“Her exultant dream of freedom ended—a helpless captive in the desert wastes.” —The Sheik
The legacy of Italian-born star Rudolph Valentino seems to be largely relegated to silent film fans and early Hollywood aficionados, thanks in part to his highly mannered acting style and too short career; unlike other beloved actors that transitioned from silent to sound cinema, Valentino passed away when he was just 31 years old. But his legacy lives on in the sense that he was essentially the first Hollywood actor to inspire unbridled female lust: a cult that swelled in the few years after his death. That sex appeal is most notoriously captured in The Sheik (1921) and its sequel—which Valentino reluctantly participated in—The Son of the Sheik (1926), both of which have been recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in separately but complementary packages that include commentary tracks and a handful of other worthy special features. And though it might not seem like either film would appeal much to cult cinema fans, I tend to regard The Sheik and many of these silent or early talkie adventure films as the precursor to exploitation fare that would follow a few decades down the line: with its exotic setting and suggestion of rape and sadomasochism, The Sheik remains a compelling portrait of Hollywood fantasy in the ‘20s.
The first film follows a headstrong, orphaned heiress, Diana (the largely forgotten Agnes Ayres), who ignores her brother’s warnings and abandons a suitor to go on her own for a month long tour through the North African desert. Before embarking, she sneaks into a casino that is Arab-only at the command of all-powerful Sheik Ahmen Ben Hassan (Valentino). Seeing through her disguise almost immediately, he becomes smitten with her and determined to possess her as his own. Shortly after, he captures her in the desert and takes her prisoner; to his surprise, his lust is replaced by love and though he manages to inspire reluctant obedient in Diana, his feelings remain unrequited. It is only when she is captured by a warring sheik and Ahmed must risk everything to rescue her that she admits her love for him.
If I wanted to be mind-numbingly obvious, I could say that The Sheik has not aged well in its depictions of staggering racism and sexism; the Arabic and black characters are not given unique identities and are relegated to silent roles. The desert people seem to exist as a horde; outside of the Sheik himself, they are largely presented in a swarming mass. While this results in some beautiful visual sequences, it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with early Hollywood, where only white actors were really given prominent roles. In due course, it’s revealed at the end of the film—after Diana realizes she is in love with Ahmed—that his birth parents were wealthy and European and that he got a western education. Thus the real narrative triumph (from a Hollywood standpoint) is that their love is acceptable and not at all subversive.
But as a romantic melodrama embedded within what is essentially an adventure serial, The Sheik has a transgressive core that it carried along from its source novel, by Edith Maude Hull. In the book, essentially a sadomasochistic romance with a deeply conservative strain, Ahmed wins Diana’s love by repeatedly raping her until she finally gives in to her “master.” Edith Hull apparently said, “I am old fashioned enough to believe that a woman’s best love is given to the man she recognizes as her master.” Though the rapes were excised from the script and don’t literally appear on screen, their essence is overwhelmingly apparent. It is clear when Ahmed first kidnaps Diana that he plans to rape her and that he’s aroused by her defiance. The film’s first ten minutes firmly establish that the world of The Sheik is one where the roulette wheel is a place to win brides, not merely cash, and the “marriage market” is the primary way to find a spouse. Women are chattel, except for Diana. Granted, the film establishes Ahmed as something of a secret sentimentalist; in the opening scene, he purchases a bride from the market so that she can return to another man, with whom she is in love. Similarly, Ahmed’s plan to rape Diana is thwarted at the sign of her emotional pain, when he softens to her.
But it’s easy to interpret in a number of scenes that rape as occurred out of the frame; Ahmed keeps her prisoner, won’t allow her access to her clothes, makes her dress like a servant girl (in an overtly sexualized costume), and forces his kisses on her. He asks her if she is “not woman enough to know” why he brought her there. Tellingly, she only warms to him when he prevents another band from kidnapping her, and then later comes to love him when he physically prevents her rape by another sheik. There is a strange dichotomy in the film between wanting social freedom and wanting to be totally dominated. In the first act, Diana states, “Marriage is captivity — the end of independence. I am content with my life as it is.” She is only attractive to Ahmed and thus only worth dominating, because of her drive to be completely free and to abandon social mores. This is linked intimately to the setting of the desert, where life similarly finds a balance (at least in Western eyes) between savagery and totalitarian rule. Ahmed comes to symbolize this relationship between power and vision, even voyeurism. He seems all knowing at times and there are shots of him spying on Diana through a telescope, gazing at her through a decorative window lattice, and so on. She is often in frame as if she is being watched, though it is really Valentino—and thus Ahmed—who was the erotic draw for female audiences. His role as what is more or less a fully immersed European emigre speaks to this Western attraction to the perceived exoticism of desert life. In the film, as in many works of visual art and literature during the period, the arid setting symbolizes a barbarous rejection of civilization in order to embrace carnal and violent impulses.
There are numerous examples from the early 20th century—during but particularly between the two World Wars—when artists and writers would travel to the desert and attempt to use it to capture their own feelings of restlessness and rootlessness in a rapidly changing world, and, above all, to exorcise a desperate need for freedom. On a planet that felt increasingly smaller, the desert (whether in the Middle East or Africa) represented an unconquered, alien territory to many Westerners, a final frontier where an escape from civilization was still possible. The composer and writer Paul Bowles, active somewhat after the release of The Sheik, is remembered largely for his novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), about a married couple traveling in the desert, and captured this obsession with the desert in his fiction, nonfiction, and exhaustive cataloging of Middle Eastern and African music. In Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, he writes about a singular quality that drew many back to the desert:
Perhaps the logical question to ask at this point is: Why go? The answer is that when a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in time or money, for the absolute has no price.”
It may seem particularly implausible that in a 1920s film, a woman would travel the desert alone, with no knowledge of the potential dangers that might face her. But real life women, including some artists, took on such challenges. Man Ray’s muse and collaborator, Lee Miller, moved to Egypt in the ‘30s, where she produced a number of important surrealist photographic works. Similarly, writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach traveled the Middle East and lived in Persia, which she photographed and wrote about; one of her companions for a cross country trip through Afghanistan just happened to be one of the 20th century’s most prolific travelers: Ella Maillart. The Sheik’s Diana, of course, is depicted as little more than a naive dilettante, though it’s interesting to see what a more transgressive rewrite—perhaps during one of the Pre-Code talkies made a few years later—would have done for her character.
Regardless, the desert in The Sheik is undeniably a place of mystery, maybe even a hiding place, despite the film’s elements that may seem dated, campy, or problematic to modern audiences. Valentino allegedly hated the film and only made the sequel under a great deal of pressure. Though it is often critically regarded as the superior film, it is also less dreamlike and more conventional, albeit with more sadomasochistic elements. It’s certainly a sign of the changing times. Valentino stars as Ahmed’s son—also named Ahmed—who encounters a dancing girl called Yasmin (Vilma Banky) in a market place and the two experience what seems to be love at first sight. She works to make money for her disreputable family, a band of criminals, and the lovers meet at various discrete spots around the desert for increasingly passionate trysts. (It is unclear if this relationship is consummated.) But soon her family gets wind of the affair and they capture and torture Ahmed in exchange for ransom money. A scene where he is stripped shirtless and whipped, rather erotically, is mirrored several years later, though in reverse, in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Myra Loy’s character, the diabolical daughter of Fu Manchu, has a violent lust for the American hero (the milquetoast Charles Starrett). She has him tied up and whipped and, because The Mask of Fu Manchu is a Pre-Code film, her ecstatic desire is depicted rather clearly on screen. She seems to be on the verge of orgasm, but is told by Fu Manchu that the man will be needed and she can’t dispose of him in the “usual way.”
While Agnes Ayres’s Diana (appearing in this film in her original role) was the focal point of the camera in The Sheik, it is undeniably zeroed in on Valentino here. He even appears in two roles: as the father and son, so that they can fight side by side to rescue the younger Ahmed’s lady love, and so that the elder Ahmed can impart a moral lesson. He sets his son on the path to realize that Yasmin had not betrayed him to her family, but was betrayed by them and has loved him all along. Of course, in typical Hollywood fashion, it is revealed that Yasmin isn’t really Arabic at all and is the orphaned child of European parents. The strange inversion of exoticized male love object to exoticized female love object is an odd use of mirroring from The Sheik to The Son of the Sheik, though I suspect this was one of the few options they had to repeat the success of the first film without exactly copying the plot. The “vast undulating sand dunes” are still present, though the somewhat eerie, even expressionistic tone of the first film is replaced with more conventionally entertaining fare. While that was somewhat of a somber romance, The Son of the Sheik is a more straightforward adventure-fantasy film, though jarringly both Ahmed characters are united with the female protagonists when they rescue these women from attempted rape.
The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik are important pieces of ‘20s film history, though they may seem to be little more than curios to contemporary viewers. They are effectively at the beginning of a tradition of exoticized desire that continues throughout major Hollywood blockbusters—such as something like The English Patient (1996) with its depiction of forbidden desert romance—and even popular television: the ultimately tender relationship between a barbarian king and a beautiful “western” girl is at the heart of the first season (and first novel) of Game of Thrones.
Kino’s recent releases of these films come recommended. Though neither print is perfect, they look great on Blu-ray considering that they’re nearly 100-year-old silent films and have accumulated the expected damage and debris. Gaylyn Studlar, who co-edited the interesting essay collection Visions in the East: Orientalism in Film, provides compelling commentary tracks for The Sheik, while The Son of the Sheik includes a number of short special features: a somewhat whimsical introduction from Orson Welles, documentary shorts on Valentino, and a trailer for The Young Rajah (1922). It may have been Valentino’s final film before his untimely death, but the space he created for the female gaze within Hollywood cinema is a constantly growing and relatively unchanging beast.