“Like Garbo, Valentino never made a really great picture. Perhaps the two most magnetic movie-names of all time, these two personalities don’t have a single “classic” between them. Box-office blockbusters, yes, but “art” films, no. But, apart from being grand entertainment, Son of the Sheik did come closest to being a masterpiece, in its own particular way.” Joe Franklin, Classics of the Silent Screen (pg. 74)
Part of me hates how much I enjoy the Valentino Sheik films. They are absolutely politically incorrect in addition to being a feminist’s worst nightmare. Still, even though they are problematic in more ways than one, they have an irresistible appeal, though the nature of this appeal is wildly different in both films. Both are among my top guilty pleasures of all time, once again for different reasons. Of course, there will be major spoilers ahead and discussion of a certain scene which might prove triggering for some, so be forewarned.
The first Sheik film is my number one guilty pleasure, fitting in the camp of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. It’s one of the most ridiculous films ever made, a camp classic with its vapid heroine, outlandish plot, and the silly performance of its leading man, eyes bulging and nostrils flaring as he leers at the quivering English woman. Though considered risqué in its day, for the modern viewer there’s barely a hint of eroticism in The Sheik, save for Valentino’s looks of lust so exaggerated that they make Tex Avery’s wolf characters look subtle.
Then we have The Son of the Sheik, the film said to best represent the Valentino mystique and appeal. It is also hokum, but it exists on an entirely different plane than its predecessor. It’s competently made, for one thing. Run of the mill director George Melford is replaced with George Fitzmaurice, who specialized in romantic melodrama and adventure (his most famous talkie might be the Greta Garbo vehicle Mata Hari (1931)). The pallid heroine played by Agnes Ayres is replaced with Vilma Banky’s feisty dancing girl, her leading man’s equal in passion. Valentino’s stopped acting like he’s on some sort of illegal substance and gives not one, but two excellent performances as both father and son.
While Son certainly has kitschy elements, it is nowhere near as overt as its predecessor nor are camp or tongue-in-cheek apt terms to describe what this film is doing. Rather, it represents a sort of film-making which barely exists in modern Hollywood: pure escapist melodrama that knows exactly what it is, populated by gorgeous young lovers and dastardly villains, all captured in glistening black-and-white and moving at the swiftest of paces, never taking itself too seriously. There are no efforts to be arty or profound; Son just wants to take you on a fun ride and it succeeds tremendously.
The film takes cues from Valentino’s previous starring vehicle, The Eagle (1925), putting chases and daring sword fights amidst the romance and sexual intrigue. Another element it gleans from the 1925 feature is humor; the scenes with Ahmed Sr. and Ahmed Jr. interacting and clashing over matters of the heart are funny, showcasing Valentino’s woefully underused comic abilities. These elements blend well with the racy subject matter of the sheik story, creating an unforgettable popcorn experience up there with the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood and the original Star Wars from 1977, at least in my opinion.
The first Sheik features a plot that sputters and stops constantly. Ahmed falls for and kidnaps the proud “modern woman” Diana—and then for the next thirty minutes, he leers like a hungy Wile E. Coyote at the Road Runner, she protests with wide eyes, rinse, repeat until Diana suddenly decides she’s in love with her captor. No build-up or chemistry whatsoever. It’s entertaining because Valentino and Ayres are so over-the-top, obviously aware they’re in schlock, but there’s no doubt the pacing is terrible. In contrast, Son actually possesses a plot that moves swiftly and never once descends into tedium. It takes place roughly two decades after the original film, following the adventures of Ahmed and Diana’s son, Ahmed (since we have two characters with the same name, from now on I’ll refer to the older sheik as Ahmed Sr.) and Yasmin, the dancing girl he has fallen in love with. The two of them meet often for secret spooning sessions on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately for the both of them, Yasmin is an unwitting front for her father’s band of thieves, which catches on to their relationship with the wealthy sheik’s sole heir. They proceed to kidnap him after Yasmin departs their latest tryst. They beat the crap out of him and then hold him for ransom. To further twist the knife, they tell Ahmed that Yasmin was privy to their plan all along and only pretended to love him to get her hands on some of the ransom money. Luckily, his friends are able to rescue Ahmed a few hours later. Not so luckily, Ahmed buys all the lies about Yasmin and plots to avenge himself on the girl in a most unsettling manner. Will the truth come out before it’s too late for the young lovers?
From the start, we can tell this is going to be a much better piece of entertainment than The Sheik. The title cards are self-aware that this is not to be taken wholly seriously. Here’s perhaps my favorite intertitle from the whole movie:
“The night was young at Cafe Maure. Not a knife had been thrown – so far.”
I love the intertitles; the example I used does well in establishing the pulp-ish tone of the thing, giving it a little grit while retaining a sense of humor about itself. The dialogue used throughout would be laughable in a sound film (see His Glorious Night (1929) to find out how that goes), but it’s a different matter in the realm of silence, where reality is heightened. The sets reflect this; designed by William Cameron Menzies, famous for the look of Douglas Fairbanks’ spectacle The Thief of Bagdad (1924), the sets are extravagant and sumptuous, the stuff of Arabian Nights fantasy.
There is also a great deal more chemistry between Valentino and Banky than there ever was with Ayres. The love scenes, so passionless in the first film, are genuinely sexy here. In the first of them, we see Valentino kiss just about every inch of Banky’s upper body—every inch acceptable to the censors of the time, anyway. It’s excessive and easily mock-able (some would call it dangerously close to the Pepe Le Pew school of wooing), but I just eat it up every time. There’s something charming and pure about such excess.
Comic relief in a film of this vintage can be hit or miss for modern audiences, but I would say that the humor in Son is still good stuff. It’s not overbearing nor does it feel like padding as some comic relief in similar melodramas of the period tend to (I’m looking at you 1925 Phantom of the Opera). While Karl Dane is the official comic relief, I always find myself most amused by Ahmed Sr. Valentino channels some of the bug-eyed craziness from his performance in the first film when portraying the older sheik, quite a contrast to his underplaying as the son. One of my favorite moments is when Ahmed Sr. complains about junior’s refusal to accept the marriage he has arranged for him. Diana reminds him he was also one to have what he wanted by any means in his youth. We fade-in to that infamous scene from The Sheik where Ahmed Sr. sweeps Diana off of her horse, then fade-out to the older sheik smiling and nodding nostalgically, as though the memory of committing a felony were as normal as recalling wacky college hijinks. I laugh every time. An additional observation that makes me chuckle is how he and Diana have more passion and affectionate chemistry between them in middle age than they did when they first met. And you all said married sex was boring… I suppose there is no avoiding it; we come to the scene. I’m going to issue a TRIGGER WARNING just to be safe, before I analyze this problematic sequence. If you have seen the movie, then you know what I’m talking about: Ahmed, consumed with rage, contempt, and more than a little physical desire, spirits Yasmin away to his tent and rapes her as vengeance for supposedly using her sexuality to trick him. This scene draws opposing reactions from people, sometimes both at once. I’ve heard it described as a disturbing film-killer and also as one of the most erotic scenes in silent cinema, more akin to a sadomasochistic rape fantasy than anything else. Just look at the clip of the scene on YouTube; the comments are full of “I would be so happy if I were her” and “He could kidnap me any day.”
There’s no doubt there is an erotic dimension on display. The camera lovingly lingers on Valentino’s well-formed biceps, folded against his chest or near crushing his leading lady in an embrace. Banky looks alluring in close-up, even when angrily panting and spitting curses. It’s also impossible to deny that everything about this scene is perfect on the technical level: the cinematography, the atmosphere, the pacing, and especially the acting from both leads. Banky plays her role delicately, not resorting to overwrought histrionics as Yasmin undergoes a mounting sense of confusion and horror.
All the purity of the romance, those sweet love scenes in the ruins under the starlight– everything is grotesquely parodied in this sequence and it all takes on a horrific guise. Valentino’s fierce lovemaking takes on a nightmarish dimension, lacking any of the earlier tenderness as he slowly advances upon her, violently smashes her face against his before she breaks away. He corners her to the bed in the next room, muscular arms spread open, and then we fade to black. When we eventually cut back to Yasmin after the ordeal, she is stretched out across the pillows, her face contorted. Maybe this is all supposed to be sadomasochistic fantasy, but for a modern audience, this is all uncomfortable, even repugnant.
The way the scene is handled thereafter—well, to call it unrealistic would be an understatement. For a few moments, Yasmin is hurt and angry, praying to despise Ahmed for what he put her through, but in the end, she is able to forgive him, as though the attack were only a minor bump in their relationship, like a mere squabble over what show to watch at the local multiplex. I know this is meant to be frothy escapism, but when you drop something so dark onto the proceedings, it’s hard not to feel disturbed, even if only a little.
So how could anyone still like this movie? That is the question, though you also have to wonder why people still like Gone with the Wind when it endorses slavery (and has a similar rape scene) or similarly problematic but otherwise entertaining films. Should we feel guilty? Well, one should certainly recognize and accept that this is problematic and not okay. If it ruins the movie for someone else and they cannot get over it, then that is fine. The mileage varies. Personally, while I wish the filmmakers would have followed the route of the original film by omitting the rape altogether, perhaps have it where he restrains himself in the end, I still cannot hate this movie, as much as I hate to admit it. It’s problematic, it’s not okay, but in my opinion, as long as you can admit that much, there’s no shame in enjoying the film. As a wise woman once said, if you shunned all problematic media, there would be precious little to watch from any period of film, even the present.
Of course, true love conquers all in the end, as it usually does in Hollywood froth. Ahmed discovers the truth, begs forgiveness, which Yasmin tearfully grants him, and then he rescues her from the lecherous villain played by Montagu Love. The two lovers ride off into the sunset, embracing one another on horseback. It’s a perfect Hollywood ending, thrilling and with no room for anything but happily ever after. Of course, the movie possesses a note of melancholy for those who come to it with context, the knowledge that this is Valentino’s swan song. On that note, it works well, encapsulating everything that made him such a big draw in the 1920s and keeps him popular among fans to this day. It shows what a talented actor he really was, how much of a shame it was that he had to pass on at such a young age. Who is to know where his career would have gone had he lived to old age? Many say he was doomed to become a laughingstock in the inevitable talkie revolution; I would agree if he would have chosen to keep fast to the sort of romantic melodramas which had made him a star. Had he gone on to other genres, the gangster picture or the musical, I think he could have carved a new niche for himself.
If you can tolerate the problematic elements, this is a fun one, a classic among popcorn cinema. There are good reasons for why The Son of the Sheik is so often revived, so often used as an ambassador for the appeal of one of silent Hollywood’s most legendary figures.
Images are courtesy of Doctor Macro