Thursday, April 27, 2017

Now Playing: "The Sheik" (1921)



I'm embarrassed that it took me so long to sit down and watch this silent film classic. Unless you are a silent film aficionado, you probably haven't seen it.  Even Turner Classic Movies, a channel that is a gift from Baby Jesus, doesn't often place it in its rotation.  The Sheik isn't Shakespeare but it spawned a very popular brand of condoms and made its leading man a superstar overnight.

Rudolph Valentino is Ahmed Ben Hassan, a Middle Eastern prince who is officially of marrying age and in search of his princess.  His character is set up from the start when we see him viewing eligible women at a marriage market; one is chosen but she loves another and weeps in sorrow and fear.  Rather than forcing her into marriage, which apparently he can do, Ahmed allows her to go back to her intended.

Ahmed, the hottest bachelor around
While at a private party, Ahmed spots the very English Diana Mayo, played by Agnes Ayres. Diana, on vacation in Biskra, is a scandalous topic of conversation by the ladies who lunch due to her plans to explore the desert solo.  Yeah, seems like a poor decision.  She is fascinated with the foreigners and attempts (poorly) to infiltrate the revelry. Ahmed busts her cover and in typical cinematic fashion, immediately becomes infatuated with her.   This infatuation leads him to skulk around her bedroom and then woo her by singing under her window. Not that we get to hear the actual singing; we get the intertitles. The singing must be something though because Diana gets the hot pants for the unseen crooner. (It didn't take much to seduce women back in the day.)

Also in cinematic fashion, Ahmed waits until Diana departs on her ill-advised sabbatical, snatches her, tells the fighting girl to zip it and carries her off to his palace of tents in the Sahara desert.  Charming!  He then serves her a sumptuous dinner (that cad) and prepares to seduce her. The seduction is put on hold due to an ill-timed sandstorm.  This is one of many reasons I would not want to vacation in the desert. After picking sand out of . . . everything . . . Ahmed resumes his attempts at seduction, this time by being an asshole.  Diana, for once exhibiting some sense, rebuffs him by melting into a crying heap. Ahmed fights a sandstorm like a badass but a crying woman sends him fleeing, leaving Diana chaste and able to sleep in peace.

A week passes, with Diana still captive and refusing to speak to Ahmed but somehow still hanging around.  Yeah, I don't know about that either.   When Ahmed's friend and former schoolmate, played by Adolphe Menjou, shows up, she is humiliated that this respectable French man would see her captive and decides that it's time to peace out. Raoul, the French friend, is shown as the voice of reason because he thinks Ahmed's plan to abduct a woman is a bit sketchy.
Wonder what's on his mind? Besides overacting.

Diana, meanwhile, has taken a horse and fled Chez Ahmed but, being a stereotypical movie female better suited in a horror film, she falls off the horse and stumbles around in a daze in the desert. The horse, being smarter than its rider, returns to camp and Ahmed realizes that something has happened to Diana.  Certainly not a jump in IQ.

He jumps on his horse and manages to re-kidnap her before a band of Bad Guys led by Omair gives it a shot.  Are there no other women in the immediate vicinity?

Despite her earlier humiliation, Diana spends some time with Raoul causing Ahmed to be jealous.  Until, that is, he overhears her confession that she has fallen in love with him.  Say what now?

Given that Ahmed is in love with Diana but hasn't told her and Diana is in love with Ahmed but hasn't told him, he decides to let her enjoy some freedom, which includes horseback riding (actually on the horse) with his valet, Gaston and a few guards.

The Bad Guys are still roaming the desert, though, and come across the party, quickly dispatching the guards and incapacitating Gaston before taking Diana away.   What a vacation!

At least she's awake
Ahmed gathers his troops to retrieve his lady before she is ruined by Omair.  He is successful (did you really think otherwise?) but he is injured in the battle.  Will he survive?   Of course he will!  He recovers in time for the end of the film to wax poetic "Diana, my beloved. The darkness has passed and now the sunshine."  Cheesy but most effective as Diana quivers like a kiddie pool of Jello.

The Sheik became a huge success and earned Valentino the tagline of "The Greatest Lover."  Was it deserved?

Watching the film through twenty-first century eyes, the acting is overly melodramatic. This is not Valentino's best; his eye gestures bypass "mugging" to an alarming degree.  Maybe the director, George Melford, allowed Valentino his own interpretation.  Eyefucking and some weak acting aside, the man is sex on a stick.  Watch the scene where he is lying supine after being injured and Diana is waiting for him to regain consciousness. The camera lingers on his face and Lord help me, he is beautiful.  Absolutely, positively, painfully beautiful. Still photos of him from the film do not do him justice.  Seeing him in action explain why women of the 1920s screamed, fainted and basically lost their shit while or after viewing The Sheik.

I found leading lady Agnes Ayres a bit abrasive. This may have been more so the character of Diana than Ayres herself.  While Diana is pretty, was she really that irresistible?  Girl was kidnapped at least three times.  Diana is alleged to have been a modern, headstrong woman and yet when confronted by a horny Ahmed, she reacts by fainting.  An act she replicates when Ahmed is fighting Omair for her safety and honor. Maybe that was how modern, proper British ladies in 1921 reacted but this modern American lady would have placed a well thought out kick to Omair's nads.

Since it was 1921, Middle Easterners are seen as dark and dangerous. Both Ahmed and Omair kidnap Diana and both plan to rape her. "Sensibilities" at the time prohibited an interracial relationship so we have to find out by the end of the film that Ahmed isn't actually Middle Eastern.

All's well that ends well
Despite Gaston and Raoul being decent men, neither do anything to help Diana.  She has been kidnapped, after all.  Heck, the very educated Raoul acts as if Ahmed has overslept rather than committed a felony and even says that Diana has pretty much brought the abduction on herself since she's "too beautiful."  Way to victim blame.

So is The Sheik worth a watch?  Even being painful at points and hardly rocket science, absolutely.  What are you waiting for?  Really.  Go.

Silent films can get a bad rep.  Some film watchers don't enjoy the lack of audible dialogue. Others aren't keen on reading the intertitles used in silents. But they are a fascinating look at our culture from the 1910s and 1920s.  The Sheik is no exception.

Why are you waiting?  Go.  Go!




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