In the world of geekdom, Mr John Rhys-Davies is a legend. He may well have over two hundred and fifty acting credits to his name, but it’s his part in two of the biggest (and greatest) franchises of all time that will always leap to the forefront. As Sallah in both Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Last Crusade and Gimli in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, he portrayed characters whose external demeanors may have differed, but whose unswerving sense of loyalty and open heartedness made them something to treasure.
We were fortunate enough to have a chat with him over the phone about British horror film Aux, in which he plays an elderly WWII veteran, who has a unique insight into a recent spate of seemingly supernatural murders occurring deep in a local woods. We called him out in Oklahoma “Where the wind comes whistling down the plains” he quotes, where he’d been filming a few months previously and was due to give a lecture in Salt Lake City. As our call connected he politely informed me that “Right at the moment I am in the middle of an online auction, which is very interesting, so we may get interrupted at a certain point!” and being an avid eBayer, decided to start our conversation there.
Mr. Rhys-Davies was on fine form (making me laugh from his first words “I’m John Rhys-Davies! How are you?” and felt obliged at certain points to apologise for telling me stories about his life and experiences, but I could have listened to them for hours, so couldn’t help but encourage him down that route and so without further ado, here’s how our conversation went…
Are you bidding or selling?
I’m afraid I’m bidding, yes. I’m buying an autograph. We’re on lot ninety five and I’m in for one hundred forty-two and one hundred and sixty-seven is my next interest point. I want to buy an autograph of Albert Einstein!
Speaking to someone like yourself, who I’ve been a fan of since I saw Raiders Of The Lost Ark at the cinema as a child, I’m always curious as to what autographs someone of your stature would seek out!
[He lets out an almighty laugh!] I’ll tell you what – I generally tend to go for people whom I’ve actually worked with. I’ve got the most wonderful and sensational picture of my dear and greatly missed friend Jeanne Moreau. Jeanne, at about the age of twenty-five, in a bath tub and looking as hot as any woman on the planet could ever be. That’s one of my treasured ones, but I’ve got one or two of stars that I have really loved and admired. I just thought that Einstein one should have!
We’re going to talk about your new film Aux, but it was only when I said it out loud to someone earlier that I realised that the pronunciation is the same as orcs, which also links back to you!
Exactly yes, as in the Lord Of The Rings orcs!
What is your relationship to horror? I’m curious as I’ve always loved and defended the genre, for a multitude of reasons, but some have no stomach for gore. Are you a fan of the genre?
I mean I told Tobe Hooper that when I saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I actually had to leave the cinema [laughs] it was nauseating! He was rather pleased with that. I’ve done a little horror, Tales From The Crypt with the wonderful and brilliant Vanity and Whoopi Goldberg and myself. We did a Tales From The Crypt in which my belly was split open to remove something, some jewel or something like that. It’s something that everyone wants to do. Everyone wants to do a cowboy film, don’t they and everyone wants to do some horror.
I really loved the script for Aux. I thought it was brilliant, I thought it was authentic. The other actors were marvelous. It had been a while since I had actually worked with British based actors and I was just so impressed by just how damn good they all are. Our standards are tremendously high really and I loved the story and the fact that it’s based on a very short period of something very real that happened in World War II. We know that these places actually still exist and we also know that that generation when it was asked to sign the official secrets act, even after fifty years had gone by, they still kept schtum.
It’s fascinating, because in many ways the Home Guard aspect of World War II always conjures images of Dad’s Army and in fact there’s a line in the film where it references that show, but it actually takes away from how sinister things actually were.
Yes, yes. My father was in the Home Guard, actually, he was in the restricted trade. He was born in 1909, so he would have been thirty-one, or thirty-two. He was an ex-heavy weight amateur champion of Wales. He was an engineer before he was in a restricted trade, but he was the second engineer in charge of the Wiltshire-Dorset Bus Company at the time, so in addition to making sure the buses were working, he was snowplowing, he was emergency recovery. Many times he was snowplowing and leading the military vehicles, over the Salisbury plain, through the snow to get them back to their barracks.
He was recovering people from Dunkirk – everyone was tasked with various jobs, to get the troops back. He said to me ‘if anyone imagines that Dunkirk was a victory, they should have seen the men in my buses when I was driving them back”; these men were stood in water with their guns above their heads for three days. They got into the bus and got back to the barracks and were absolutely silent all the way, just exhausted and some of them were so silent and so demoralised, they actually left their guns in the bus. Which I think was how he acquired the Bren gun for his unit, but he reckoned that if the Germans come in advance, he could put down a pretty good damn hail of fire, on the obvious advance route from Southampton, from where he was, without being spotted. But that’s really beside the point!
Not at all, it’s great to have personal insight and it might also account for the allure of doing the film, if it had a personal link back to your own father.
It was a damn good script. It a period of history that all of us are attached to. I mean I was born in ’44, sort of four years after this really. But you know, the Britain that I grew up with, which was one of pride from having survived the war, pride in having defeated Nazism and the exhaustion of Empire in the early days, the disillusionment and hedonism of the sixties – that’s very much my inheritance. The tragedy for my generation is that we… we asserted liberties, but forgot that with liberties come responsibilities and we disassociated the two – that’s pretty damn tragic and for your generation as well.
Absolutely, I think that while that war has affected everyone in our lifetime, it’s not that we forget about it as such, but almost take it for granted and don’t challenge or embrace what it’s actually meant for us.
Yes, yes and this is a super story, it’s a super script and it’s a real tribute to the sheer cleverness of English film making. This is not the biggest budget film, but it will damn well entertain people and give them real good value for money and in the end, that’s what it’s about! It’s not spending a hundred and fifty million dollars on glorified effects and things like that, super effects and digital composition and things like that.
Obviously, there are special effects in Aux, but it’s about the story and it’s a story that we haven’t heard before and that attracted me. When we talk about it being a horror story, I mean it isn’t a gratuitous horror story, it’s an interesting look at anger and the hatred that you have to have to execute a war properly and the absurdity of war – that the church bells were rung because of a school boys prank. It’s one of a number of films that I’m really proud to have been in and I hope the audiences will like this.
And talking of spending millions on effects, I don’t know if you’d spotted that Amazon is making a Lord Of The Rings TV series?
[He sighs] Well, you know they have the money to do it. Why we quite need Lord Of The Rings as a TV series baffles me slightly, but I’m sure that [in all honesty I can’t make out the word here and don’t think it’s wise to make an educated guess] are so utterly un-principled and greedy for money for anything – I mean the extraordinary money they’re getting from online gambling and stuff like this, it’s just a disgrace. I mean, poor Tolkien must be spinning in his grave.
For me it seems like a slightly futile endeavor, as the films you were in are perfect and incredibly important to me and still so current – it’s fantasy, so it’s not something that needs modernizing or anything adding to it.
Yes, but this is the point you see – it’s not about doing it better, it’s about making more money that’s all. If they think they can make more money, then they will. Actually I’ve got a better idea for them, or for any company – Lord Of The Rings spun-off an awful lot of imitations about elves and dwarves and things like that and I would simply buy those up and put them together and make a wonderful elvish… there was a trilogy of books that were given to me the other day by a lady author, who’d written an account of the adventures of a dwarvish lady.
That would make a far more interesting account of Tolkien’s words, in a world like that. And you know there are hundreds and hundreds of young writers, who have made their contributions and if was a well-heeled film producer, that’s where I’d be looking, because that gives more actors more chances and it’s still a great tribute to Tolkien. It costs less to make and it would be original and fresh, but then what the hell do I know!?
[We both laugh] I agree with you, there’s nothing original about the proposition. Now I know that working on your Lord Of The Rings trilogy was a more lonely experience, but is it something that you miss?
It’s was very interesting going back, just to cheer up the dwarves in their first scene I think and to go back to the studio where you’ve been – it’s like going back to your own school, where you know, you’ve been head boy, where the world has gone round you and then suddenly you go back and the others think ‘This is interesting, who’s this old man? Oh yeah, wasn’t he in the other one?’ you know, suddenly you’re completely separated from it, and the little shits didn’t even invite me to the opening party for The Hobbit, would you believe!
[Laughing] Unbelievable considering your own fictional father was in it too!
[That big laugh booms out again!] ‘Welcome ever smiles, and farewell goes out sighing!’ [A Shakespeare quote from Troilus And Cressida]
And appreciating it now in hindsight, was the challenge of pushing your performance of Gimli through the prosthetics, hair and costume still one that holds up above most others you’ve had?
Immensely so, I mean just to move any of that silicone, you had to gurney just to get any slight movement in it and learning to do that was in itself a real challenge. It was physically a very, very hard show to do and yet I knew at the time that it was going to be one of the most remarkable series of films in post-war film making and I think it will stand to step the test of time anyway. It was so rich.
As someone who grew up on Star Wars as child, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy was really the only set of films since that managed to exactly recapture that sense of awe and excitement when I was an adult.
They’re amazing films and he’s a good [character], he represents the very best of us, or what we would imagine be the best of us, and the very worst of us, he’s narrow, he’s xenophobic, he’s hostile, he’s aggressive and at the same time, you know he’s the most loyal friend and has a greatness of heart and matchless courage. And of course the real secret about him is, he’s funny because he doesn’t realise he’s small! [laughs]
We only have a minute left, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask and Indiana Jones question – were all of Sallah’s lines written, or were you able to improvise at all?
Well, a lot of it was written at the time – in the first one it was very much written, as we went along, and I think he’s a very interesting character, he’s actually the last Arab hero in western popular culture and that’s a tragedy for both the middle-east and for the western popular [culture]. I personally see him ending up rather like Khaled al-Asaad, that marvelous little fellow who defended his museum as ISIS advanced. Hid the museum’s treasures and refused to divulge where they were and was in fact beheaded in the town square in front of his museum. There are still Arab heroes and there’s still great, great men you know, and perhaps that’s one reason why we should try and have Sallah back in the next one, just to remind ourselves, they’re not all fanatical.
John Rhys-Davies, thank you very much!
Aux is out now at Showcase cinemas.