The Sheik (1921) / The Son of the Sheik (1926)

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Directors: George Melford, George Fitzmaurice

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish.

Rudolph Valentino. Over ninety years since he died aged 31, his name is still familiar to people who have never watched any of his movies. As the first great heartthrob of Hollywood film, his impact lingers like background radiation in pop culture. Valentino was the defining archetype of the Latin Lover and icon of silent film’s budding cosmopolitan promise, and is still the subject of legend and feverish speculation, particularly in regards to off-screen escapades and omnivorous sexual tastes. Young Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella acted out the essential myth of early Hollywood. He arrived in America as an eighteen-year-old immigrant, struggling in his early days in New York and skirting the outer edges of a scandalous tragedy before taking to the road as a travelling actor. Valentino took the advice of movie actor Norman Kerry to go to Hollywood and try his luck there, but found himself initially typecast as a villain for his dark, exotic looks. Then he was cast in the lead of Rex Ingram’s adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s bestseller, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, produced by Metro Pictures and released in 1921. Valentino was catapulted to stardom, and in spite of the film’s seriousness as a World War I drama, what everyone remembered afterwards was Valentino’s tango scene.
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Valentino still found himself patronised by Metro and after two throwaway vehicles grabbed the chance to head over to Famous Players-Lasky, where George Melford’s The Sheik, an adaptation of a novel by Edith Maude Hull, who like Valentino was a displaced cosmopolitan who found her life reshaped by travelling. Her wanderings began as a child alongside her parents, including a trip to Algiers, where most of her fiction would be set. The novel had been a colossal bestseller, a perfect vehicle for the star deemed fit to fill the role. Billed second to Agnes Ayres, Valentino was cast as Arab sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. Except that, well, he’s not really Arab. Ahmed is ultimately revealed to be half-Spanish, half-English, one who was found orphaned and raised by a real Sheik in his traditional lifestyle. This was nominally a sop to Valentino’s Latin Lover image but was also designed to ward off the anti-miscegenation crowd who might have been infuriated by the central theme of romance between a white woman and a dark-skinned man. The sight of Valentino draped in a headscarf is up there with Charlie Chaplin’s bowler and moustache and Mary Pickford’s curls as one of the instantly recognisable points of iconography from the silent era regardless, from a day when cinema meant opening horizons and the images projected upon the screen blazed with an intensity of deliverance from the mundane that’s difficult to imagine in our screen-saturated day where our fantasy lives are serviced so often if not always so well.
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Close to a century has elapsed since The Sheik was released, and aspects of it remind me just what a long century it’s been. But it also feels peculiarly familiar in its similarities to more recent phenomena in its queasy, artful exploitation of a perverse romantic dynamic of threat and attraction, a reduction of the world to a pre-modern zone of hot-blooded men who know what they want from a woman. The Sheik opens with a scene in which Sheik Ahmed oversees the purchase of a selection of new brides for his tribe from another, where he sticks up for the right of one man (George Waggner, who would go on to direct The Wolf Man, 1941) to claim a woman he’s in love with over other, higher bidders, an early sign Ahmed is a covert romantic in a world defined otherwise by a crude and transactional sense of male-female relations. Meanwhile, Lady Diana Mayo (Ayres), a character who seems to have been based on Gertrude Bell, has arrived in the Saharan oasis town of Biskra, intending an exploratory venture into the desert and has hired one of Ahmed’s friends Mustapha Ali (Charles Brinley) as a guide. She’s accompanied by her flimsy brother Aubrey (Frank Butler), who tries in vain to talk her out of her expedition.
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Diana is an interloping emblem of modernity with her proto-feminist independence and wilful adoption of a masculine mode of dress for her planned venture. But she also finds herself enticed by the stir Ahmed makes when he breezes into town with his followers and their new selection of brides. Ahmed takes over the town’s casino for the night and bans all foreigners from the building so he and his men can stage a raucous celebration and watch the new wives dance. Diana, seeing a challenge, borrows the costume from a dancer in her hotel and uses it to enter and watch as the Arab men gamble to marry the various women. Diana is discovered when she’s grabbed to be the next lot on offer, and when Ahmed strips off her burka finds she’s carrying a pistol and uses it ward off any harassers before escaping. Ahmed’s interest is stirred and he enters her hotel the next morning to catch a glimpse of her in her room, and she hears him singing a love song outside her window without knowing who’s singing it. Soon Ahmed decides he must possess Diana, so he sabotages her gun and snatches her away, taking her to his desert camp.
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Hull’s book was a racy tale laced with a heady, violent erotic streak, and pushed the implied the rape fantasy much further than the film (quote: “Chattel, a slave to do his bidding, to bear his pleasure and his displeasure, shaken to the very foundation of her being with the upheaval of her convictions and the ruthless violence done to her cold, sexless temperament.”) Director George Melford congratulated himself on restricting to this element to only the faintest implication, as Diana finds herself at the mercy of the imperious Ahmed, who laughs at her mode of dress and declares that she makes a very pretty boy, but he doesn’t want a boy, so he forces her to dress in Arab female clothes. Unlike in the book Ahmed stops short of seeming to actually rape her, declaring “I could make you love me!”, but holds her captive in the expectation she will eventually succumb to the pure force of his throbbing passion. The ritualised stripping back of Diana’s arch western, liberated pretences before the might of an idealised figure of masculine entitlement is nonetheless reproduced exactingly, but that same force is then in turn tamed by the vicissitudes of romantic respect as Ahmed finds himself paralysed by his desire to be loved rather than to merely possess.
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Of course, The Sheik is very dated even as some of the things it exploits have proven insidiously difficult to extract from the modern mindset, exploiting a sexual fantasy of domination not really that far from the kind evinced in recent phenomena like the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey books and films, mixed up a dubious conception of Arabic men as lascivious brutes, even when they’re actually Anglo-Spanish. One could read it all as self-aware role-play, an idea the film’s 1926 sequel takes up a little more brazenly. What’s undeniable is that The Sheik struck audiences of the day right where they lived. Or, at least, female audiences. Many male viewers reportedly found Valentino irksome in his liquid good-looks and willingness to enact erogenous fantasies for women, and his screen image was a violent switchback from the sort of hale and hearty American leading men prominent at the time. Charges of insidious effeminacy pursued the actor as well, accusations that eventually drove Valentino to stage and win his famous bout against the New York Evening Journal’s boxing writer, Frank O’Neill.
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Part of the problem might well be evinced in the way Valentino readily plays a character here who is supremely powerful in his little world but who, once he finds the woman who will obsess him, then places her at the very centre of all thoughts and ambitions. He is forgiven for his transgressions towards Diana because he at least wants her in absoluteness – there’s no playboy affectation or dilettantish indifference in his persona. Either way, Ayres and Valentino commit to their roles with gusto, and in many ways Ayres gives the more interesting performance in her registers swaying passing haughty self-possession to tremulous fear before her captor-lover and, at last, ardent amour. Valentino’s charisma is still amazingly potent when he’s charged with hawkish attention and brooding lust: his look of supreme erotic intent seems to x-ray whoever the object of that gaze through to the bone marrow. This quality is dramatized when Ahmed first sees Diana, his returned attention shunts her through a rapid succession of involuntary responses, anxiety, embarrassment, desire, revelation.
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Valentino does tread close to the boundaries of the overripe when his Ahmed flashes his eyes and gives an eagerly lustful smile. But what’s most obvious is his excellence as an actor attuned to silent cinema as a vehicle, conveying his character’s states of mind and attitude entirely through gestural and expressive affect, but also most entirely avoiding the hokier screen acting templates of the day: his on-screen stances and motions have a feline concision and fluency. One reason many of Valentino’s vehicles aren’t given much shrift today beyond retaining the man’s image itself is because he worked with no regarded directors, except for Ingram, who wasn’t particularly excited by the young star. But Melford’s direction of The Sheik is better than it’s often given credit for. It’s easily Melford’s best-known effort although he directed movies for over twenty years. Another of his odder claims to repute was handling the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931) produced simultaneously to the Tod Browning film and which is, in its way, another variation on this kind of demon-seducer tale. Melford also made several imitations of his most popular work like Burning Sands (1922) and Love in the Desert (1928).
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Despite his relative anonymity, Melford’s direction is a great part of the strength of The Sheik, in his lucid sense of atmosphere and drama, establishing a visual motif through his use of the period movie camera’s depth of field in multiple planes of action often subdivided by physical elements, finding of ways of bringing theatrical integrity to the expanse of the desert with his columns of horsemen zig-zagging across the landscape. Archways and doorframes in Biskra, the flaps and panels within Ahmed’s tent, the dunes of the desert, render the film a succession of penetrated layers and chambers, apt for a journey that’s about getting to the heart of a certain way of seeing relations between the genders. The scenes of Diana’s first arrival at Ahmed’s tent and prostration before him are particularly strong, as the winds pummelling the desert set the whole structure about Diana shuddering and swaying, mimicking her psyche’s extreme tumult, and culminating in the affecting sight of her and one of Ahmed’s female servants, Zilah (Ruth Miller), embracing in sympathy.
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For some reason Diana’s brother never gets around to looking for her, and for a complicating flourish Ahmed instead is happy to receive his old friend, the writer Raoul St Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), who’s been his friend since Ahmed was schooled in Paris. Ahmed fears that Raoul might prove a romantic rival, but he really stands in for the side of Ahmed that has been ‘civilised’ by his western roots and education, whilst bandit chief Omair (Walter Long) represents the primitive and bestial facet that only wants to snatch Diana and make her a sex slave. Omair first glimpses Diana when she makes an attempt to ride out of the desert after fooling Ahmed’s French manservant Gaston (Lucien Littlefield): she falls from her horse and Omair’s caravan, returning to the city he controls, happens upon Diana, but Ahmed tracks her down before the bandit can pluck her from the sands. Raoul shames Ahmed for making Diana sustaining the façade of dressing in western clothes again and fronting up to another westerner who will comprehend her subjugation. Omair soon leads a raid, snatching up Diana and carrying her away after she and some of Ahmed’s men valiantly try to fight them off, leaving Gaston and others dead. Ahmed quickly gathers together the rest of his tribesmen and sets off in pursuit.
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The film’s most wistful image, reproduced on one of the posters, is that of Diana’s missive scratched idly in the sand declaring her love for Ahmed, a message that remains in place to spur Ahmed’s resurgence to chase down and take back his woman. Glimpses of Omair’s city deliver the film up to a sense of total immersion in a fantasy concept of a foreign world as a zone totally dedicated to erotic display and intent, with its teeming streets, ecstatically writhing dancing girls, leering male choruses and, at last, the sight of Diana lying unconscious and prostrate on a couch under the watchful eye of a hulking black manservant. In another, significant touch of character mirroring in the play of possession and desire, Omair has a wife who has attempted to talk him out of his kidnapping and when confronted by the sight of her man about to ravage the young white woman tries to knife him in a jealous rage. Omair easily fends her off, but the delay gives Ahmed time to arrive at the gates. He sneaks over the walls, penetrates Omair’s home, whilst his men batter down the gate and defeat the bandits. Ahmed enters Omair’s home and strangles him to death, but is in turn struck down by the manservant. Diana sits by Ahmed’s bed and waits to see if he will recover. Long story short: he does.
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H.L. Mencken’s fascinating meditation on Valentino’s life and death published after his funeral converted the late star into a different kind of archetype, that of the instinctively poetic and philosophical young man who gains all he wants in worldly terms but found it essentially worthless even before he’s cruelly cut down. This narrative connects Valentino less with many other live-fast-die-young movie stars than it does a later brand of idol more associated with rock music, like Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Five years after The Sheik, Valentino returned to Hull’s property to film a sequel she had written. Just how long a five years it had been seems perfectly encapsulated in the way the film casts him as both an older Ahmed Ben Hassan, now grizzled and long married to Diana, and his grown son, also named Ahmed: Valentino seems have lived just as many lifetimes in that short time. In spite of his star stature, Valentino was in need of a hit, after a couple of less successful films, and quarrelling with another studio, and although he was tired of the image The Sheik had stuck him with, he resumed the part with gusto, carrying over his costar from The Eagle (1925), Vilma Bánky, to play his new love interest. Valentino liked Bánky, who had been brought to Hollywood and billed as “the Hungarian Rhapsody.” The Son of the Sheik finds a reasonably clever way of redeploying the original film’s essential tension as young Ahmed takes a woman captive, whilst offering a different spin on it.
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Here young Ahmed is in love with Yasmin (Bánky), the daughter of a French emcee, Andre (George Fawcett). Andre has fallen so low he leads a band of performers who double as thieves, with the Moor Ghabah (Montagu Love) a glowering and terrible figure barely kept in hand by his nominal boss, who holds his leash with vague suggestions he’ll marry Yasmin one day. It’s Yasmin who really keeps the band with her alluring dancing, a talent that’s also drawn in Ahmed. Yasmin arranges to meet Ahmed in some ruins close to where the troupe camps, but her companions catch wind of this. Ghabah leads them out to take Ahmed captive, tie him up, and plan to ransom him back to his family. Ghabah, recognising Yasmin’s connection to Ahmed, also tells the young man she deliberately drew him into their clutches. Ahmed is rescued the next morning by faithful family retainer Ramadan (Karl Dane), and taken to a friend’s house in the town of Touggourt. Ahmed sees Andre’s troupe enter town advertising their upcoming engagement at a town nightspot, the Café Maure, and when Yasmin sees her lover waves to him, only for Ahmed to sternly ignore her. Ahmed can’t shake loose his apparent betrayal, and he soon reproduces his father’s crime in snatching Yasmin away and taking her into the desert, vowing to her that “I may not be the first victim – but, by Allah, I shall be the one you’ll remember!”
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This central situation, as young Ahmed holds Yasmin captive, see great revenge that seems to consist merely of Ahmed standing about in lordly postures and chewing her out some, again with some not-quite-rape heavy romancing as the two bark mutual protestations of loathing at each-other but also can barely keep their hands to themselves. The Son of the Sheik was directed by George Fitzmaurice, whose handling betrays the quickly evolving sophistication of Hollywood cinema. Fitzmaurice was probably picked as director because he had helmed Bánky’s Hollywood debut The Dark Angel (1925). The film lacks the pictorial beauty of Melford’s but makes up for it in lunging storytelling verve and Fitzmaurice’s attentiveness to the essence of the vehicle’s intent turns the act of being loved by Valentino. This crystallises in a scene when Ahmed kisses Yasmin in the very eye of their apparent mutual hate, Valentino stalking towards the camera as it takes Bánky’s point of view and then reversing the shot, gliding in towards Bánky’s face and then cutting to a huge close-up of her teary yet erotically mesmerised eyes. Character experience and audience wont are churned together in a moment of cinematic shamanism, the kind of near-surreal pictorial intensity filmmaking and worship of the star visage from this era could wield effortlessly and which would obsess experimental filmmakers of later years.
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One of the main tweaks The Son of the Sheik makes on its predecessor was to beef up the swashbuckling, and in this the film also represents rapidly solidifying formulas for this sort of thing, the transformation of the cinema art from act of atavism into industrial product. This is clearest in the quick alternations of high drama and comic relief, most of it coming from Ahmed’s sarcastic pal Ramadan, and the physical tussles of the mountebanks Ali and Pincher (Bull Montana and Bynunsky Hyman) in Andre’s crew. The film has a tongue-in-cheek aspect that never overwhelms the drama but keeps it all in perspective as pure daydreaming. Certainly it’s all a template for the maturing ideal of the action movie of a brand where Errol Flynn would soon readily step in to fill the hole left by the death of Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. Valentino also seems to have been determined to butch up his image a bit: his costuming leaves his arms bare, the better to show off his rippling muscles as he grips and compels Yasmin, before launching into an extended action finale that sees Ahmed performing some quintessential stunts like swinging on a chandelier and making a bold jump onto a horse’s back. There’s even a torture sequence of the kind Flynn would also be often subjected to with heavy whiffs of S&M and homoerotic appeal, when Ahmed is held captive by the criminal band, leaving Valentino’s body scored with dark welts.
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The most substantial subtext lies in the casting of Valentino not simply as the young doppelganger of his father but also playing the old Sheik Ahmed as well, made up with grizzled beard. There’s a kind of audience appeal joke in this – more Valentino for your dollar, folks! But it’s also a commentary on Valentino’s awareness of his improving skill as an actor and a more than vaguely meta gag on his inability to shake the Sheik image. The son is cast in the father’s mould and finds himself entrapped by his father’s psychology even as he attempts to resist his will, a tough voice for the Jazz age scion of the stern old-world father, illustrated when Ahmed straightens out the poker his father bends to demonstrate his strength. The Sheik intends for his son to marry Diana’s cousin Clara, who’s about to visit, but young Ahmed remains aloof. Diana, still played by Ayres, prods the Sheik with awareness of his own wilful, unstoppable determination, cueing a flashback to his kidnapping of her, putting a wryly guilty smile on the old rogue’s face. Valentino plays the two rolls distinctly, occasionally letting the old man show the same florid grins and rolling-eyed glares, whilst young Ahmed is a study in the actor’s more refined sense of effect. Fitzmaurice pulls off some clever, simple special effects in scenes where Valentino plays against himself, including shots where the old Sheik puts his arm around his son, and the two men hold hands whilst duelling side by side in the finale.
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The narrative, such as it is, eventually sees Ahmed decide to send Yasmin back to Touggourt, but her father, Ghabah, and cohort surprise her and Ramadan in the desert. Ghabah makes the mistake of gloating to Yasmin at poisoning Ahmed’s mind against her whilst Ramadan can hear, but Ahmed’s already trying to find her again. The troupe return to the Café Maure, where Ghabah makes it clear he intends to possess Yasmin one way or another. But Ahmed sneaks in disguised: Fitzmaurice reverses the early shot of Yasmin’s swooning before Ahmed as the man now beholds Yasmin again in the delivering ecstasies of dance, eyes glowing from under his shadowing hood, before leaping into action to save her from Ghabah. His father, defying the windstorm thrashing the desert, tracks him and helps him battle off the Café denizens. The eruption of action here is terrific, showing off Valentino’s physicality to the max as the two Ahmeds swing their scimitars and wield off opponents with table, barrels, and improvised firebombs, dodging thrown knives and hurling them back. Father and son fend off the ruffians but Ahmed still has to chase after Ghabah and Yasmin on horseback, duelling his enemy as the pound across the sands. Ahmed loses his sword so he springs upon Ghabah and throttles him on the ground before embracing Yasmin just in time for the fade-out.
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The Son of the Sheik would surely have been the big hit Valentino was chasing even if he hadn’t died when gearing up to publicise it, as it’s a great entertainment by any measure in spite of the lackadaisical plot. Although she never rivalled his stature Bánky’s name is sometimes used like Valentino’s to invoke raciness from a long-ago time, and she was most definitely a luminous and dazzlingly sexy presence. It’s also fun to see Ayres playing the older Diana, now mistress of her desert palace. It’s rather painful to think about what bad luck all these beautiful and talented people suffered: Ayres would die aged 42, her fortune wiped out by the Black Friday crash and career ruined by weight gain, and Bánky foiled, as Valentino might well have been if he had lived, by her heavy accent once sound came. At least on screen they’re all eternally young, gallivanting across a moonlit survey with nothing to do but enact our fantasies.

The Sheik can be viewed here on YouTube…

…and The Son of the Sheik here.

3 thoughts on “The Sheik (1921) / The Son of the Sheik (1926)

  1. Syd Henderson

    Valentino is actually pretty bad in “Son of the Sheik.” He chews the scenery and his idea of showing lust is acting like a kid who found a chocolate bicycle under the Christmas tree (a lift from my review some fifteen years ago, but still apt). It’s still worth watching, though.

    “Son of the Sheik” is an excellent film, but I’m pretty sure that the rape actually took place, which makes me more queasy about that film. He’s feeling betrayed and thinks the woman used her sexual wiles in the betrayal, so he rapes her in revenge. I wish we had more Valentino and Banky.

    Like

      1. I disagree, Syd, that Valentino is bad in The Son of the Sheik. I do agree with your characterisation of his performance at its least in The Sheik, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The films do dance with cunning dexterity around the question of just what exactly Valentino does to the women; you can fill in salacious details to your heart’s content, but there’s never anything like even a silhouetted struggle or the like.

        Anyway, thanks for being Film Freedonia’s second ever commenter.

        Like

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