isn’t that a good line!

Lewis seems to me to be much a more damaged soul than Tolkien. Tolkien had his Catholic certainty that, I think, sustained him right through his life. Tolkien knew why he was in the first day of the first battle of the Somme, watching other people die and being wounded himself. And he knew that he was there because German militarism threatened civilization.

We forget that. We say the first World War was about nothing worthwhile. That’s not true. German militarism was real and threatened to assert German superiority in the world. There was a strange sort of Wagnerian Götterdämmerung-type mentality in the Germany military — the sort of madness that you fear in any leader.

Most of my life God has smiled on my pleasures, and I’m not quite like John Donne:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun
Which was my sin, though it were done before?

I don’t feel too much guilt — though there are things that I’ve done in my life that I am most profoundly sorry for, acts of profound unkindness and a lack of generosity of spirit. But I’m not too riddled with guilt. Maybe I should be!

Western European Christian civilization is one of the great glories of mankind, and only a fool would dismiss it who has been a beneficiary of it. It is a glory. I will defend it to the best of my limited intellectual abilities, and I will defend those who accept it and love it and cherish it and cherish its origins, as well.

We could talk about the Crusades; we could talk about the conquest of Mexico, and that sort of thing.

Have people made mistakes? Yes. Are they making mistakes? Yes. But there are no other civilizations that have made such a positive difference to mankind.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

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