November 1, 2020
The Sheik – US, 1921
Oh, pity the poor, unfortunate love-struck fools of early American cinema. Well, at least the non-white ones, for if they looked like Anna May Wong, Sessue Hayakawa, or King Kong, they were destined for either disappointment or death, and that last possibility was usually the result of sacrificing one’s life so that the Caucasian love interest could find true happiness with their Caucasian counterpart. However, if a character were an anomaly – say, an orphaned white child raised by apes to be king of the jungles of Africa – well, then the Hollywood ending was practically assured. Case in point: Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in George Melford’s 1921 headscratcher The Sheik. Now with a name like his, would you expect him to be left brokenhearted at the end of the film or to get the girl.
We first meet the Sheik at – I kid you not – a marriage market where, according to this film at least, women are auctioned off as brides. The Sheik immediately earns the audience’s respect when he refuses to allow one auction to take place after the young woman’s true love comes forward to protect her. A love so strong must be the will of Allah, he reasons, never mind the fact that in the very next scene we see a parade of sedan chairs carrying a number of these women off to the local harem. I guess no one spoke up for them.
We are soon introduced to the film’s female protagonist, the feisty, independent-minded Lady Diana Mayo, a woman so determined to go her own way that she has decided to take a month-long expedition of the Sahara Desert with only a local man as her guide. The horror, her fellow expatriates exclaim, all the while speculating about her “safety” with only a “savage” as her companion. Yes, there are a lot of those innuendos throughout the film, and all of them reinforce the notion of the irresistibility of the white woman and the danger of the Arab. You’d think they have just played it safe and vacationed in Hawaii.
Diana hears the Sheik is going to be performing that evening at an event exclusively for Arabs and is insulted – insulted I tell you – that White people’s movement should be dictated by “savages” – there’s that word again – so she dresses up in native clothing and sneaks in. There she finds the Sheik sitting in the center of the room watching a dancer do her stuff. This seems harmful enough until we learn that the rest of the spectators are playing a variation of “marriage roulette.” That’s right. They bet on a number, and the winner takes the dancer home as his bride. Really.
I know what you’re thinking: This film couldn’t possibly get any more offensive, could it? Well, as a matter of fact, it could, and it does. See, the Sheik sets his eyes on Diana, and despite his earlier inclination to affairs of the heart, is quite the believer in the concept of if I kidnap he,r she’ll eventually love me, so that’s exactly what he does. And on her very first night in captivity, she asks him what his intentions are. His response: “Are you not woman enough to know?” And thus begins an early example of Stockholm syndrome.
The Sheik was written by Monte M. Katterjohn, whose Wikipedia page consists of just three sentences, none of which reveal whether he ever traveled out of the United States. I suspect he hadn’t given that his last listed screen credit was 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, a film whose depiction of Chinese culture will make you roll your eyes. However, the script was based on British author Edith M. Hull’s novel of the same name, and she traveled a great deal to Algeria with her parents as a child. Did she actually witness marriage markets or marriage roulette? I highly doubt it, and this begs the question, just where do such ideas come from? After all, according to Algeria.com, the Qu’ran dictates that marriages be based on love, and there’s a rather elaborate ceremony attached to asking a woman for her hand in marriage. Then again, so much of our cultural education from the early days of cinema was based on ignorance, exaggeration, misunderstanding, and, sadly, just plain racism.
The Sheik made a star of Rudolph Valentino, and while it may be hard to completely appreciate his performance today, it must have been quite revelatory back in 1921. Here is an actor whose face was alive, adorned by an infectious smile and perfectly hypnotic eyes. He could convey understanding and protective instincts in one scene and lustful intentions in the next without changing much of his facial features. When the script called for it, he could appear sullen and remorseful, ashamed that he had brought anything but love and yearning to the woman he lusted after. In those early days of matinee idols, audiences were seeing these things on screen for the first time, and he made such an impression that he was said by Elinor Glyn to have had “it,” that indefinable quality that makes one irresistible to the opposite sex.
I suspect, though, that like me, modern viewers will find themselves appreciating the work of Agnes Ayres a bit more. Diana, at least until the script lets her down, never surrenders. She physically defends herself, engages in fierce gun battles, and refuses to submit to societal expectations of women. “Marriage is captivity,” she explains, and it is clear that she has no intention of being imprisoned. Ayres’s body language reveals her tough interior, and I couldn’t help admiring her willingness to throw down with a ruffian. At other moments, Diana is well aware of the precariousness of her situation, and Ayres’s face, reflecting this realization, goes from sad to horrified. No wonder the Sheik backs off.
There’s nothing wrong with depicting love sprouting under such awful conditions, yet the film never earns its romantic stripes. Missing are those tender Beauty and the Beast moments that almost made you forget that Belle was a prisoner – the Beast’s daring defense of her in the snow, the way they stare into each other’s eyes during the dance, the tenderness with which Belle stitches the Beast’s wounds. We can see these characters changing. Unfortunately, The Sheik doesn’t even try. It’s I’m a prisoner one moment and I pray he isn’t hurt the next, without much to explain the sudden variance.
The Sheik received mixed reviews upon its initial release, and I can understand that reaction. There’s so much to like about the performances of the cast, yet so much of what we see is either dated, offensive, or undeserved that I simply didn’t buy the film’s inevitable conclusion. As for what that conclusion is, I will not give it away. But as I said earlier, there are only two choices for a character like the Sheik, yet only one makes sense for a character played by an actor with such a fair complexion. And yes, the film makes even less sense as a result. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars
*The Sheik is a silent film.