Actor John Rhys-Davies may be best known for his role as Gimli in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy, but given that he’s got more than 260 movies and television series under his belt, he may be better known by some for another project.
One of his latest is the role of St. Patrick, the patron of Ireland, in “I Am Patrick.” The movie will play on select U.S. screens two days only, March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day — and 18, as a Fathom event.
Asked what attracted him to the part, Rhys-Davies, in a March 10 telephone interview with Catholic News Service from the Isle of Man in England, where he has a home, said simply, “The man himself.”
But, as is Rhys-Davies’ wont, he elaborated. “This is really the first sense of autobiography that we have coming out of the Dark Ages,” he said, a reference to St. Patrick’s “Confessio.”
“And his achievements are remarkable. He goes there a slave, and the island he visited was a nightmare: human sacrifice, very painful torture, people living in fear and superstition. And yet, because of him, by the ninth century, Ireland — which was one of the most savage countries in the world — is the light of the North. Catholic Irish civilization by the ninth century is one of the great illuminating lights of civilization. What an achievement! Who would not want to play just some part in exploring just how that happened?”
Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken to their homeland as a slave. He escaped, returning to Britain, then 10 years later he felt called to return to Ireland as a missionary.
Rhys-Davies is one of three Patricks in the movie. Other actors play the young Patrick who is kidnapped, made a slave, escapes and studies for the priesthood, and a more middle-aged Patrick, by this time a bishop yet with all the missionary zeal of a man half his age.
It’s not as though you’ll blink and Rhys-Davies is gone from the screen. You’ll see him writing his “Confessio” and reminiscing about the events of his younger days, and he’ll narrate some of the action off screen as well.
But all of his scenes were shot with just him, with few if any other actors to play off of.
“When you’ve got a script that’s that good and a subject that wonderful, how can you possibly go wrong? There are always challenges. Whatever you do, there’s challenge,” Rhys-Davies said. “What I love about this man is that he is a man as well as a saint. He’s doing God’s work and he’s going to do this way because that’s the way it has to be done!”
He said his approach to playing historical figures is to “read.”
“I’ve always been really interested in history. And I am very widely read,” the actor said. “And so when I get a historical figure, by and large, I know what the milieu and what the values of that society were and I don’t have to study deeply around the society. You have to study the man.”
“Lifelong reading has made a lot of those decisions a lot easier,” he added. “But you’re always being surprised, learning something you never knew before.”
“One of the saddest things about getting old,” said Rhys-Davies, who will turn 76 in May, “is going whole days without someone telling you something you didn’t know before.”
Rhys-Davies acknowledged it can be unnerving to portray a religious figure as adherents may not want to have their understanding of such figures challenged cinematically.
“I suppose it could,” he told CNS. “I don’t edit that much myself in that way. I get a script, and my job is to do the work, carry out the vision and the words of the writer, producer and to take direction from them. Now obviously, if we had St. Patrick doing something absolutely controversial, you know, I would really say, ‘Come on, what is the chapter and verse for this?’”
Any last words of advice? “Keep that sense of wonder and extraordinariness about life.”
“I Am Patrick” “seeks to debunk many of the myths and legends that have grown up around its subject over the centuries. The goal is to capture who Patrick really was as a man and a follower of Christ,” said a review of the movie by Sister Hosea Rupprecht, a Daughter of St. Paul who is a CNS guest reviewer. Writer-director Jarrod Anderson “gives moviegoers an opportunity to view this popular saint as the lover of Christ and proclaimer of the Gospel that he was. His screen biography thus makes especially apt fare for Lent.”
The film is classified A-II — adults and adolescents — for “brief stylized violence.”