The Sheik (1921) Director: George Melford
The exotic allure of “The East” has long entranced Hollywood movie-making. Like the mythology built up in Samurai and Western movies, The Sheik (1921) takes us to the fabled dusty sands of Arabia. This was Rudy Valentino’s second big blockbuster hit after The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and amazingly enough The Sheik is often considered inferior to its sequel, The Son of the Sheik (1926). The production company for The Sheik was the old Famous Players-Lasky, soon to become Paramount Pictures.
The plot follows the story of the headstrong Lady Diana Mayo as she travels to North Africa, or Arabia. She is told not to enter the casino for one night because a powerful Sheik is in town for a public bridal ceremony –this brought to my mind the tales Herodotus describes of public bridal auctions in ancient Babylon. At any rate, Lady Diana is eventually captured by the Sheik and he forces her to stay with him, though curiously. despite his cold affect, the audience still sees the sheik in a sympathetic light.
A long-time friend from France visits the sheik and castigates him for his treatment of Lady Diana. When she tries to escape, the sheik’s men rescue her from capture by a rival band of warriors, known as Omair’s group. This happens a second time, and this time she is successfully captured and Omair tries to force himself upon her, but one of the Bedouin women stabs him. A fight ensues between the rival tribes and the sheik kills Omair but he becomes, himself, gravely wounded. As he lies on what initially appears to be his deathbed, his French compatriot reveals that the sheik is actually European and rules the North African tribe in disguise. Lady Diana reveals her love for him and the film ends.
The Sheik is an engaging glimpse into early Hollywood. The overly accentuated portrayal of the sheik by Rudy Valentino is, no doubt, challenging for today’s average movie-goer, and the film is quite drawn out with little chemistry between the lead actors. The Sheik is an early example of Hollywood’s long-standing fascination with the one-dimensional “orientalism” of Asia and the Near-East, a theme which will recur in many movies made over the next century.