The Sheik (1921). 80 minutes. Directed by George Melford. Starring Rudolph Valentino (as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan), Agnes Ayres (as Lady Diana Mayo), Ruth Miller (as Zilah), George Waggner (as Yousaef), Frank Butler (as Sir Aubrey Mayo), Lucien Littlefield (as Gaston), Adolphe Menjou (as Raoul de Saint Hubert), and Walter Long (as Omair).
The Sheik has to be one of the strangest expressions of romance and sexuality that I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of an Arab sheik who abducts an English gentlewoman exploring the deserts of North Africa and holds her captive. At times we see that he hopes she will develop feelings for him, but at others he is intent on having his way with her whether she desires it or not. Regardless of his unsavory intentions, she does fall in love with him, but the movie’s celebration of both him and their relationship is difficult to admire. Overall, The Sheik is an important entry in the history of popular cinema: it both catapulted actor Rudolph Valentino to international fame and caused widespread swooning on the part of female audience members, inspiring countless allusions, imitations, and parodies. But its plot is fairly repulsive, and the theme of sexual subjugation that it explores with some measure of delight is distasteful.
Although Valentino previously had an important role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), for which he came to be known as “The Latin Lover,” it was The Sheik that made him a full-blown idol of the silent screen, earning him the modified epithet “The Great Lover.” The promotional materials for The Sheik proclaim his sexual supremacy, but what that expression of titanic romance looks like on film may strike us as surprising or counterintuitive. Opinionated, commanding, and domineering, Valentino’s Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan is neither sensitive nor approachable. He is a kidnapper and captor, someone who does not spend time wooing the object of his desire. And so in Hassan we are offered someone who is both a villainous would-be rapist and a romantic lead, the movie’s villain and hero rolled into one. If we accept him as romantic protagonist, we must uncomfortably contend with his status as antagonist as well.
While it might be difficult for movie-goers to celebrate the sheik’s complicated character, it might also be hard for a modern-day audience to appreciate Valentino’s appeal as the titular character because of the actor’s particular interpretation of silent film conventions. He frequently adopts a wild-eyed, possessed look in this role. At the time, it was a standard way for a silent actor to convey a range of emotional states meant to frighten and impress us, but today it risks estranging us from the story, making us aware of the artifice of the performance. Even in historical context, Valentino’s facial expressions do not strike me as the strongest version of that silent convention that I have seen. At the risk of potentially offending legions of fans both then and now, I must admit that Valentino does not strike me as the most versatile actor.
His perceived magnetism at the time, however, cannot be overstated. His face is exceptional and beautifully photographed in this film, and he does look romantic, wrapped in layers of rich fabric. He also conveys power and conviction with his stances and gestures, and I could see how his physical presence might be attractive to others. But overall it was hard for me to fully appreciate Valentino’s beauty and charisma because of the details of the plot and characterization—the sheik’s status as an unethical kidnapper and a borderline rapist. In the novel The Sheik by Edith Maude Hill that inspired the film, Hassan actually does rape the protagonist Lady Diana, so we can at the very least argue that the movie has toned down the most unsavory elements of its source material. But although the movie’s Hassan does not rape Diana, we often see him grabbing her against her will, intimidating her sexually as she cowers, and threatening her. It is hard to say how much healthier the celluloid depiction really is.
At its worst, the movie, although light, is an example of a serious phenomenon that some might today use the term “rape culture” to describe. This aspect of society, however it is defined and delimited, is generally perceived as a force that normalizes sexual activity undertaken without consent or even makes it seem attractive. I say this about the movie for several reasons, primarily because it romanticizes the process of abduction and sexual oppression. Hassan fundamentally makes Diana a sexual prisoner, and he works to wear her down psychologically, to break her will. Even at the movie’s conclusion she presumably remains trapped, held captive, so that when she acknowledges her love for him, it is not clear to me if her consent is truly meaningful. It is therefore a kind of love relationship that is not built on mutual feeling but on disenfranchisement.
Yet in spite of this imbalance, it is clear that we are meant to think of the sheik and his relationship with Lady Diana in a positive light: The Sheik uses the final scenes where Diana is rescued by Hassan to show his heroism and celebrate his bravery. He turns into a Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.-style swashbuckler, sneaking into a palace, slicing up guards, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the bandit Omair who has stolen Diana from him. Although Hassan is a near rapist, he saves Diana from certain rape at the hands of Omair (we actually see Omair chasing Diana around a locked room). But this caused me to wonder which is better: the kidnapper whom we are sure will violate Diana in a dramatic finale or the man who has long-term designs on the very same thing? The man who acts violently and abruptly or the man who wears her down slowly? The Sheik does not offer its audience many desirable choices.
I am aware that in spite of my objections, The Sheik was a major source of romantic fantasies for a generation of women. This is a movie that was famously accompanied by swooning and fainting among its original female audience members. I attribute this partially to the softness of the sex story—the fact that Diana remains unviolated at the end—and the fluffiness of the characterizations in general. Hassan’s hard exterior is shown to be permeable at times, such as the scene where he eavesdrops on Diana, learns that she cares for him, and reacts with joy. Valentino’s beauty also helps. Perhaps it is easy and safe for an impressionable mind to appreciate his good looks and move from there to participation in the fantasy that the abduction could be all about the transformative expression of his desire. Late in the movie, in what must be its silliest moment, The Sheik even makes Hassan’s Arab/Muslim nature safe for Western fantasies: we learn that the sheik is not really an Arab but rather is half English, half Spanish, so Diana and Hassan do not risk miscegenation.
Agnes Ayres as Diana is fairly spunky and brave for most of the picture. It is not hard to see why women of the 1920s or any era would enjoy mentally taking her place, at least in the movie’s early phases. Smartly dressed in explorer clothes for many scenes, she looks bold, assertive. Diana’s campaign to journey through the desert alone is impressive, and she does it in spite of men’s warnings. As a beautiful and rebellious character, she is the movie’s glamorous adventurer hero, sneaking into an Arab bridal market, dressing in foreign clothes, riding off into the unknown—until she is captured, and then she languishes in scene after scene. Her subjugation by the sheik eradicates the adventurous strain of the story and results in her sitting around at length. It is true that she shows initiative and tries to escape several times. But her escape attempts drive home how helpless she is, either caught in a sandstorm or lost in the sun-beaten desert and captured again. The whole story is unfortunately in many ways a cautionary tale about the outside world and global adventure, specifically for female explorers of whatever stripe.
I have seen the sequel The Son of the Sheik (1926), made five years later, that also stars Valentino and Ayres. In the follow-up film, Valentino plays two roles, both the sheik of the first movie, now older and married to Diana, and their adult son, who is pursuing the desert dancer Yasmin. I wish I could say that the sequel showed that some reflection had taken place on the part of filmmakers since the original Sheik was released, and that perhaps the sexual politics of that movie had been reevaluated. The Son of the Sheik, however, revisits precisely the same scenario: the young sheik falls in love with Yasmin, believes he is betrayed by her, and kidnaps her to punish her—the movie does not explicitly mention how he plans to accomplish this, instead preferring to imply that his solution is again sexual subjugation. I strove to appreciate what I could in the first movie, but I felt less inclined to do so the second time around.
The Son of the Sheik was released two weeks after Valentino’s death from peritonitis after emergency surgery on a perforated ulcer. Thousands of people lined the streets to pay their respects to the departed actor. If we are to understand Valentino’s fame, especially his reputation as the Great Lover, we must attempt to understand the Sheik movies. But I imagine that if Valentino were young and alive today, keen on establishing himself as a romantic star, he would not likely select such material again. His youth has been preserved for all time thanks to an untimely death in his prime and the longevity of film, but the plots of his great achievements have aged less well.
It should be noted that although Valentino’s performance received a great deal of attention in its own era, Hassan’s character type, which is admittedly harsh, is not a ubiquitous romantic personality in silent films. Interestingly, while the Hassan character thrived in his own mini franchise, nevertheless the rest of the silent film world offered many alternatives to the Sheik persona, before and after The Sheik’s release. Silent films populated both dramas and comedies with many earnest and sweet male characters portrayed by John Gilbert, Charles Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton among many others and depicted as charming, accessible, and attentive lovers. If you are new to silent films and are curious about what is normative, I recommend checking out the work of some of these other stars.