The Sheik (1921) – George Melford

Clips from The Sheik can be found anywhere, it is an iconic Hollywood film from the silent movie era, and it just happens to be the next title I’m watching in Philip Kemp’s Movies book.

I can remember the first time I saw clips of this film, alongside Laurel & Hardy shorts, and the occasional image from Lang’s beautiful Metropolis. A restaurant. Back in the 70s, and early 80s, before they eventually began to die out, there was Mother’s Pizza. Every restaurant that I had gone to of their’s looked like an old fashioned dining room with black and white photos, huge mugs for root beer floats, and the occasional projector running off short films projected on tiny screens, and this one was among them.

It’s a fairly simple story, and also one that on examination hasn’t really dated all that well. Watching it one can appreciate the romantic intent behind the story, but there had to be a better way to do it.

Agnes Ayres plays Lady Diana, a head-strong and determined young woman who is smarter than the majority of the men in the room with her, and she’s fascinated by other cultures. She won’t have her spirit broken, and has become enchanted by the desert.


Enter the Sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino, who has some pretty creepy facial expressions), he’s opinionated, believes, much like the rest of the men in Diana’s life that women should be a little more subservient, and dress appropriately.

Despite these tendencies, Diana finds the man interesting and tails him into the desert where she is captured and held by him, where he enforces her beliefs on her. And when she tries to escape, he works to stop her, and somehow a bit of a relationship develops through this (can you say Stockholm Syndrome?).

When Diana believes that Hassan has been hurt, she expresses concern, and he takes this as a sign that she really does care for him, despite his outdated beliefs and his behaviour. But that’s ok, because he likes her too.

The two eventually sort themselves out, and admit their feelings for one another, but not before a seemingly racist remark about the size of Hassan’s hands, which then leads to a reveal about his true parentage.

If you set aside the story, and just look at the images, and the sets, and the moments, it is a lovely film, some of the images have endured and become icons of the silver screen, and mementos of the silent era. I won’t deny that.

But I didn’t care for it. If I could go back to a Mother’s Pizza and settle into one of the comfy booths and watch images flicker in black and white across the screen while I chowed down in an extra cheese and pepperoni pizza while sipping on an ice cream float, I’d ask for Metropolis please, and dig right in.



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