The world according to John Rhys-Davies: Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings and shouting at MPs on Question Time

John Rhys-Davies - James Davies/Alamy
John Rhys-Davies - James Davies/Alamy

John Rhys-Davies wants advice on his daughter’s GCSEs. “Her choice is between economics and geography,” he tells me over the phone from his home on the Isle of Man. Which would I go for? As someone who can scarcely tell the difference between a fixed cost and a fault plane, I’m not the man to ask.

No matter: he’s off again, tumbling between topics - geomorphology, Calvinism and Robert J Gordon’s economic tome The Rise and Fall of American Growth. It’s clear Rhys-Davies, who also has two much older children from his marriage to his late wife Susie, loves to talk. And with a voice like that, why not? It’s a marvellous instrument: oaky, with a laugh that is simultaneously thunderous and infectious.

In fact, it’s a good five minutes before I tack us towards the reason we’re talking: the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s homage to the swashbuckling Saturday morning flicks they grew up watching as kids, it starred Harrison Ford as a bullwhip-cracking, Nazi-biffing archaelogist on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant.

Fresh from his success on the Eighties TV mini series Shogun, Rhys-Davies played Jones’s Egyptian fixer and sidekick, Sallah. He reprised the character in the third film, Last Crusade.

“Lucas and Spielberg had a wonderful ability to remember their childhood,” he recalls of the shoot. “When I got sent the script, I’d never seen anything like it. It was just pages and pages of description. We made up a lot of the dialogue as we went along.”

Spielberg, who had recently broken into Hollywood with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was a notorious perfectionist, insisting on dozens of takes. Not on Raiders.

“‘I’m making this film with my friend’s money, George’s money’, he told me,” Rhys-Davies remembers. “‘We can’t afford to go over. What I’m hoping to do is shoot first, and use the first and second takes. We’ll be slapping paint on the canvas and working quickly.’ And he captured that immediacy.”

In some ways, Raiders is the most knock-about of the original trilogy. Like Roger Moore-era Bond, the gags are frequent, the emotional stakes hurdle-height, and deaths grotesquely overblown. It ends, after all, with the wrath of God melting the face of a Nazi commander. Did Spielberg, who comes from a family of Orthodox Jews, regret this light-hearted approach?

Rhys-Davies is thoughtful: “Steven’s sensibility at that time was that the Nazis were still cartoon characters. But as the series went on, it became harder and harder to regard them as comic.”

Rhys-Davies with Denholm Elliott in a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - Alamy
Rhys-Davies with Denholm Elliott in a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - Alamy

Spielberg followed the Indiana Jones trilogy with his Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. “One of the hardest things to persuade anyone is the reality of evil,” says Rhys-Davies. “I’ve seen it once or twice in my life: all those things that medieval theologians used to talk about, that choking sense of reducing life to power, corruption and death. Particularly in a mob situation, you look around and see no compassion, no tenderness, no willingness to spare the guy who's about to get a kicking.”

Sallah, of course, is a sunny presence in Raiders, most famous for saving Indy from eating “bad dates” after spotting the corpse of a hungry Capuchin monkey on the floor. Yet representation has been a hot-button topic in the arts of late. As a Welsh, Rada-trained actor did Rhys-Davies feel he was the right person to play an Egyptian Muslim?

“Look, acting is pretending,” he says. “If I was a minority person, seeing someone playing my minority, I too would say: ‘Well, it’s not fair, I’m the real thing.’ Actors are notorious for wanting to defend their opportunities. But to create a character that is rich and satisfying does not depend on your ethnicity; it depends on your life experience, your imagination and what serves the script.”

Certainly, no-one could fault Rhys-Davies for his malleability. Over the course of a 50-year career, he’s played a Portugese adventurer (in Shogun), a 3D simulation of Leonardo da Vinci (Startrek: Voyager) and a member of the Praetorian Guard (I, Claudius). But it was his roles in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that proved how ambidextrous he could be - at 6ft 1in, he played the dwarf Gimli (thanks to some CGI and a “size double”) and voiced a towering living tree, Treebeard.

The films were a gamble: Jackson was an untested indie director, his preferred method of shooting all three films back-to-back over the course of 17 months was unprecedented, and Tolkien’s books were widely thought to be unfilmable.

Rhys-Davies as the warrior dwarf Gimli in Lord of the Rings - Alamy
Rhys-Davies as the warrior dwarf Gimli in Lord of the Rings - Alamy

Yet they were a storming critical and commercial success. “No one believed this little chap from New Zealand [could do it]," says Rhys-Davies. "When you have a film with 21 leading characters, and 1400 extras -- those big, epic pictures -- you’re in a different order of trouble. That he not only got the money for it, but managed to satisfy 99 per cent of the fan base is an extraordinary achievement. It was one of the greatest triumphs of filmmaking that I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Filmed extensively in New Zealand, where he met his current partner and the mother of his young daughter, the London-born journalist Lisa Manning, the trilogy fostered a deep camaraderie among cast and crew. Except for one actor.

Rhys-Davies’s laugh booms: “There was only one miserable son-of-a-bitch on the show, and that was me! [Gimli's] prosthetics were really tough to wear. We were using medical adhesive to keep them on, and it was tremendously strong and not designed to be taken off and put on every day, so I lost all the skin around my eyes. I looked hideous, so much so that my lady friend told me she couldn’t bear to look at me.”

Since Lord of the Rings, Rhys-Davies has kept a relatively low profile. But his 2019 appearance on BBC’s Question Time caused a stir. He defended Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and butted heads with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. Their ding-dong culminated in Rhys-Davies slamming his hands down on the table and shouting “Oh woman!” in exasperation. The host, Fiona Bruce, has since said she regrets not shutting him down. How does he feel now about the outburst?

Another hearty roar. “I was annoyed. It’s impossible to gather your thoughts when you’ve got someone making faces and twittering. It’s like having a fly butting around your face. She had humiliated the three members of parliament we had on the show, and she’d just interviewed Greta Thunberg. It was like she’d met baby Jesus. There was this self-promoting, ingratiating glow to her gloating over these poor MPs.”

Was the format of the BBC’s flagship political debate to blame?

“How the hell do you get a voice heard in these absurd set-ups?,” he wonders. “Good arguments should make you re-appraise your judgement.”

Has Thunberg's message prompted him to re-appraise his views?

He pauses. “Do we want a good environment? Yes. Do we want to control our environment? Yes. But not everyone is evil, even the big oil companies. Capitalism has a lot of issues - but it’s also brought a lot of comforts.”

The actor on the BBC's Question Time in 2019, when he lost his temper at Green MP Caroline Lucas
The actor on the BBC's Question Time in 2019, when he lost his temper at Green MP Caroline Lucas

Rhys-Davies, too, has been outspoken about immigration. In 2004, comments he had made about the speed at which the world’s Muslim population was growing were printed on a BNP leaflet. He says this was “distressing” but adds, “If you listen to what people are saying, they are worried [about immigration]. And they have a right to a government that acts on their wishes.”

The fear of being “cancelled”, he believes, paralyses debate on such issues.

“You will doubtless end up piloring me as a Right wing neo-facist,” he teases. “[But] we should be brave -- ideas are ideas. We seem to have lost the ability to listen to diverse arguments without imputing racial charges or political bias. People are becoming less tolerant. As I get older, the more I like people, and I have greater faith in the instincts of ordinary people. Part of the anger I sense in England is that the Caroline Lucases of the world have too much say.”

These existential questions are the subject of Rhys-Davies’s next project - an Isle of Man-based film studio probing how best to live now, in the 21st Century with all its challenges.

“The only function of old men is to look down the road and see where the ambush is coming from. And this silverback sees an awful lot of places where the ambush will appear. [I predict] a loss of faith that the future will get better. I think we have the conditions for a perfect storm around the mid-2030s.”

Not that Rhys-Davies sees only darkness ahead. “I'm a lucky man. I've played such wonderful roles. And I'm trying to get better at listening."

He pauses. Then a final crack of laughter: “It's still a work in progress.”