The Sheik (1921)


  • directed by George Melford
  • starring Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Lucien Littlefield, Walter Long, Adolphe Menjou, Frank Butler
  • An Arabian sheik becomes infatuated with an adventurous Englishwoman and abducts her to his home in the Sahara.

I have no clue what to make of this movie, which was made not to honor the 1919 romance novel by Edith Maude Hull and not to commit to any kind of message in regard to interracial love, but primarily to keep the Valentino marketing machine churning for his new production company. Famous Players-Lasky, having just signed the star after the hugely successful Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, needed a project as big to keep the ball rolling on his “Latin Lover” public persona and they settled on this Saharan-set romance.

Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in the novel is an Arab leader who vengefully swore off his European beginnings, eventually adopting a culture in which wives are won by gambling and rape is something akin to foreplay. These stereotypes, greatly heightened by Hull, allow for the eventual warming of feelings on the part of the victimized Diana to hit readers as a taboo, dangerous, forbidden style of love affair. Valentino was uncomfortable with a negative portrayal of Arab culture, however, so the end result for the film is instead a giant hole where character-defining moments should have been. There are insinuations of untoward behavior but for the most part the Sheik just saunters around with a silly smile desperately trying to keep Diana in his possession. A series of escape attempts by Diana followed by her recapture is pretty much all that happens. That and watching Valentino with, as you can see in the above photo, a supremely off-putting horny look on his face for the entirety.

Women at the time found Valentino irresistible and I can’t figure out how much would have had to change in the last 90 years for that to be possible. Also, while I’m nitpicking, did the defiant and modern-minded Diana really choose a region of the world where a roulette wheel chooses brides for bidding gentlemen as a vacation from the marriage pressures back home? Sure enough, though, after a while of captivity even the tough and independent Diana begins coming around on the Sheik and this slowly morphs into utter devotion when he saves her from the bandit Omair. She learns of his European parents in the end, a move that somewhat reversed a lot of the messages and tensions in the first two acts and cleared the filmmakers from having to face the controversy of featuring a two-toned, cross-cultured union.

That’s the final story-neutering decision in a long line of them and they all rendered the film as one-note nothingness all the way through. The Sheik basically rests the development of story and character relationships mainly in the hands of the tabloid power of the celebrity out in front. Who needs to connect any dots or deal with world issues in a meaningful way when the tickets for Valentino are already purchased? A sentiment like that behind a production is not necessarily a death sentence, but this one, with its constant broaching of interesting ideas and then cowardice in failing to develop them in substantial ways, was more like the pesky neighborhood kid who keeps ringing the doorbell and running away.

It was unsatisfying that the filmmakers thought that just by having the Sheik and Diana in so many rooms at the same time and having him give some suave glances, we were expected to derive some kind of growing sultry love affair for the ages. If the clock wasn’t 80 minutes away from when I last checked it, I wouldn’t believe I’d actually just watched a movie.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to The Sheik (1921)

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Rocks (1922) | classixquest

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