Premièring 30 October 1921, and going into general release 20 November 1921, The Sheik was the first film Rudy Valentino made after he shot to superstardom in the spring with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Though the film leaves much to be desired artistically, and was outdone on every single level by the sequel, it’s one of those films that’s so bad it’s good, so trashy it’s delicious, and really fun to watch.

The Sheik is based on Edith Maude Hull’s trashy 1919 bestseller of the same name, which is little more than one long rape and abduction fantasy. That book started the revival of the desert romance subgenre, and built on the existing Orientalist romance subgenre.

Thankfully, the film significantly tones down Ahmed’s brutal character, and leaves the fate of Diana’s virginity rather open-ended. In the book, Ahmed rapes and beats her every day, abusing her so much her entire body is bruised and her bones feel broken.

Amazingly to our contemporary sensibilities, some critics thought it was a mistake to leave the rape scenes out, since it radically changed the book’s message (that the independent-minded, tomboyish Diana only falls in love with her captor after being so completely broken and developing what we now know as Stockholm Syndrome). Director George Melford said, “We have handled the frank scenes in The Sheik so delicately that I think the censors will be the only disappointed reviewers.”

The film was a giant blockbuster, and set attendance records at many theatres. Because of its success, Jesse Lasky, head of Paramount, declared the final week of November 1921 as Sheik Week. It ran for months in many theatres, including in France, Australia, and Rudy’s own native Italy. This was the first of his films to play in his homeland.

Within that first year of release, The Sheik earned over a million dollars. So popular was it, the word “sheik” became slang for a hot, charming young guy on the make. In return, a sheba was the object of his affections.

Many women fainted in the aisles during showings of the film, since they’d never seen such raw sex appeal on the screen before. Prior, they’d been fed so-called “all-American boys next door” like Wallace Reid, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Thomas Meighan, guys who were stereotypically masculine and clean-cut. While I love those actors too, they were radically different from Rudy in so many ways. To start with, Rudy was dark-featured, and had terra-cotta skin. He also had softer facial features, and was foreign.

Rudy showed women an image of manliness they hadn’t known existed, a guy who harnessed sensitivity, beauty, grace, charm, wit, intelligence, physical strength, thoughtfulness, attention to his appearance. He was an exciting change of pace from the kinds of men they were socialized to want. That made the powers that be very uncomfortable, since it challenged the status quo.

Women loved the story of Ahmed and Diana because that kind of excitement and passion was missing in their own lives. They loved the idea of a strange man driven wild with desire for them, so much so he’d kidnap and ravish her. In a true fantasy, you’re always in total control, and things go exactly the way you’d like. It was about what it represented, not truly wanting to get kidnapped, beaten, and raped.

An overgrown mean girl on a message board I left years ago haughtily insisted that if women were truly fainting in the aisles, their corsets must’ve been laced too tightly or they had no idea of what real sexiness actually was. Just because YOU, as a 21st century person, can’t fathom the mindset of a 1920s woman doesn’t mean they were a bunch of ninnies or suffering from tight corsets!

The popularity of The Sheik inspired many other desert romance/abduction films, serious films as well as parodies and cartoons. In addition, there have been countless references to it in popular culture over the last century. Hollywood High School also has Rudy’s character as their mascot, and the student body and sports teams are called the Sheiks.

A lot of The Sheik’s shortcomings have been blamed on director George Melford egging his players on to overacting (e.g., Rudy’s infamous eye-bulging). He wanted a commercial hit, not a serious, quality, deep, complex, artistic masterpiece. There also isn’t any real chemistry between Ahmed and Diana, whereas the sparks fly off the screen with Ahmed, Jr., and Yasmin in the sequel. The love-hate story is also much more believable in The Son of the Sheik, and the secondary characters are better-developed.

But sometimes you just want the film equivalent of popcorn and bubblegum, not gourmet chocolate and wine.

One thought on “Happy 100th birthday to The Sheik! (Part I: General overview)

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