Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE SHEIK (1921)

Arabs, we are told, dwell in happy ignorance of civilization which has passed them by. At a roundup of eligible young women,we see a wise and educated sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), allow his buddy to keep his girlfriend, then head off to the town of Biskra, gateway to the desert, to sell the rest of the women into marriage. The madcap Lady Diana and her brother Aubrey are in town and she wants adventure; Aubrey encourages her to settle down and marry though she calls marriage "captivity." When she is kept out of the casino at which Ahmed is holding the marriage market, she sneaks in disguised as a dancing girl. Ahmed is amused by her antics and he follows her as she heads off into desert with only an Arab guide. He kidnaps her and during a sandstorm plans to have his way with her, but is struck by her despair and instead just insists that she dress in Arab clothing and remain his captive. His "civilized" French friend Raoul visits and is critical of Ahmed keeping Diana; Ahmed replies, "When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her." Ahmed and Diana become cordial and more so—she even writes, "Ahmed I love you" in the sand—and when Diana is captured by a bandit disguised as a holy man, Ahmed heads off to rescue her. He is successful but is injured, and as Diana helps nurse him back to health, she is told by Raoul that Ahmed was actually an orphan of English and Spanish descent, allowing her finally to express her feelings of love to him.

This is a rape/miscegenation melodrama in which both elements disappear and instead we get a story of a civilized woman falling for a lusty, primitive man. The story's plot and politics are old-fashioned and easily dismissed by today’s viewers, though we remain a little unsettled by Diana's growing identification with and attraction to her kidnapper (now called Stockholm Syndrome). The appeal of Valentino is difficult to see from this: his grins and grimaces make him seem today more like a comic relief character. He is attractive but I didn’t find him overwhelmingly sexy like audiences of the day did. Agnes Ayers, as Diana, is fine, and it’s interesting to see a relatively young Adolph Menjou as Raoul. A must-see only for its historical importance as Valentino’s breakout movie. [DVD] 

No comments: