The Sheik (1921) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Sheik (1921)

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Danny DISLIKESilent film acting is an art, perhaps even a more difficult affair than what you see nowadays on stage or screen. Unbelievable as it may seem, there is a certain subtlety required to give your performance weight, intensity, believability, and, above all else, not to confuse the audience while you spend most of the film mugging like an idiot.

The legendary Rudolph Valentino is not a great silent film actor, at least not here. He play Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, leader of a proud tribe in Algiers, a rapscallion but bound by noble blood.

He's doing okay on his own until he meets proud Lady Diana Mayo, as played by Agnes Ayres. She's a petulant and haughty heiress who travels the world seeking adventure. Since she's fiercely independent (which, for a movie made in 1921, is an almost unforgivable sin) she has decided to take a month long trek into the desert against the wishes of her brother.

The night before she is to leave, however, she finds herself intrigued by an Arab only casino next door. She offers a dancing girl money for her outfit and she sneaks in, watching a bride auction with barely restrained moral indignation. She's discovered by a mugging Ben Hassan, who looks at her with the subtle dignity that Wile E. Coyote has when he spies Roadrunner.

She manages to get out of the situation by holding a gun to the laughing sheik. Intrigued, he bribes her guide and then sneaks into her room in the middle of the night to remove the bullets from her gun. He then sneaks out while she slumbers, waiting until he is outside to begin to sing a boisterous tune. In the desert, Lady Mayo is quickly betrayed and brought to the knees of the eager sheik, who spends most of this time grinning wildly. In fact, Valentino plays most of the first half of the movie with such a dumb grin on his face that it wouldn't have surprised me if he'd ended the movie by shouting "Punk'd!".

Well, okay, it would surprise me a little.

So the film takes on a familiar trope, namely the taming of the sand shrew. (And then she becomes a Sandslash when she reaches level 22! Pokemon jokes and silent films, this film blog is going to go far.) Like so many great works of literature, such as, oh, I dunno, Bought: Destitute yet Defiant, The Innocent's Surrender, His Mistress for a Million or even Greek Tycoon, Inexperienced Mistress, we have a strong independent woman being reared by a man of unlimited machismo. Surprisingly, all of these books are from Harlequin.

Even more surprising is how easy it is for Ben Hassan to break his mistress. How does he do it? Well, I'm not entirely sure.

You see, in the original book the sheik rapes her and that causes her to fall madly in love with him. And, boy, while that's a great plot, in the movie, they gloss over that to the point that you barely even get a hint. Instead, in a scene or two after Lady Mayo refuses, suddenly she yearns for him and writes sappy things in the sand about her love.

While I'm not exactly annoyed that the rape got cut, it really adds  to the film's feel of barely contained schizophrenia. The plot barrels through intrigue with the sheik's old school friend, with Mayo getting kidnapped and almost raped by a different bandit, but her previous rapist saves her and then the final revelation about Hassan. What's that revelation? Well, it's a movie from the 20's, and mixing races was still illegal. So what we get instead is the story that Ben Hassan is actually part Spanish, part French. This is discovered when Mayo notices how large his hands are compared to all the other Arabs.

I'm not sure that that's as offensive as rape as a plot point, but considering the number of actors in blackface or even just lightly-tanned face (the movie is in sepia, after all), it's up there.

The whole film has the feel of torrid romance played at the base level. The characters are unlikeable and unsympathetic, the score is schmaltzy and synthetic, and, even if you like endless shots of people riding around in the desert, you might still find that this is a bit too much.

A whole generation of women adored Valentino, and this was the film he was remembered for. Of course, a whole generation of men loathed Valentino, and though I'm nearly a century late and certainly not worried about his supposed charms, I will happily throw in with that lot.

The Sheik is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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The Sheik (1921)

Trailer | IMDB
Directed by George Melford
Written by Monte Katterjohn
Starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres

Posted by Danny

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  1. This movie is a major guilty pleasure for me: the campiness never fails to entertain. I actually think Valentino was a decent actor in his later films, like The Eagle which is much more charming and fun than this schlock.

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