The Sheik is one of the most famous and iconic silent films ever made, making a legend out of its star, Rudolph Valentino. But is it actually any good?
Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is a spirited, independent young noblewoman from England who refuses to be tied down by marriage. She wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, and she's embarking on one across the Sahara (?) Desert, which will last for about a month. The European locals are scandalized by her planned excursion, especially since she'll only be accompanied by the natives. Before her trip, she crashes a private celebration at the local casino hosted by Ahmed ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), our titular sheik. Ahmed has ordered that only Arabs are to be admitted to the casino, but Diana refuses to be kept out of anywhere she wants to go and sneaks in by borrowing a dancing girl's costume. The shindig turns out to be a slave auction for bidding on brides, and Diana almost ends up getting bid on until her ruse is revealed. She's escorted out of the casino, but Ahmed is already attracted. With the aid of Diana's treacherous guide Mustapha Ali (Charles Brindley), Ahmed abducts Diana during her journey. (She tries fighting back, but the night before, he'd slipped into her hotel room and swapped the bullets in her revolver with blanks.)
This movie is all sorts of way the hell messed up. What else can you say about a film that depicts kidnapping a woman against her will and her falling in love with her captor for no other reason than "but he's so manly!" as romantic? Even before the rescue, I don't get what Diana sees in Ahmed - even if he does start treating her nicer after a while, he still fuggin' kidnapped her! She's supposed to just be okay with that? At least it leaves out all of the rape that was in the novel, and apparently there was a lot of it - in the original book, Diana was raped by Ahmed on a daily basis for a month as a means of subduing her. (There were actually critics who were concerned that removing the rape would dilute the original novel's "lesson" - either that, or it would tame the film too much to please audience members.) Still, just because Ahmed doesn't rape Diana doesn't excuse the other ways he mistreats her, and it's appalling how this is treated in the film either as romantic or an overly forward woman's just desserts.