The Sheik (1921) Director: George Melford
The Sheik is an entertaining and exotic adventure film starring Rudy Valentino –a classic of early Hollywood. It was Valentino’s second great blockbuster, though often popularly considered to be inferior to its sequel (one of the earliest true Hollywood sequels) 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 Northern 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 brings to 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, though curiously the audience also sees the sheik in a sympathetic light.
A long-time friend from France visits the sheik and he castigates the sheik for the treatment of Lady Diana. When she tries to escape, the sheik’s men rescue her from being captured by a rival band of warriors, Omair’s group. This happens a second time, and 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. Lady Diana reveals her love for him and the film ends.
The Sheik is a fun and entertaining film, though not one I would easily recommend to lovers of classic film. It probably best reserved for true devotees of the silent era. The overly accentuated portrayal of the sheik by Valentino is challenging and the film is quite long and drawn out, with little chemistry between the lead actors. It is an early example of Hollywood’s long-standing fascination with the one-dimensional “orientalism” of Asia and the Near-East.