Tolkien & Civilization: John Rhys-Davies squares up

By Steve Beard

2003 National Review

When you see him in person, John Rhys-Davies looks a lot taller than he does on the screen. That’s because clever camera angles and movie magic were utilized to make the 6’1 British actor fit the part of his height-challenged and axe-wielding dwarf character named Gimli in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. On the day of the Hollywood premiere, he stormed into our press suite at the Four Seasons Hotel with all of the gregariousness and dry wit of his irrepressible character. (He also provides the voice for Treebeard.)

Crammed around a table in the center of the room sat a handful of journalists and film critics who had seen The Return of the King – the final installment of the trilogy – the night before. “Ok, let’s try to sabotage a career again!” he said jokingly, hinting at his willingness to make the interview more memorable—whether he was talking about the filmability of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or the potential downfall of Western Civilization.

To most movie fans, Rhys-Davies is most recognizable for his role as Sallah, an Egyptian archeologist, in the blockbuster films Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (It has been rumored that he may also appear in Indiana Jones IV.) He was here, however, to make his rounds at the press junket for The Return of the King.

“As you remember, Tolkien, I think, sold the original rights for a hundred pounds because he didn’t think the book could ever be made into a film,” he said. “And he’s right. It’s unfilmable.… If you are going to tell the story in the book…you will break all the rules of Filmmaking 101. The structure’s impossible.” He praised director Peter Jackson, however, for struggling to make the structure work for the film without sacrificing “fidelity to the book.”

When it was pointed out that Gimli is one of the principal characters of comic relief in the movies, Rhys-Davies took it in stride. Rather humorously, he synopsized the structure of The Lord of the Ring as follows: “Something’s quite nice, and then something bad goes wrong, and then there’s a fight, and then something gets worse, and then there’s a bigger fight, and then things look really bad, and then there’s a battle, and then things look really, really bad, and then there’s a bigger battle, and then things look really, really bad.”

Cutting into the laughter, he continued. “That’s the structure of the damn thing. And you can’t have that mounting tension all the way through. So we needed to find ways of sort of releasing the tension,” he said. “And we decided that Gimli was probably the way to do it. Because there’s something innately funny about Gimli.”

While Rhys-Davies strikes you as happy-go-lucky actor with a hearty laugh, there was one subject that brought the laughter to a halt as he spoke with sober intonations: the future of Western Civilization.

“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,” he confessed after being asked about how much resonance he had with Tolkien’s religious beliefs and perspectives.

“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,” he responded.

Rhys-Davies’ unique childhood was spent in both the United Kingdom and colonial Africa. While he viewed the experience as an “ideal background for being an actor,” one also senses that it contributes to his passionate beliefs about Western values.

He recalled a conversation with his father back in the summer of 1955 as the two of them overlooked the Dar Es Salaam harbor in Tanzania. He remembers his father pointing to a boat and saying, “Twice a year it comes down from Aden [in Yemen]. It stops here and goes down [south]. On the way down it’s got boxes of machinery and goods. On the way back up it’s got two or three little black boys on it. Now, those boys are slaves. And the United Nations will not let me do anything about it.”

As the conversation continued on that warm summer day, his father said, “Look, boy, there is not going to be a world war between Russia and the United States. The next world war will be between Islam and the West.”

“Dad, you’re nuts,” Rhys-Davies responded. “The Crusades have been over for hundreds of years!’” (Precocious as it sounds at age 11, he points out that he did indeed know a “bit about history.”) After all, it was 1955. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the United States and the Cold War was front-burner foreign policy.

His father responded, “Well, I know but militant Islam is on the rise again. And you will see it in your lifetime.”

Although his father has passed on, Rhys-Davies says that “there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him and think, ‘God, I wish you were here, just so I could tell you that you were right.’”

Many of the Lord of the Rings actors have utilized their new found fame to embrace political causes. Viggo Mortensen (“Aragron”) bashes President Bush with low-simmered contempt, Sean Astin (“Sam”) hinted at running for political office, while Billy Boyd (“Pippin”) and Dominc Monaghan (“Merry”) promote various environmental causes.

Rhys-Davies, however, runs contrary to the prevailing political sentiment of the industry that feeds him. “You do realize that in this town [Hollywood], what I’ve been saying is rather like, sort of – oh well, I can’t find a comparable blasphemy … but we’ve got to get a bit serious.”

Surveying the room, he said: “What is unconscionable is that too many of your fellow journalists do not understand how precarious Western civilization is and what a joy it is. From it, we get real democracy. From it, we get the sort of intellectual tolerance that allows me to propound something that may be completely alien to you around this table….”

He continued by saying, “The abolition of slavery comes from Western democracy. True democracy comes from our Greco-Judeo-Christian-Western experience. If we lose these things, then this is a catastrophe for the world.” He pointed out that while projected population statistics in Western Europeans will be falling sharply over the next twenty years, Islam will become more prominent in those countries.

“There is a change happening in the very complexion of Western Civilization in Europe that we should think about, at least, and argue about,” he said. “If it just means the replacement of one genetic stock with another genetic stock, that doesn’t matter too much. But if it involves the replacement of Western Civilization with a different civilization with different cultural values, then it is something we really ought to discuss.”

Recognizing the sheer politically incorrect nature of his commentary, he summed it up by saying, “I am for dead white male culture”—utilizing a derogatory catchphrase used on college campuses to describe Western Culture.

As Rhys-Davies stood to leave the room, he jokingly asked the writers to make sure to “put verbs in my sentences” and concluded by saying: “By and large, our cultures and our society are resilient enough to put up with any sort of nonsense. But if Tolkien’s got a message, it’s, ‘Sometimes you’ve got to stand up and fight for what you believe in.’ He knew what he was fighting for in World War I.”

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck. This article appeared December 17, 2003 at  National Review Online. 


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