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If Rudolph Valentino's tango scene in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) established his screen persona, his appearance as the impassioned Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik (1921) catapulted him to the top rank of movie stars in the Twenties. It also transformed his sizable female fan base into a full-blown cult. Long after Valentino's untimely death, his nostril-flaring performance in The Sheik has remained one of the most widely imitated, criticized and parodied representations of an Arab in Hollywood films.
Edith M. Hull's romance novel of the same title was a major publishing success of its day, selling over a million copies after its initial 1919 publication in England. The 1921 U.S. edition went through dozens of reprintings in its first year. In the novel, Lady Diana Mayo is an independent-minded, tomboyish woman; one character refers to her as "the coldest little fish in the world." When Diana makes an ill-advised trip on her own through the Algerian desert, she is abducted and raped by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan and falls passionately in love with him as a result. A display ad for the novel in The Times (London) promised: "The conflict between the Sheik and Diana Mayo is worked out in a manner which will startle Mrs. Grundy."
If the novel's subject matter was lurid, its underlying gender politics were unabashedly conservative; in an interview Hull stated, "I don't wish to [...] defend the callous brutality of Ahmed Ben Hassan [...] But I am old fashioned enough to believe that a woman's best love is given to the man [...] she recognizes as her master." At the same time, Hull coyly sidestepped the potential problem of an interethnic romance by revealing at the end of the novel that the Sheik was the son of English and Spanish nobility. Although the novel was largely ridiculed by the critics, many female readers embraced it. The romance novel mogul Barbara Cartland even reprinted it in the 1970s for her Library of Love series.
The Sheik was Valentino's first film for Famous Players-Lasky. At the time, he was frustrated by the low salary which he drew at Metro Pictures. Impressed by Valentino's performance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Jesse Lasky lured him to Famous Players-Lasky with the promise of more say over scripts and higher pay. According to the Valentino biographer Emily Leider, it was Lasky's secretary who suggested that Valentino play the starring role of The Sheik, since the studio had recently acquired the rights to Hull's novel. James Kirkwood was originally slated for the part, but Valentino's salary was far lower and his exotic looks better suited the character. Valentino's wife Natacha Rambova designed his costumes. Exterior locations included Oxnard and the Guadalupe Dunes in Santa Barbara County. Although Monte Katterjohn's script followed the novel relatively closely, it removed the rape scene in order to preempt the censors. Despite this, it was banned in Kansas City upon its release.
Like the novel, the film was mocked by the critics but wildly popular with female audiences. Variety complained that the film was "bled white of anything resembling human form" because of its decision to sidestep the novel's notorious rape scene. The reviewer continued: "The same novel, preposterous and ridiculous as it was, won out because it dealt with every caged woman's desire to be caught up in a love clasp by some he-man who would take the responsibility and dispose of the consequences." He further criticized George Melford's "inept direction of the big scenes." In a similar vein, the reviewer for the New York Times said of the last-minute revelation of the Sheik's European identity, "These romantic Arabian movies, you know, never have the courage of their romantics."
The fan magazines from the era offer a revealing picture of how The Sheik was marketed to its intended female audience. An article in Motion Picture Magazine described Valentino's eyes as having "a savor of the Orient; his lids are lost beneath the smooth continuance of his brows. [...] His is a passionate nature over which, for the moment, repression has gained mastery." Valentino himself wrote an article entitled "The Psychology of the Sheik" for Movie Weekly, published at the time of the film's release. In it, he reiterated the notion of women desiring to be conquered by a powerful man: "I think he is just the sort of man to appeal to a high-bred, dashing girl like Diana. He dominates her not only with his physical strength, but by his will." At the same time, Valentino attempted to distance himself from the film's stereotyped depiction of Arabs, writing: "[...] people are not savages because they have dark skins. The Arabian civilization is one of the oldest in the world. I was born in southern Italy, where the Moorish influence is yet to be seen." Predictably, Mack Sennett parodied the film in The Shriek of Araby (1923), with the cross-eyed Ben Turpin standing in for Valentino. Even as late as 1937, Republic Pictures attempted to revive the Arab abductor-and-lover image in the Ramon Novarro vehicle The Sheik Steps Out, though on the whole the latter's portrayal of Arabs and Islam in general was more sympathetic.
Producer and Director: George Melford
Script: Monte M. Katterjohn, adapted from the novel by Edith M. Hull
Director of Photography: William Marshall
Principal Cast: Rudolph Valentino (Ahmed Ben Hassan, the Sheik), Agnes Ayres (Lady Diana Mayo), Ruth Miller (Zilahl), George Waggener (Yousaef), Frank Butler (Sir Aubrey), Charles Brindley (Mustapha Ali), Lucien Littlefield (Gaston), Adolphe Menjou (Dr. Raoul de St. Hubert), Walter Long (Omair).
by James Steffen
Hull, E. M. The Sheik. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1921.
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003.
"Nash's New Novels." The Times, Friday, November 14, 1919, p.18.
"The Sheik." Variety, November 11, 1921.
"The Screen." (Review of The Sheik.) New York Times, November 7, 1921.
Valentino, Rudolph. "The Psychology of the Sheik." Movie Weekly, October 8, 1921, pp. 4-5.