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John Rhys-Davies: ‘We learn from our exposure to fear’

John Rhys-Jones is returning in the latest Indiana Jones while taking the lead in Victorian-era horror The Gates

In the Indiana Jonesfilms, Harrison Ford brought the heroism and handsomeness, but it was John Rhys-Davies who brought much of the heart and humour.

The Welsh actor played, in a bit of casting you wouldn’t get nowadays, fez-festooned Sallah. And, after reportedly turning down a cameo in the fourth film because it wasn’t substantial enough, Sallah is back for Indiana Jones’s final adventure, The Dial of Destiny

The Big Issue dials into Rhys-Davies, now 79, in a London hotel room. “I’m actually at the Shard,” he says, letting us see his £800-a-night view over the Thames and Tower Bridge. “We’re over here for a few days checking out universities for my daughter and since I’m partly on somebody else’s penny I said” – and he says it very grandly – “Make it the Shard!” 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: John Rhys-Davies and Harrison Ford
With Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989. Image: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

John Rhys-Davies talks like he’s delivering dramatic dialogue, as heard in the teaser trailer to Indiana Jones 5 and scores of his film and TV credits. Those include some of the biggest franchises in cinema history – James Bond and Lord of the Rings, as well as Indy’s sidekick. He speaks extravagantly and thinks that way too.

This isn’t our first interview. Back in the carefree pre-Brexit, pre-pandemic, pre-everything-else-that’s-gone-on days, Rhys-Davies shared his views with us in 2016. His idea that voting age should be raised to 26; his warning that the “desperately inadequate” Obama has “allowed the wolves to get strong, and now the wolves are gathering” (which in retrospect was quite prescient); and he railed against our “intellectually inadequate leaders”, stating “Cameron, Brown and Blair must be the least qualified men to govern a country that we’ve had in 200 years”. 

Since then we’ve had, among others, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. How does he rate those intellectual titans? 

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“We are to blame,” he laments. “We are to blame,” he repeats, “because we have neglected what is necessary in leadership. If we are democrats, we must take responsibility for that. If we want virtuous governments we have to start grooming our children as they go through school. Perhaps we need to lean a little bit more on ethics in our education. 

“The world that we talked about seven years ago… is a different world,” he continues in an answer that subsequently takes in the damages of lockdown, whether the virus came from a lab in Wuhan and how the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano eruption last year is the real climate catastrophe to be aware of.

I might not agree with everything John Rhys-Davies says, but disagreeing with somebody is allowed. It’s just a pity that talking with people who have opposing views isn’t something done any more, as we shelter in our echo chambers instead.

“That’s right,” he agrees, noting an “unwillingness to abandon a previously held position”.

“I love that Maynard Keynes quote. When somebody pointed out that he’d changed his opinion, he said, ‘Well, when circumstances change, I change my opinions. What sir, do you do?’”

Besides the fifth Indiana Jones, John Rhys-Davies has another new film out now. The Gates is a chillingly effective Victorian-era horror in which he plays Frederick Ladbroke, a post-mortem photographer turned paranormal investigator facing evils brought about by the first execution of a prisoner by electric chair. Set at a time when science was simultaneously explaining away the mysteries of the world while creating its own miracles, was that a theme that appealed?

“Yes, very much so. I count myself a rationalist and a sceptic. But I find it hard to dismiss the possibility of the spirit. I have met one or two people who had a quality about them that I’ve never seen in humans before. They had grace. And I’ve seen it.

“What we know about the universe tells us how unusual it is that everything has come together. There are some scientific questions that we cannot find a way of answering. Why should anything exist?” 

The internet means that information – everything humans have found out so far – is available to all. 

“Knowledge passing between people has never been passed so freely,” Rhys-Davies says. “And yet, what do we use the internet for? Well, as reported recently, there’s a group of people who pay good money to watch macaque monkeys being tortured. There is in the human spirit the capacity for such wonderful inquiry and creation – and a void of viciousness and sadism.” 

Has the modern world brought that out more in us? 

“It has always been there. When people are frightened, if they get a chance of exorcising their fear through cruelty on another victim, they will do so. It is a human response.” 

Do horror films have a positive role to play in providing a positive outlet for the negative forces that can drive us? 

“We love that frisson of fear sometimes. Historically, of course, we learn from our exposure to fear. The Catholic Church has always sought a way of controlling the darkness, the demonic, the evil. Sprenger, in Malleus Maleficarum in the 15th century said what do you do when faced with evil? Well, if the Devil appears to you, you make the sign of the cross and say ‘ET VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST!’ And the word was made flesh, because evil lusts for the flesh as we yearn for the spirit. It’s that need to provide relief from fear, a way of coping with unknown horrors. That was one of the functions of religion.” 

The rationalist sceptic is not religious himself, but there is a fascination with how his world has been influenced by organised religion.

“I cannot get over the fact that the debt of Western European civilisation to Catholicism is almost limitless,” Rhys-Davies says. “If you want to praise God on a regular basis, you need a hymn. You need to get a group of people who sing together. If you want to do that, perhaps you want new songs to praise, which means we need writers.

“The same is true of art. Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is an extraordinary painting and it brings in so many aspects of symbolic Christianity, all of which are now capable of being rendered in fine oil paintings with detail. And once we get detail, then we can get details of portraiture. And once we get detail of portraiture, then… ‘Can you make a portrait of me?’

“The debt to Catholicism in the West and in the world can never be overstated.”

Mads Mikkelsen, Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James Mangold and John Rhys-Davies attend the UK Premiere of Lucasfilm’ "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" in Leicester Square on June 26, 2023 in London, UK.
Mads Mikkelsen, Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James Mangold and John Rhys-Davies attend the UK Premiere of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Photo by StillMoving.Net for Disney

This swings us back into Indiana Jones territory. What really added depth to Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade were the religious relics that drove the quests.  

Rhys-Davies agrees, “Of course it did. They are the great archetypes,” he begins before skipping to other influential mythology such as the siege of Troy, then followed by a spirited recitation from Yeats’ Leda and the Swan

But determined to get a line on the new Indiana Jones film, I ask if he enjoyed watching it. For the first time, John Rhys-Davies seems uncertain about something. 

“I want to see it again,” he says diplomatically. “In the end, it’s whether the audience will accept it or not. 

“If the audience accepts it, then it’s a great film.”

The Gates is available on digital from 3 July (101 Films)

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is out now.

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