“When an Arab sees a woman that he wants, he takes her!”
While touring in the Middle East, an adventurous white woman (Agnes Ayres) is abducted by an Arabian sheik (Rudolph Valentino) who insists he can force her to love him. Soon her anger begins to melt, especially when she faces an even worse fate at the hands of an evil bandit (Walter Long).
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Adolph Menjou Films
- Cross-Cultural Romance
- Middle East
- Rudolph Valentino Films
- Silent Films
Silent-era heartthrob Rudolph Valentino is, unfortunately, most closely associated with his title role in this horribly dated, incurably offensive “romantic adventure” taking place in the Middle East. The film starts off with refreshingly feminist overtones, as we’re introduced to the intrepid Lady Diana, who refuses to be bullied by anyone, or to take no for an answer — but her role is quickly degraded into that of a female victim who (in classic Stockholm-Syndrome style) eventually comes to love her captor. Meanwhile, Arabian culture (which, naturally, is conflated and homogenized here) is presented in both a patronizing and disrespectful fashion: “Where the children of Araby dwell in happy ignorance that Civilization has passed them by”, one early inter-title informs us; Arab women are either brides being sold on the market or dance-hall girls.
Naturally, you could argue that such culturally insensitive perspectives were par for the course at the time, and that one shouldn’t judge a film on the merits of the social climate within which it was made. With that said, then, how enjoyable is The Sheik on other accounts? Sadly, not very. Valentino’s performance is laughably one-note (his leering grin and arching eyebrows are a caricature of silent-era over-emoting), and the arrival of Adolph Menjou on the screen as Valentino’s long-time friend (a noted author) does little to alleviate one’s irritation at the offensive central storyline. Apparently this film’s sequel, Son of the Sheik (Valentino’s final role), is much better on many counts — so I’ll look forward to reporting back once I’ve seen it.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- A glimpse at Valentino in his most iconic role
No, though it’s worth a one-time look simply for its status as Valentino’s signature role. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book. Available for free viewing on www.archive.org.