Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – The Sheik (1921)

Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – The Sheik (1921)

One of the great sensations of the early 1920s screen, The Sheik (1921) is the kind of silent film that’s almost too easy to mock: it’s melodramatic, it’s cheesy, it’s based on a florid romance novel, and it features plenty of that exaggerated acting people always think was common back then (there was plenty of naturalistic acting, I promise…!).

Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik (1921)
Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik (1921)

And when it comes to analyzing its star, the legendary Rudolph Valentino, some might find themselves scratching their heads. The bulging eyes, the stilted love scenes–it’s a performance that admittedly hasn’t aged like a fine wine. But there are still moments that capture his charisma, helping us understand his singular mystique. And, of course, The Sheik is also a darn good example of early 20th century camp.

The Sheik (1921) Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino
Valentino as The Sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan, carrying Ayres, Lady Diana Mayo

After his breakout role as the fiery gaucho Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), oddly enough, Valentino’s subsequent roles weren’t exactly capitalizing on his talent. Camille (1921), for instance, was mainly an artsy vehicle for its star Alla Nazimova. He finally signed a contract with the more open-minded Famous Players-Lasky, which quickly decided the “exotic” young Italian would make a perfect Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan for The Sheik, their planned film version of Edith M. Hull’s wildly successful romance novel. His costars would be Agnes Ayres, an unassuming brunette whose petite frame made her costar seem taller than he was (various sources say Valentino was either 5’8” or 5’9”), and the dapper Adolphe Menjou.

The Sheik (1921) Rudolph Valentino, Agnes Ayres and Adolphe Menjou
Valentino, Ayres and Menjou

Not only was this novel popular, but it was very much in tune with the prevailing trend for all things “Oriental.” The Far East was considered a place of lush beauty and mysterious allure, where passions surely ran hot. Various starlets sported turbans and dresses made of “exotic” fabrics and decorated their homes with lacquered tables, painted screens and heaps of silk cushions. Interest in “Orientalism” signaled that you were more mystical and artistic than your average straitlaced type, and certainly more sensual.

In that atmosphere, Hull’s novel was practically made to order. It does have elements that really make us balk today. It tells the tale of Lady Diana Mayo, an adventurous young woman who insists on taking a trip into the Algerian desert accompanied only by a guide. She soon catches the eye of the Sheik Ahmed, who decides that he must have her. He dramatically kidnaps her, has his way with her, and keeps her captive for several months. Although she does attempt to escape, eventually Diana begins falling in love with Ahmed. When Diana’s kidnapped again by a rival sheik, Ahmed realizes that he loves her too, and after some twists and turns all ends happily… so to speak.

The Sheik novel by E.M. Hull
The novel The Sheik by E.M. Hull (1919)

With such a scandalous plot on their hands, Famous Players had to figure out how to get away with filming it. Parts were softened out of concerns that the film would be targeted for depicting miscegenation (despite an eyebrow-raising twist at the end that I won’t spoil here), emphasizing that Ahmed didn’t subject Diana to physical harm during her captivity. Rather awkwardly, Valentino’s narrow eyes were made up to appear rounder and his naturally tan skin tone was lightened. His hands are still noticeably darker than his face, contrasting strongly with Ayres’ delicate pale skin–likely on purpose since the script mentions Ahmed grasping her “white, trembling hands in his firm brown grip.” Interestingly, posters and lobby cards do show Valentino’s Ahmed with a darker complexion. His iconic “sheik” costumes of flowing robes, sashes, tassels and turbans were designed by his significant other Natasha Rambova, who was deeply interested in all things Far East herself.

The Sheik (1921) Rudolph Valentino Costume Design
Valentino’s extravagant costume design by Natasha Rambova

The Sheik was shot on location in the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, where the desert dunes were a good stand-in for Northern Africa–or its romanticized version. The studio set up two large camps full of extras, making the production feel like a large-scale desert expedition. The director, George Melford, was a fan of westerns and enlisted a number of experienced horsemen for some of the shots. He was happy to discover that Valentino was already an experienced horseback rider and was game to do any sort of action the film needed. Natasha later said Valentino was “in his element.”

A bit of Hollywoodland magic was needed for some of the exotic exteriors. An oasis was created by designing a number of full-size palm trees out of painted wood and canvas. These trees would later end up as decorations in the famous Cocoanut Grove at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. Bits of Pathe stock footage of an Algerian town were spliced in for some scenes, giving a bit of realism–but not too much. The overall effect was supposed to be more of an exotic fantasy than strict recreation of real life, and many interior shots took place in elaborate tents where the sides gently fluttered in the breeze and lush curtains framed the scenes. Melford also liked filming scenes through Moorish-shaped doorways, trying to add as much atmosphere as he could.

The Sheik (1921) Rudolph Valentino Agnes Ayres lobby card
“The Sheik is the hectic tale of an English girl in the clutches of an Arabian chief”

The acting, a bit infamously, was also part of the fantasy. Melford like some of the pantomime-inspired tricks Valentino used, like widening his eyes to show desire, and encouraged it to an extreme. Similarly, Agnes Ayres shows a rather limited range of exaggerated emotions, mainly fear, anger, and of course, love. It all makes for a lot of amusement today, but there were a few scenes that Valentino managed to transcend–mainly a key scene where he feels remorse for frightening Diana. His gaze straight into the camera has an arresting quality that can still mesmerize us today.

The Sheik (1921) Rudolph Valentino
Valentino as Ahmed Ben Hassan

The Sheik was a big hit of course, although reviews were mixed. There was quite a bit of snark about the acting, and there were even many complaints that the plot wasn’t as spicy as the book. But it was generally agreed that Valentino carried the film well–and there’s no doubt that his fans thought so. The Sheik officially made the young actor a phenomenon, one of the biggest stars of the 1920s–and biggest names in film history in general. And while his first major starring film might be hard for 21st century audiences to take seriously, it also has a kitschy charm that’s hard to forget. 

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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