Sunday, June 04, 2017

Tonight's Movie: The Sheik (1921) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

The Paramount Pictures silent film classic THE SHEIK (1921) has just been released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

I read the E.M. Hull novel many years ago, but this was my first time to see the movie, which stars Rudolph Valentino in one of his most famous roles.

Valentino plays Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, who falls for a beautiful Englishwoman, Diana (Agnes Ayres), when he spots her in Biskra, Algeria.

To the exasperation of her brother (actor-screenwriter Frank Butler), the very independent Diana has planned a desert tour accompanied only by some local guides. Ahmed plots to interrupt Diana's trip and carry her off to his desert encampment; he's successful, but holds off on plans for, shall we say, a more intimate relationship with her when he sees Diana's tearful prayers.

As the days pass, Diana begins to feel a sort of reluctant attraction to her "host," and she realizes she's fallen in love with him -- just before she's kidnapped again, this time by a really mean bandit (Walter Long). Can Ahmed save the woman who is now truly his lady love?

It's doubtless obvious even from this bare bones description that this film, nearly a century old, has some outdated attitudes, and that's true in terms of both racial and sexual relations. (The original novel was even more outrageous, though I remember being simultaneously fascinated by it.) One of the early intertitle cards sets the tone: "Where the children of Araby dwell in happy ignorance that time has passed them by." For those viewers who can put such things to the side and enjoy the film as they find it, it offers a great deal of entertainment.

I'd also go as far as to say the film's political incorrectness is part of what makes it fascinating for a modern viewer. On one level I let myself be swept up by the sheer fun of the story, and on another level I was analyzing it from today's perspective and periodically thinking "Whoa!"

Filmed amidst Southern California sand dunes, the movie is a visual feast. I was enthralled by the gorgeous tints: Rose for dawn, yellow for daytime, blue for evening. (The movie was photographed by William Marshall.) The sets, including the Sheik's desert encampment, and the costumes are also fantastic. Add in camels, some great location work, and well-done action scenes, and it's an interesting movie to watch before the story and performances are even factored in.

Agnes Ayres does well as Diana, taking her from a headstrong young woman who's a bit of a brat to a frightened woman completely out of her element to someone who slowly comes to terms with the fact she's fallen in love. While Diana has her moments of helpless screaming, there are also momentary flashes where she demonstrates she's a pretty tough cookie, given all she was dealing with. As an aside, it was kind of fascinating seeing this film the same weekend as WONDER WOMAN (2017) and comparing the ways the two women are presented, with their stories set in roughly similar time periods but filmed nearly a century apart.

Adolphe Menjou is excellent as Ahmed's friend Raoul, a French doctor-novelist who comes to visit. Raoul also lets Diana know that Ahmed is actually of British and Spanish parentage and was the adopted son of the former Sheik. I suppose that was meant to make it more "acceptable" to audiences of the time for a British woman to marry him, although by this point it's already been made clear that Diana loves him, so it doesn't sway her attitude in that regard.

Despite his legendary status, I found Valentino the least appealing of the three lead actors; while Ayres and especially Menjou offer natural performances, Valentino's constant eye-flaring is distracting, sort of cliched silent movie overemoting. He's more interesting when he dials it down or in the action scenes.

THE SHEIK was directed by George Melford. It runs 75 minutes. The cast also includes future director George Waggner, Ruth Miller, and Lucien Littlefield. Loretta Young and her older sisters Polly Ann Young and Sally Blane are credited by IMDb as Arab children, but I didn't spot them.

I thought Kino's Blu-ray print was lovely, especially given the film's age, and I enjoyed the score by Ben Model. Extras include archival footage of Valentino's funeral plus the trailer for Valentino's BLOOD AND SAND (1922).

There's also a commentary track, which I'll be listening to in the coming week; it's by Gaylyn Studlar, author of THE MAD MASQUERADE: STARDOM AND MASCULINITY IN THE JAZZ AGE and VISIONS OF THE EAST: ORIENTALISM IN FILM. I anticipate she'll have interesting insights given her writing background and some of the issues surrounding the story.

Kudos to Kino Lorber for bringing out this historically important and entertaining film in such a lovely edition. Kino has also just released the sequel, THE SON OF THE SHEIK (1926), which I'll be reviewing in the near future. (Update: Here is my review of THE SON OF THE SHEIK.)

THE SHEIK is also available from Kino Lorber on DVD.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

3 Comments:

Blogger Hamlette said...

I am tempted to buy a Blu-Ray player just to get to hear that commentary track! This is the film that made me a Valentino fan, and I have enjoyed it over and over. Like you, I can let myself be swept away and enjoy the story that way, or I can look at it more critically and learn a lot about changing attitudes from the 1920s to now. I've read the book too, but infinitely prefer the movie, especially because Ahmed in the book doesn't give up his plans to ravish his conquest, and it gets a bit weird.

Looking forward to your review of the sequel! I love Rudy's double roles in it.

Oh, and I've read that the director actually encouraged Rudy to overact and be kind of cartoony because they were trying to poke fun at romantic cliches. He does get a bit nutty in this, which you can see from many other films was not his normal style :-)

4:41 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi, Thanks for your thoughts on the movie! It's really an interesting film to watch on multiple levels, isn't it?

Very interesting feedback on his overacting -- especially as the rest of the movie takes itself seriously.

If you have a DVD player, Kino has also put it out on DVD and the extras appear to be identical. This is great news as some Kino releases are Blu-ray only.

Best wishes,
Laura

11:02 PM  
Blogger Hamlette said...

How wonderful that there's a DVD! Thanks so much for the heads-up and link. I'm going to check that out right now.

4:06 PM  

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