SHEIK, THE (George Melford, 1921, USA, 80m, BW)
Directed by George Melford
Written by Monte M. Katterjohn (adaptation)
Based on The Sheik
by Edith Maude Hull
Starring Rudolph Valentino
Music by Irving Berlin (1970s reissue)
Cinematography William Marshall
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
October 20, 1921 (US)
Country United States
Language Silent film
In the North African town of Biskra, headstrong Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) refuses a marriage proposal because she believes it would be the end of her independence. Against her brother's wishes, she is planning a month-long trip into the desert, escorted only by natives.
When Diana goes to the local casino, she is informed it has been appropriated for the evening by an important sheik, and that none but Arabs may enter. Annoyed at being told what she cannot do, and her curiosity piqued, Diana borrows an Arab dancer's costume and sneaks in. Inside, she finds men gambling for new wives. When she is selected to be the next prize, she resists. Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) intervenes, then realizes she is white. Amused, he sends her away. Afterward, Mustapha Ali (Charles Brinley) informs the Sheik she is the woman he has been hired to guide tomorrow. The Sheik hatches a plan. Early the next morning, he sneaks into her room and tampers with the bullets in her revolver as she is sleeping.
As her brother leaves her to her desert excursion, she assures him he will see her in London next month. The Sheik and his men come upon Diana riding alone. She tries to flee while shooting at the Sheik, but he easily captures her. Back at his encampment, he orders her about. She is unused to such treatment, but the Sheik tells her she will learn and demands she dress like a woman (she is wearing pants) for dinner.
Diana tries again to escape, this time into a raging sand storm. The Sheik saves her from certain death, and tells her she will learn to love him. Later, he finds Diana alone in her quarters weeping. The Sheik considers forcing himself upon her, but decides against it and calls for a serving girl, Zilah (Ruth Miller). Zilah offers her a hug. Diana accepts, and pours out her tears in Zilah's arms.
After a week, the Sheik is delighted by the news that his close friend from his days in Paris, where he was educated, is coming for a visit. Diana is dismayed at the thought of being seen in Arab dress by a Westerner, but the Sheik does not understand her shame. He does, however, return her gowns before his friend comes so she can wear them to dinner. When she is introduced to writer and doctor Raoul St. Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), Diana's spirit is nearly broken. He befriends her and reprimands the Sheik for his callous treatment of her. The Sheik returns her Western clothing, though he refuses to release her.
When Raoul is called away to tend to an injured man, Diana shows concern that it might be the Sheik. Seeing this from hiding, the Sheik is elated that she may be warming up to him at last. He gives Diana her gun back, telling her he trusts her.
Diana is allowed to go into the desert under the watchful eye of the Sheik's French valet Gaston (Lucien Littlefield). She escapes. Making her way across the sands, she spots a caravan, unaware that it belongs to the bandit Omair (Walter Long). Fortunately, the Sheik and his men reach her first.
The Sheik reveals to Raoul he is in love with Diana; his friend convinces him to let her go. Meanwhile, Diana is allowed out once more. She playfully writes "I love you Ahmed" in the sand. Then Omair's band captures her, killing her guards and leaving the wounded Gaston for dead.
When the Sheik goes looking for Diana, he sees her message, then learns from Gaston who has abducted her. He gathers his men to attack Omair's stronghold. Omair tries to force himself on Diana, but is almost stabbed by one of his women. Then the Sheik and his men sweep in. After a long fight, the Sheik kills Omair, but is himself gravely injured.
Raoul tends to him and tells Diana he has a chance. She sits and holds the Sheik's hand. When she remarks that his hand is big for an Arab, Raoul reveals that the Sheik is not one. His father was British and his mother Spanish. They died in the desert, and their child was rescued and raised by the old Sheik; when the old man died, Ahmed returned to rule the tribe. When Ahmed wakes up, Diana confesses her love.
"The Sheik" is a costume romantic adventure directed by George Melford and penned by Monte Katterjohn from the novel by Edith Maude Hull. From this film Rudolph Valentino became one of the biggest international stars Hollywood has ever known. His instant stardom lasted for five years until his unexpected premature death from appendicitis at age 31.
Valentino's brief life story was a tumultuous one. He was born in Italy in 1895, the son of an army veterinarian. When he failed in military school he came to Paris in 1912 and ended up as a street hustler. In 1913 he arrived in New York and became a boarder with an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn and became a landscape gardener. He lost his job and got into trouble with the law on suspicions of petty theft and blackmail. This led him to become a taxi dancer on Broadway, where he was again plagued by bad luck and a further arrest. After abandoning a play troupe in Utah he arrived in Hollywood in 1917 and got bit parts until 1920. Around that time he married the actress Jean Acker, but she locked him out of a hotel bridal suite on their wedding night and the marriage was never consummated -- neither was it annulled which would lead later to bigamy charges when he remarried. His big break came in 1921 when screenwriter June Mathis, an influential voice at Metro, insisted that he be given the lead in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The film was a box-office smash and Valentino became an overnight sensation. The Valentino craze reached new heights with The Sheik, where women fainted in the aisles over his sexy gestures.
The graceful and handsome dark skinned lover, who especially thrilled the female audience, was caught in the stiff acting styles of his day imitating such leading men dignitaries as John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ramon Novarro. His seemingly glued on smile throughout The Sheik was the way the romantic leads of the day all appeared. By the time of his last film "The Son of the Sheik," Valentino had grown into a more sophisticated actor and his mannerisms started to become more natural, as films were also changing. But he started taking on weaker male roles under the influence of his second wife Natasha Rambova, a set designer and actress, and he was severely blasted by the editor in the Chicago Tribune as a pansy and sorry image for the American male youth.
The thin storyline in The Sheik had the amorous Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Valentino) take Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayers) by force to his spacious luxury tent-palace when he finds the beauty riding in the desert with only one guide for protection. The spirited Lady Diana is attracted to him but resists his romantic advances. When the Sheik's former French school chum Raoul de Saint Herbert (Adolphe Menjou) convinces him to let Diana go free she is only kidnapped by the villainous desert bandit Omair (Walter Long), who threatens her with a fate worse than death. Only then does Diana realize how much she has grown to love Valentino, who with his army comes to her rescue in the nick of time before she attempts suicide. The sheik is wounded in the battle, but Diana nurses him back to health and promises her everlasting love.
The film met with strong moral protests at the time, but audiences nevertheless flocked to the theater and it became box-office heaven. Since the story doesn't hold up well with time, what is worth noting is Valentino's intense stares and animated gestures that might seem quite amusing to us now but was considered very sexy back then to the women viewers. It's one of those films that should be seen by film buffs and those interested in films as history, otherwise it's just a curiosity film.
The Sheik is a movie that won’t go down well with feminists, despite a promising start which suggests that Lady Diana might be one of those plucky heroines capable of looking after themselves. Sadly, this initial impression proves to be mistaken. Lady Diana does in fact succeed in escaping the clutches of the Sheik’s man servant Gaston (Lucien Littlefield — The Cat and the Canary, Bad Men of Tombstone) only to promptly fall off her horse once she’s made her getaway and stumble into the path of that dastardly Omair. She also proves to be a female who doesn’t know her own heart until a potential rapist comes along and attempts to bend her to his will and puts her straight.
Just as bad as Lady Diana’s poorly conceived (even for 1921) character is the turgid pace of the plot. Adolphe Menjou’s belated arrival halfway through the movie is badly needed and does improve the film some, but his role as the Sheik’s conscience — a possible love rival angle is promptly dropped as suddenly as it’s introduced — means that he’s a largely ineffectual character. At least Menjou gives a reasonable performance — Valentino and Ayres appear to be waging some secret competition to see who can deliver the worst performance with Valentino perpetually leering and rolling his eyes while Ayres heaves her bosom and chews her knuckles for all she’s worth.
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