There’s nothing wrong with being entertained. After all, it’s our twelve dollars. Sometimes, we prefer stories to unfold in a predictable manner, just like we might order that same burger we enjoyed the last time. It was delicious before; it’ll be delicious again.
The success of ‘entertaining’ films has always—and rightly—been judged by their ability to meet the expectations their audiences bring to them. Exceeding those expectations is fine, but not at the expense of the entertainment. Profundity, for example, may not improve an action film if it reduces the kicking of ass. In such cases, who’s the screenwriter trying to impress?
The Sheik (1921) was an enormous hit for Valentino. It told the wafer-thin story of an Arabian sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan, who meets, abducts, and eventually marries an English noblewoman, Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). Hassan is a brute, but all man, and Mayo’s genteel attitudes are eventually crushed beneath his total sex appeal. She first rejects him as a primitive, but when he saves her from a posse of (much uglier) desert bandits, she gets over herself, and they wed.
The Son of the Sheik picks up about 25 years after the first movie; we learn that Hassan and Mayo have had a son, also named Ahmed, also played by Valentino. Ahmed is impetuous, privileged, and a bit of a swashbuckler. Like his father, he doesn’t spoil romance by over-thinking it. Unlike his father, he falls for a woman denied the advantages of good breeding.
Yasmin (Vilma Banky) is a beautiful dancing girl. She is part of a travelling performance troupe featuring jugglers, acrobats, singers and dancers. Really, they’re thieves; including her father, who ostensibly runs the outfit. This posse’s alpha-thief is the thuggish Gahbah (played by the inappropriately named Montague Love); he has designs on Yasmin, and has been promised her hand, though not by her. He’s getting impatient.
Yasmin’s mind isn’t on some rough-looking lowlife, however. She is smitten; having only the day before met young Ahmed in the town square. The meeting is merely a flirtation, but it’s Rudolph Valentino we’re talking about here; he invites her to meet him in the old ruins at nightfall, and she’s damn well going to show up.
Ahmed and Yasmin’s rendezvous is a primer in pure romantic filmmaking, and a virtual monument to Valentino’s beauty. Close-ups abound. Dialogue is minimal. The lovers embrace, with Valentino’s smooth profile bearing down over an almost drunken Yasmin. It’s like watching a painted poster, and indeed, others must have thought so too:
Soft-focus camerawork offers the couple to us as though they’re beneath a veneer of dripping honey. But the lust can’t last. Yasmin has been followed, and after an extremely impressive showing, Ahmed is subdued by Gahbah’s cronies. When next we see him, he’s strung up by his wrists—bare chested—awaiting his fate. Women admiring Valentino’s build might miss Gahbah telling Ahmed that in fact, Yasmin set him up all along. This is a lie, but Ahmed believes it whole-heartedly. He is soon rescued by his friends, vowing revenge on the gang in general and Yasmin in particular.
Fans of The Sheik continue to get their money’s worth. Ahmed easily kidnaps Yasmin from the thieves (most of whom are idiots) and transports her to his tent. He flings her on his bed like a piece of laundry. She recoils, then protests her innocence. Ahmed raises his arm to her (an uncovered bicep, specifically), then declines to strike. Instead, he strolls the room with a cigarette, and she grows enraged. Though there is no intertitle to confirm it, Ahmed clearly considers Yasmin a whore, and since she is not one, she fights him strongly as he grabs her for a kiss. “For once your kisses are free,” he tells her as the scene fades.
Modern viewers now pause to debate the ethics of cheering a rapist, but the movie has no time to split hairs. Ahmed is soon paid a visit by his stern father (also played by Valentino). The Sheik discovers the angry Yasmin hidden behind a curtain and berates his son for holding her. Besides, he’s got a nice girl all picked out for him. Ahmed assures his dad that the kidnapping is motivated by hate, not love, but does agree to release her.
Yasmin is sent back to the desert atop a donkey—truly a humiliating way to treat a woman. She despises her treatment as much as we do, and rightly so, but her pride doesn’t quite measure up to our indignation. Yasmin loves Ahmed despite herself, going so far as to pray to Allah to be rid of the feelings. Soon she is captured again, this time by the thieves, and again put at risk of rape. Now, it's the charmless Gahbah crouching at the other end of the tent.
Mind you, Gahbah does do Yasmin one favour—he tells her it was him who sowed the seeds of doubt in Ahmed’s mind. And so Yasmin’s never-ceasing love for Ahmed is justified, even if Ahmed’s treatment of her cannot be.
The misconception is eventually solved on Ahmed’s end, too; leaving only his moment of heroism as he (along with his crowd-pleasing father) crash the gang’s hideout and save Yasmin with some superior swordplay. It’s the tag-team main event the audience was waiting for, and the thieves are dispatched like no-name wrestlers in an opening bout. All is resolved. The elder Ahmed has his reservations about Yasmin, of course; but as his wife reminds him, he was much like his son. “What you wanted, you took,” she says, gazing up at him. She has the face of one who loved being taken.
Where to find The Son of the Sheik:
To kidnap Valentino in all his bare-chested glory, visit Kino International’s website at: