Monday, July 18, 2011

The Sheik (1921, Silent) / The Son of the Sheik (1926, Silent)

Rudolph Valentino's title character tries to force himself
on an English lady in the silent cult classic The Sheik.
I've always been curious about the great sex appeal that Rudolph Valentino held for women of the 1920s. So crazed was their passion, in fact, that I can't really even find a contemporary comparison for it. Perhaps it's somewhat akin to the splash Marilyn Monroe made with male audiences in the '50s and '60s, but that's the closest I can come to it.

Anyway, the 1921 film The Sheik was the film which propelled Valentino to cult status. It's based on a novel of the same name, which was the Twilight of its generation: a poorly-written, sentimental and salacious piece of drivel with at disturbingly predatory hero that women seemed to swoon over. So of course it was made into an equally popular movie which the critics rightly panned but audiences seemed to love nonetheless. Just like the climate today, the popularity of the novel and movie inspired so many spin-offs and imitations that it glutted the market with sheik/Arabian romance stories the same way our own culture is now overrun with vampire/supernatural romances thanks to Twilight - I'm beginning to think that the Medieval worldview was right to believe that history is cyclical instead of progressive. We don't seem to have made much progress in the past 90 years.

This film is so odd to 21st-century eyes that I had to watch it twice just to make sure I hadn't mistaken certain points of plot and character motive. It starts with the heroine, Lady Diana, sneaking into an Arabs-only party in a desert town in order to get a look at what's going on. She is spotted by the dashing young Sheik Ahmed (Valentino), whom we hear was educated in Paris, and who immediately falls for Diana. He serenades her unseen in the moonlight and even creeps into her bedroom while she's asleep, which I find profoundly frightening. The next morning Diana sets out on a journey across the dessert with only her servants to escort her, which prompts Sheik Ahmed to abduct her so that he can force her to become his bride - Nice fellow!

It's at this point where the film really loses me. Both Diana and Ahmed are so inconsistently characterized that it's hard for me to believe any of their actions. First off, it's hard to get a good picture of Ahmed because he fluctuates so rapidly between a cultured gentleman and a savage that he seems like either a sociopath or someone with a multiple-personalityto disorder. He makes a big show of keeping a valet and French-speaking servants, yet he is constantly trying to force himself on Diana - which he very nearly does on several occasions - and humiliates her by bringing one of his Parisian friends to see her in her captive state. What's even worse, however, is that in spite of this horrible treatment, Diana ends up falling for him even before he starts treating her with much decency. I know he's very handsome and everything, but it's still so wrong that she falls for her would-be rapist that I can't stomach it at all.

I give this movie a 5 out of 10 mostly for its historical significance. Interesting as a curiosity without being a very good film.

Very shortly after I first saw The Sheik, I found out there was a direct sequel, also staring Rudolph Valentino, and called The Son of the Sheik. By all the accounts I read, this film was supposed to be much better than the original, and it has the added appeal of being the last film released before Valentino's untimely death in 1926, perhaps a fortunate occurrence because who knows if the advent of talkies the next year would have ruined the great lover's mystique.

One thing that I can say for this movie is that it is much more entertaining than its predecessor, owing mostly to the fact that it tells a much simpler story. The titular character falls for a young dancer named Yasmin, but during on of their romantic interludes, he is kidnapped by a band of thieves, led by the dancer's father. They implicate Yasmin in their scheme to extort money from the young Sheik's father, which causes our hero to exact his revenge on her by kidnapping and raping her - yeah, such a nice guy! In typical fashion, he then learns of his mistake and sets out to rescue Yasmin from the clutches of a lascivious member of her father's gang. She forgives the young sheik, and they live happily ever after.

So yes, the plot in this one doesn't really carry any surprises in it, but at least it makes the character motives believable. Unlike the first film, we can understand the heroine still having feelings for the hero even after he rapes her because it's been established that they were lovers before that. Also the hero's motives seem more clear-cut because he has cause to want revenge and he lives a wild dessert life where violence against women is commonplace. It's still brutal, but at least it's not wildly inconsistent. And Valentino is still just as handsome in this film as he was in the one he made five years prior, not that it's much consolation.

I elevate this film to a 5.5 over its predecessor.

Buy on Amazon:

The Sheik / The Son of the Sheik (Special Edition)

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