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Discovering John Rhys Davies

Original Article
Another remarkable intersection of religion and film culture took place recently 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 and, when asked his view of the films, instead 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 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 common sense tradition of representative government, the free market and individual liberty”. Among their many good works, they sponsored 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. The result was a thoroughly jolly evening.

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 dim-witted 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 which 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. If Davies ever decides to abandon his career in film or theatre and simply go around the holding forth like Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, he has a great future ahead of him.

The format for the evening is Seattle was fairly loose. After Medved introduced 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 US, he observed, the Constitution holds something of the place that the monarchy hold 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.

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 repeated his father’s prophetic words that there was not going to be any war between the American and the Russians. “The next world war,” he said, “will be between Islam and the West.”

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 UK for a simple reason: an unbreakable tie to the European Union, said Davies, 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 UK in the situation of a lifeboat tied to the Titanic.

The evening was not all politics. A large contingent of Lord of the Rings fans were on hand (and in costume) and had numerous questions. Davies told a few tales concerning his adventures during filming. He was, he said, initially skeptical of the project, for understandable reasons. A massive epic by a rather obscure director in, of all places, New Zealand? The potential for unmitigated catastrophe was huge. So he went to New Zealand and spent two weeks poking about the production to see if they were really capable of pulling it off. “To my horror” he said, “I became convinced that they could.” He said as much to the Kiwi press, declaring that the films would be bigger than Star Wars and would be near the top of “All Time Greatest” lists in 20 years.

Davies’ sense of humor did not flag in the face of the semi-Trekkie atmosphere. One adolescent Rings fan came dressed as Gimli, complete with beard. Davies remarked that it was good to see some dwarf women out in public.

All in all, the evening was a complete delight. My two eldest sons, who thought they were going to get to ogle a star of their favorite films, wound up inadvertently getting a rather wide and eclectic introduction to what liberal education was once supposed to do. If this is typical Discovery Institute fare, we’ll be back.