The Sheik (George Melford, 1921): USA
Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy. Streamed on Netflix.
Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is a liberated young woman who chooses to travel alone through the desert. After curiously meeting Sheik Ahmed (Rudolph Valentino) who’s preoccupied with wife shopping, Diana is abducted, seduced, nearly raped, and when rescued falls in love with her abductor in The Sheik.
Diana first spies the dashing Ahmed at a peculiar spectacle where women are being bartered for. Dressed in local garb, she is mistaken as the next auction item when Ahmed recognizes that she is a Caucasian female, and though attracted to her, he dismisses her immediately. Soon after, Diana’s guide leads her unknowingly to Ahmed’s caravan, and as his tribe gives chase, she fails to escape.
Diana becomes Ahmed’s prisoner and is expected to obey him, and although the attraction is mutual, independent thinking Lady Diana is not used to being led around by a high-handed male counterpart, and the despotic Ahmed is unaccustomed to having women object to his advances.
Ahmed is blinded by his desire for Diana and is determined to have her, but a sand storm kicks up and falters his plans. Later Ahmed comes upon the tormented Diana while she is weeping and praying, and in a moment of shame realizes what he has done.
Ahmed’s best friend is Raoul St. Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), who is also a Westerner. St. Hubert advises his otherwise cultivated friend against such unchivalrous behavior, and the sheik begins to see reason. Just as he’s about to release Diana, who’s out riding with her guardian, the opposing tribe of Omair over-takes and abducts her, but before Diana is captured she uses her riding crop to draw “Ahmed I Love You” in the sand.
More exciting than any torrid love novel, The Sheik combines the appropriate amount of lust and desire, coupled with love and romance, with a strong male figure rescuing the female in distress. These were qualities that appealed to a broad female audience back in 1921 and to my estimation still work today. Handsome Rudolph Valentino successfully portrays the dominant Ahmed with a quiet sensitivity, and unquestionable authority as well as wolf-like magnetism, it’s no wonder the female fans would swoon over him.
There are larger than life actions and reactions owing to the fact that it is a silent production, with just as many golden moments captured in the film such as Ahmed’s moment of truth, when he realizes the anguish he has inflicted on his true love - closing his eyes deeply with disgust.
Ayres manages to hold her own against the inimitable Valentino, perfectly balancing the emotions of first revulsion, then appeal, and finally tenderness towards the sheik. It’s a delight to see the younger Adolphe Menjou, years before his role of the dapper, bon vivant Anthony Powell of Stage Door.
Typical of a true classic, everything is implied with just enough shown, thus successfully festering the imagination of the audience. With the success of The Sheik, Valentino was at the pinnacle of his career, with his life cut short just five years later. It is perplexing to think of how his career may have unfolded with the talkies, into the 1930′s and 40′s.