The movie that vaulted Rudolph Valentino into superstardom, THE SHEIK, the story of a young Englishwoman's sexual abduction by an Arab prince, is either a rousing romantic adventure or a creepy rape fantasy, depending on one's point of view.
In the city of Biskra, "the Monte Carlo of the Sahara," the impetuous Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) prepares to embark on an expedition into the desert accompanied only by Arab guides. On the eve of the journey she crashes an Arabs-only casino disguised as a native dancing girl. When her imposture
is exposed by a handsome and arrogant young sheik named Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), she calls him a savage. Early the next morning he sneaks into her bedroom and unloads her pistol.
The sheik follows Diana into the desert, where he abducts her and spirits her to his camp, where he holds her captive. There he tells her she is beautiful, vows to teach her obedience, and forces her to dress in Arabian costume. A week passes in which she threatens suicide and tries to run away.
During one of her unsuccessful escape attempts she is spotted by a lecherous bandit named Omair (Walter Long).
The sheik is visited by Raoul de Saint Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), an old friend from Paris who repeatedly admonishes him for enslaving Diana. Finally the sheik relents and promises Raoul he will return his prisoner to her people, but before he can do so, she is kidnapped by Omair. The sheik rushes
to the site of her abduction, where he is gratified to see "Ahmed, I love you" written in the sand. He and his men storm Omair's stronghold just as the bandit is about to rape Diana. The sheik kills Omair but is badly hurt in the process.
Back in the sheik's camp Raoul tells Diana that Ahmed is not an Arab by blood but an English-Spanish orphan who was adopted by the old sheik and raised as his own. Now deeply, mutually in love, Diana and Ahmed embrace. Outside the tent the young sheik's tribe prays for its wounded leader as the
Valentino appeared in 20 films, most prominently in THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921), before THE SHEIK made his name a household word. At first Paramount executives suspected they had a flop on their hands but the public, particularly the female portion, proved their fears to be
unfounded. As a direct result of the picture's enormous success, Valentino's salary more than doubled, flappers began calling attractive men "sheiks," housewives redecorated their homes to look like harems, and a song called "The Sheik of Araby" climbed the hit parade.
THE SHEIK is not a good movie (its star reputedly hated it) nor is Valentino's performance a praiseworthy one, despite his extraordinary handsomeness. Whenever his character's mind strays to Topic A, which is most of the time, Valentino flashes a smirking leer comprised of a silly grin topped by a
kid-in-a-candy-store flaring of the eyes. It's the sort of thing that has given the silent cinema a bad name.
The plot is palatable only if one doesn't take it too seriously. (Otherwise, one is likely to become fairly depressed by what it implies about male versus female attitudes and psychology.) The big unanswered question: Does he or doesn't he? THE SHEIK's makers manage to keep the if and when of what
happens in that tent just fuzzy enough to allow each consenting adult in the audience the leeway to decide for her/himself. The climactic revelation that the sheik is a full-blooded European has no narrative purpose at all except possibly as a sop to those who disapproved of Anglo-Arabian
romances. In any event, Diana seems to be reassured by the news, though its difficult to imagine why. If a Radcliffe graduate had just been flashed by a total stranger would she be comforted to learn that he was a Harvard man?
THE SON OF THE SHEIK, Valentino's last film before his untimely death in 1926, proved to be one of the first and few examples of a sequel improving on the original. (Violence.)
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- Review: The movie that vaulted Rudolph Valentino into superstardom, THE SHEIK, the story of a young Englishwoman's sexual abduction by an Arab prince, is either a rousing romantic adventure or a creepy rape fantasy, depending on one's point of view. In the city o… (more)