Few names of the cinema are as immediately recognizable to modern audiences as that of Rudolph Valentino. Valentino...the name alone is almost synonymous with American silent film. At a time when the idea of celebrity, or at least the heights of celebrity reached by movie stars, was a relatively new thing, Valentino was, without hyperbole, perhaps the most famous during the early 1920s. His rise to stardom was an interesting story in itself. Coming from Italy, he had worked various jobs before arriving in New York, and finally Hollywood.
After playing in several small roles, he landed the role that would make his first major impression on audiences-in the 1921 Rex Ingram box office phenomenon, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which included the famous tango sequence. Strangely, the studio (Metro) was slow to catch on to the magnitude of the star they had, and continued to put him into somewhat minor films. It was in late 1921 that Paramount produced the film that would make Valentino a household name and forever establish the icon that continues in the public mind today.
The Sheik, directed by George Melford, is not Valentino's best film (that honor would have to go to its 1926 sequel, The Son of the Sheik). It is, however, perhaps the film that he is best remembered for. Hollywood had really established itself by the early 1920s as the most glamorous place on Earth. Major studios were now operating on the West Coast on a regular basis. Thanks to film, the streets of Los Angeles were now recognizable from the midwest, to New York City, to Europe, the Far East and the darkest parts of Africa. American stars were known the world over. It was in this environment that Paramount produced The Sheik.
The plot is fairly simple-Lady Diana Mayo (Nita Naldi) is traveling through the deserts of Arabia and is abducted by the Sheik Ahmed (Valentino), who is madly in love with her. At first, Diana rejects his advances, but comes to love him. Their love is fully realized after Ahmed rescues her from a band of kidnappers. The plot is simple but gives audiences just what they want-exotic settings, romance and plenty of action.
What is surprising about The Sheik is to realize that it is now 84 years old. This is surprising because the film holds up as good entertainment and it is easy to see the appeal of Valentino through his performance as the sheik.
There is little doubt that as far as the “art” of cinema goes, films like The Sheik predominantly fall into the category of “entertainment.” However, from a historical perspective, it is impossible to watch this film today and not be transplanted to a time when the cinema was an ever-growing art form. Films were certainly not “new” in 1921. In fact, as early as 1900, the movies had achieved their first instance of a box-office “slump”-when audiences tired of the actualities and travel shorts being presented. However, the medium quickly regained its audiences by offering up narrative films, then bigger and better narrative films, and films that broke new ground in artistic terms.
Look at the beautiful cinematography in this film. It is a tribute to the silent film medium that it was artistically always looking to break new ground, to innovate, to do something new, different, something no one had done before. Certainly, silent film was at an all-time artistic peak just before the transition to sound. If sound had not come into the picture, there is little doubt that silent filmmakers would have still found ways to innovate.