The Sheik (1921)
The Sheik (1921)

Genre: Romantic Drama and Adventure Running Time: 1 hr. 26 min.

Release Date: November 20th, 1921 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: George Melford Actors: Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres, Adolphe Menjou, Ruth Miller, George Waggener, Frank Butler, Charles Brinley, Lucien Littlefield




n a blessed oasis, a palm garden in the Sahara, where the children of Araby dwell in happy ignorance, maidens are selected in the marriage market. Zilah (Ruth Miller) is one such prize to be won, but her sweetheart, tribal chieftain Youssef (George Waggener), protests. The Sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), the leader of the village, must then decide Zilah’s fate; fortunately, he believes that when love is more desired than riches, the girl shall have her lover. It’s a strangely generous decision, considering that this ancient world affords few choices for women and for the countless slaves purchased and sold by wealthy leaders.

Meanwhile, in Biskra, a gateway to the desert and a city of adventure, where old customs clash with new beliefs (those of “cultured” Englishmen), Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is about to depart alone into the desert. Her brother, Sir Aubrey (Frank Butler), warns her of the dangerous voyage, but she’s determined to explore and experience the country. Plus, she has a respected guide, Mustapha Ali (Charles Brindley). “Marriage is captivity – the end of independence,” she insists, turning down a suitor in favor of the ill-advised venture. That evening, the sheik visits a casino in Biskra, where he spies the beautiful Diana, who is not allowed into the establishment, as it’s for Arabs only. Brushing off the notion of a savage desert bandit prohibiting her entry, she acquires a dancer’s costume to sneak inside – a ruse that, in a more serious picture, could result in her death.

Instead, the sheik is taken by the white woman’s appearance, defiance, and obstinacy, opting to safely escort her to the door. It’s evident early on that this Arabian yarn is more focused on romance than adventure – never more apparent than with the casting choice of Valentino, the Latin Lover, whose sex symbol appeal joined with this uncommon romanticization of an Islamic patriarch is far removed from realism. This is, of course, additionally ignoring the ethnic deviation of his embodiment, which was of no consequence for contemporary viewers. In fact, like many films of the era, there’s a specific societal context that must be understood and considered to appreciate the artistry – otherwise, all of it might be disregarded as racist and outdated.

Soon, Diana is deprived of her freedom at the hands of the covetous Hassan, whose kidnapping plot involves imprisoning her in his luxurious tented dwelling. Nevertheless, her plight – which audiences will surely understand to involve intended rape – doesn’t seem so harrowing when Valentino is the antagonist. His amorous advances, unchallenged commands, and general forcefulness give way to a certain understanding and compassion – again dismissing realism – compelling him to adopt traditional methods of seduction. Yet Diana is still a captive, bossed around as slave to master, even if the sheik doesn’t simply assault her at his leisure. The Stockholm-syndrome-like manner of wooing is continually uncomfortable, however, especially when Hassan wishes to show his conquest off to a visiting friend, a French author (Adolphe Menjou, described as a chivalrous gentleman of tact) who is repulsed by the notion of a stolen white woman and her humiliation as an object on display.

“When an Arab sees a woman that he wants, he takes her!” It’s difficult to overlook Diana’s stupidity, as well as Ahmed’s barbarous ways, both of which must be molded and shaped together into something unconvincingly compatible – a convenient outcome to what could have been an insurmountably irreconcilable pairing. It helps that another villain (Walter Long) is designed to be more heinous, and that the sheik eventually succumbs to his conscience – and his esteemed friend’s chiding – guiding him to abandon his aggressive, misogynistic tendencies. The end result is simple yet cinematic, unrealistic yet effectively fanciful, combining eventide action, a genuinely suspenseful rescue and showdown, and a charming finale. The beginning might have been rough around the edges (as well as the ludicrously opportune, last-minute revelation about Ahmed’s lineage), but the climax here is astounding.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10