Cast & Crew
At an oasis in the Sahara Desert, Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan presides over a marriage market, at which weathly tribesmen purchase brides, and ensures that his friend Yousaef is reunited with his sweetheart Zilah. Ahmed and his men then take some of the women to be sold in Biskra. Biskra, a large town where old traditions co-exist with the ways of foreign tourists, is the current home of the high-spirited Lady Diana Mayo. Despite the protests of her brother, Sir Aubrey, Diana is leaving the following morning on a tour of the Sahara, accompanied only by an Arab guide, Mustapha Ali, and his men. Diana is fascinated by the arrival of Ahmed and questions a gendarme, who tells her that the sheik will be hosting an entertainment at the casino, during which men will be able to gamble for the brides. Diana also learns that only Arabs are allowed entrance, and that the Paris-educated sheik is a rich tribal prince whose word is law in Biskra. Intrigued, Diana buys a dancing girl's costume, then sits with the other women in the casino. When it is Diana's turn to be displayed, she balks, and Ahmed deduces that she is not an Arab. After a bemused Ahmed escorts her out, Mustapha reveals that he is taking Diana into the desert, and Ahmed smiles. Soon after Diana begins her journey, Ahmed and his men ambush her. Upon being taken to Ahmed's tent, Diana asks him why he has kidnapped her, and he replies, "Are you not woman enough to know?" After Diana rejects the sheik's attempts to seduce her, he instructs his French valet, Gaston, and Zilah to attend her. Seeing Diana's distress at her captivity, Ahmed keeps his distance, but insists that she wear traditional Arab garb instead of her western clothing. After a week of "sullen obedience," Diana learns that Ahmed is to be visited by his friend, famed French novelist Dr. Raoul de St. Hubert. Diana is horrified that someone from "her" world will see her as a captive and assume that she has become Ahmed's concubine. Seeing her concern, Ahmed orders Gaston to return Diana's clothes to her, but when he kisses her, she still reacts coldly. Upset that his attentions repulse her, Ahmed leaves to meet Raoul. Later, while riding with Gaston, Diana broods on the upcoming encounter with Raoul, and runs away. In Biskra, Raoul reprimands Ahmed for abducting Diana, but the sheik protests that when an Arab wants a woman, he takes her. In the desert, Omair the bandit spots Diana alone and is about to seize her when Ahmed suddenly appears and saves her. Diana confesses that she ran away because of her shame over facing Raoul, and that night, Raoul discerns how uncomfortable Diana is. As the days pass, Raoul and Diana become friends, much to the dismay of Ahmed, who mistakenly assumes that Raoul is falling in love with her. One afternoon, as Raoul talks with Diana, news arrives that he is needed to tend to an injured man. Raoul notes Diana's fear that Ahmed has been hurt, and her relief that is it someone else instead. Ahmed also sees her concern and is gratified. Meanwhile, in Omair's stronghold, the bandit orders his spies to bring him news of Ahmed's "white woman." At the oasis, Ahmed returns Diana's pistol to her when she promises not to run away, and she goes riding with Gaston. After Diana leaves, Raoul rebukes his friend for his treatment of her and begs him to return her to Biskra. Ahmed protests, then realizes that he has been in the wrong. Overcome with remorse, Ahmed tells Raoul to escort Diana to Biskra, then rides off alone. Meanwhile, Diana has been captured by Omair's men, and Gaston has been wounded. When Ahmed rides through the desert, he finds the words, "Ahmed, I love you," which Diana had scribbled into the sand before her capture. Ahmed is thrilled until he finds Gaston and learns what has occurred. Ahmed takes Gaston to Raoul, then assembles his men and rides for Omair's fortress. As Omair is attempting to assault Diana, Ahmed and his men gain entry into the fort and battle their way to Omair's inner sanctum, where Ahmed strangles his foe. Ahmed is wounded during the battle, and Diana anxiously accompanies him to the oasis. As Diana and Raoul watch over the unconscious Ahmed, Raoul reveals that Ahmed is the orphaned son of an English father and a Spanish mother. As a child, Ahmed was adopted by the former sheik, and was reared as an Arab. Diana then prays to God to take her instead of her beloved, and her tender words wake Ahmed. Overjoyed, the lovers embrace.
The Sheik (1921) - The Sheik
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.
The Sheik (1921) - The Sheik
Why--why have you brought me here?- Lady Diane
Mon Dieu, are you not woman enough to know?- Ahmed
The opening credits of this film end with the following quotation from an unidentified poem by a writer listed only as "Holmes": "Mohammed's land-Where saint and sinner chant as one/Their praise to Allah-bowing low Beneath a desert sun." Actor George Waggner's surname is misspelled "Waggener" in the film's intertitles. Although the film was copyrighted at 8 reels, contemporary reviews list it as running 7 reels.
According to modern sources, James Kirkwood was originally considered for the role of "Ahmed Ben Hassan." Modern sources add Loretta Young and her sisters, Polly Ann and Elizabeth Jane, as well as her brother Jackie, who were children at the time, as extras in the film. As noted by modern sources, Edith M. Hull's novel, upon which the film was based, was considered daring for its time, due to its sexually provocative nature. In a August 21, 1921 NY Morning Telegraph article, director George Melford addressed concerns about potential censorship problems surrounding the film adaptation by stating: "We have handled the frank scenes in The Sheik so delicately that I think the censors will be the only disappointed viewers." In its review, Wid's commented that the story had been "rearranged and 'tamed' to spare the scissors of the censor board."
A November 10, 1921 Wid's news item reported that the picture had "smashed all attendance records at the Rivoli and Rialto theatres" in New York during the first three days of its exhibition. The article reported that it was "estimated that by Saturday night the total attendance at the two theatres will be 120,000 persons-a new record in Broadway entertainment history." The film, which was very successful, influenced popular culture in numerous ways, including propagating Arab-inspired fashions, dances and songs, introducing the word "sheik" into American slang and cementing Rudolph Valentino's image as a forceful, sexually aware yet gentlemanly hero.
In 1926, United Artists released a sequel to The Sheik, entitled The Son of the Sheik. That film, in which Valentino played a dual role of father and son, was his last picture. After Valentino's death on August 23, 1926, at the age of 31, thousands of fans crowded the streets during his funeral. In subsequent years, a legend arose about "the lady in black" who mourned by his grave every year on the anniversary of his death. Valentino's acting style was frequently copied and often spoofed in the years since his death. Two film biographies, both entitled Valentino, were produced about the actor. The first, directed by Lewis Allen and starring Anthony Dexter, was released in 1951, and the second, directed Ken Russell and starring dancer Rudolf Nureyev, was released in 1977.
In November 1958, Daily Variety reported that Paramount was considering adapting The Sheik for television by adding sound effects, music and narration. An original music score by Roger Bellon was added to a video and television re-release of the picture.