‘The Sheik’ (1921) – Movie Review

My next installment of ‘watching every movie featured in Disney’s Great Movie Ride’ brings us to our first full-length silent film*, The Sheik (1921).

To start with, this is the first of several films on the list that has elements of it that would not fly by today’s standards at best and are actually racist and/or highly problematic to women at worst. I do think (at least compared to some other scenes in various films on the list), the issues portrayed here are well, not great, but at least watchable…But this is one of several on the list where you see white actors portraying non-white characters in a story that’s portraying a culture I can only assume was not actually researched in any way and is just a 1920s white perspective on a general Arabian setting and…yea.

Movie Poster for the silent film 'The Sheik' (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres
Credit: Paramount

Anyway, The Sheik stars Italian actor Rudolph Valentino as the title character alongside Agnes Ayres as Lady Diana. The plot of the film is very basic in that the Sheik kidnaps Lady Diana after she sneaks into an area known to be “for Arabs only” while visiting from England. The Sheik quickly becomes infatuated with her, and he takes her through the Sahara to his home, where she (spoiler alert) ends up falling in love with him.

Issues of the vague 1920s portrayal of Arabs aside, the story follows a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome that feels very…Beauty and the Beast, if that makes sense. It actually made me curious about what the novel the film is based on is like, as the 1919 novel by Edith Maude Hull was evidently quite popular at the time.

As far as a full-length silent film goes, especially one this early in the list of 180 movies I’m watching, I actually enjoyed this way more than I thought I would. Again, apparent issues aside, I thought the acting by the two leads was very well done, and with my limited exposure to silent films in general, I’m guessing it had to be good for me even to be able to come to this conclusion.

There was a lot of chemistry between Ayres and Valentino, and while the film, in general, did move incredibly slow (at least by my 2023 standards, I guess), it always kept my attention when the two were on-screen together.

Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik (1921)
Credit: Paramount

Valentino especially seems like a noticeably talented actor, especially for the silent era, and from what I read about him while getting into The Sheik, this film was a major part of what propelled his career and made him one of the most beloved actors of his time.  (Sadly, he also likely became more famous for dying at age 21 after some health issues that caused him to deteriorate quickly. He collapsed and was taken to the hospital in 1926, where he was found to have appendicitis and gastric ulcers, a condition that has since become known as “Valentino’s Syndrome,” but within the same week, he developed peritonitis, a relapse of pleuritis which basically destroyed one of his lungs, and he died eight days after the initial incident.)

My only other real complaint with the film is that it moved incredibly slowly, and the music didn’t always go with the action. Again, I’m not an expert on silent films, so I’m not sure if the music shown with the film online is even the original music or if it was just still entertaining or more accepted at the time for the music to be off, but it would have helped with the pace if the music matched the action. (Basically, if something big is happening, but the music doesn’t change to reflect that, it’s just going to drive home that the story is moving really slowly.)

There were short breaks here and there that helped with the pace, like one sort of funny moment when Lady Diana literally writes that she loves the Sheik in the sand, but overall the biggest flaws of this film, in my opinion, are the slow pace and odd choice of music.

I still enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, and might even get into the sequel sometime, too, The Son of the Sheik (1926), which also stars Valentino, though was released shortly after his death.


*Technically, the first full-length film included in the finale montage of The Great Movie Ride was The Birth of a Nation (1915). I’ve skipped this one in my reviews, however, because I don’t know enough about filmmaking to say anything useful outside of the fact that the subject matter is entirely disgusting and has to be one of the most racist forms of media ever to exist, so…yea, I’m good skipping that one.

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