The Sheik (1921) Blu-ray Review: A Silent and Problematic Classic

In December of 1912 a beautiful young man with the unlikely name of Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filiberto Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella sailed to New York City from his hometown in Italy by way of Paris, France. Though no one knew it yet, Hollywood’s first male sex symbol had just landed in America. He’d later be dubbed Rudolph Valentino by the movies and the Latin Lover by overzealous ad men. After burning through the $4,000 he had in his pockets, he landed odd jobs here and there before becoming a “taxi dancer,” someone women would pay to be their dance partner for the night like they might pay a cab driver to get them home.

He became close friends with a married woman who wanted out of her marriage, but back then divorce wasn’t so easy. Valentino testified in court that he’d seen the husband having an affair with another woman and the divorce was granted. For payback, the husband called the cops on Valentino when was he in a brothel and he was arrested for being a pimp. This was not the first scandal in a career that would be wrecked with them.

High-tailing it to Hollywood, Valentino was first hired, as all dark-skinned European men seemed to be, as the villain in several movies. But his good looks soon made him a heartthrob and with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), he had become a huge star. By the time The Sheik was playing in theaters in 1921, he was a massive sex symbol. They say women were fainting in the aisles while watching that film.

He sadly died just a few short years later in 1926 at the age of 31 but he left quite a legacy and legend behind. Thousands of fans mourned the actor, there were numerous reports of attempted suicides by young female fans who couldn’t bear the thought of life without another Valentino movie. Amazingly, though he lived such a short time, he made over 30 films, many of which survive today. The Sheik remains one of his most popular films and Paramount Presents is releasing a new Blu-ray in honor of its 100th anniversary.

Based upon the wildly popular book of the same name by Edith Maud, The Sheik follows Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), a headstrong young lady living in Northern Africa. When a young suitor wants to marry her, she replies “Marriage is captivity – the end of independence. I am content with my life as it is.” She’s planning an adventure into the deserts of North Africa accompanied only by the natives. The night before, she plans an evening at the local casino but is rebuffed because Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) has declared that no one but Arabs shall be allowed while he is inside the casino. Not to be put off she dons a native dancer’s costume and sneaks in. When she’s found out, the Sheik pulls off her outer garments only to find she’s holding a gun. Bemused, he sends her away.

Later, on her voyage into the desert, the Sheik comes across her once again. This time he kidnaps her and forces her to live with him in his encampment. He takes away her mannish clothes (i.e. her trousers) and makes her wear more feminine garb (that is to say, a dress.) She tries to escape but fails. He does not force himself upon her (an apparent departure from the book which caused more than one critic to complain and predict that the film would fail – because nothing sells tickets like rape, apparently). But he leers at her lustfully at regular intervals.

Naturally, because this is a Hollywood romantic picture, she eventually falls for him. Naturally, because this is a Hollywood picture, there is a rival tribe full of mean and nasty Arabs (the Sheik’s band of Arabs might leer lustfully and sneer menacingly but they are mostly harmless, and Hollywood in the 1920s must have its full-bred racism – thus the band of evil Arabs as villains).

The Sheik is certainly problematic from a 2021 perspective. Basing your love story on kidnapping and potential rape isn’t as romantic as it used to be. Stereotyping Middle Eastern culture as being completely backward and full of raping murderers is passe. But before we get too high and mighty, let’s remember how many post-9/11 films made their villains out to be raping/murdering middle-easterners. Some things never change.

Problematic portrayals aside The Sheik is also a bit slow to get going. For a silent film, it sure is talkative. Admittedly, I’m not an expert on silent cinema but there were more intertitles in this film than any other I’ve ever seen. It is a film filled with exposition and conversation. I did find it fun that every time a character appeared they would get a title card explaining who they were and the actor who played them. The sets look good and the desert scenes were well filmed. This all gave it a nice exotic fill even if it was obviously not shot on location in Africa.

Valentino was a handsome man with a smoldering intensity in his eyes. It is easy to see why he became a star and sex symbol. I can’t say he was a great actor, but he’s certainly something to look at. I can see the appeal of this film as well. It might have been filmed on a Hollywood backlot and in the sand dunes of Southern California but it certainly looks exotic. Especially as it is filled with all those handsome, swarthy men. Being kidnapped and not raped could be exciting to a certain type of 1920s woman, as could falling in love with a man who looks like Rudolph Valentino. And hey, in the end, it turns out the Sheik isn’t even an Arab, but a European who, through various circumstances, wound up leading that tribe in the desert. So you could have your exotic fantasy romance without clamping down your racist tendencies.

I’ve only recently started to seriously watch silent films so I do not claim any sort of expertise. The Sheik definitely isn’t The Cabinet of Caligari, Metropolis, or any other highly influential silent film you could name. It is a pretty simple story told in a pretty simple manner. As such it isn’t exactly jaw-dropping to modern viewers. It comes with a lot of asterisks explaining its various problematic tendencies. But it is an important film in understanding Valentino’s career and appeal. Being that he was one of the great stars of the silent screen, that’s no small thing.

Paramount presents The Sheik with a new high definition transfer. Like most silent films, the original negatives do not exist so they had to use various intermediate prints to pull together the best transfer available. It looks good all things considered. Extras include a digital copy of the film and a video essay by historian Leslie Midkiff DeBauche.

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Mat Brewster

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