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 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.
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