Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Son of the Sheik (1926)

A movie can either guide, or serve, its audience. The former can inspire, enlighten, enrich and challenge viewers; the latter will entertain them.

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?

A film-goer of the early-1920s knew what to expect from a Rudolph Valentino film: sex. Not graphic sex scenes, of course; just raw eroticism, borne upon endless, lingering shots of the man’s body and face. An actor of limited skill, Valentino’s real gift was posing. No one was better at halting a story and directing all attention upon himself. Today’s Hollywood is filled with his handsome disciples.

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:


  1. A brilliant review!
    In my personal opinion, the scene you described, with Valentino showing off his biceps and trying to decide whether or not to rape Vilma Banky, is one of the sexiest scenes in silent cinema. I bet this is scene is an example of what film theorist Molly Haskell refers to when speaking about "rape fantasies" in classic Hollywood cinema: not the fantasy of getting raped by a stranger in a dark alley, but more or less conciously "give in" for a man "claiming his rights". Another example of that is of course the scene in Gone With the Wind, where Gable, drunk and hateful, picks Vivien Leigh up and heads for the bedroom.
    It is sexy in a twisted way, and I would lie if I didn't admit that. I think one shouldn't take all films like these as trying to undermine the woman - after all, it was mostly women that enjoyed the Valentino pictures!

  2. I agree with your thoughts here. 'Son of the Sheik' also has a lot of bondage scenes, some of them featuring Valentino--literally--bound. Sex is predeceded by a loss of freedom, and all parties are objectified.

    As for Gable, his stock persona couldn't exist today, at least in its raw form. The Brute has been replaced by the Diamond in the Rough--a type of character that empowers the female lead far more than the male.

  3. In June 1999 I went to a shopping mall to visit the kiosk where they used to sell Russian-style chocolates. Mmm .. chocolate-covered plums. Well, in the central hub of the mall, the American Film Institute was in town with a traveling exhibit of LOTS of film costumes and props. Most of the stuff I didn't recognize because I never saw Porky's (or whatever), but among the display cases and display cases full of motion picture memorabilia were two items I DID recognize: Dustin Hoffman's Caesar's Palace suit from Rainman, ... and Rudy Valentino's striped caftan and shortie vest from The Son Of The Sheik.

    I stood there, pondering how, if it were 70 years earlier, there would have been a mob scene to make "Black Friday" at WalMart look like high tea: display case shattered and frenzied female film fans brawling in the broken glass over ripped shreds of garments that once touched Valentino.

    But in 1999 I was in an excruciatingly private audience with the priceless outfit, only about a foot away on the other side of a sheet of glass. And nobody else came to join our party.

    Maybe my reward for showing proper public respect that time to Valentino -- the man, the myth, the legend -- came in 2005, when Independence Air kept changing my departure and return dates for a trip to San Francisco. Eventually, because of a two-day-later return, it turned out I would be in San Francisco for the West Coast premiere (at the Castro Theatre) of the long-lost, but then-newly restored, "Beyond The Rocks", starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Longest line I ever waited in to see a movie!!

  4. Great story! There were probably days when even Valentino wished people would forget about him.

  5. I actually love the Sheik films: the sequel because it's sexy and tongue-in-cheek and its predecessor which is so ridiculous that it's funny. You should so review that one; it's a hoot!

  6. I did see it, many years ago. It's surprisingly hard to find.