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Steam Heat: The Sheik (1921)

In honor of Valentine's Day, we examine notoriously sexy films from various decades. Adam and Samantha discuss a phenomenon of the 20s: The Sheik.

SAMANTHA: The Sheik is the story of an independent, unmarried and beautiful white woman (Agnes Ayres) who decides to take a caravan into the desert to experience the middle east. Her friends urge her not to take the trip alone, but she cannot be dissuaded. Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) takes her on the journey, but once they are sufficiently isolated, he forces her into captivity. For a time she is miserable, but slowly becomes won over, and begins to believe she loves her kidnapper. This film was a tremendous success upon its release and is largely responsible for Valentino's many devoted admirers. He became a sex symbol, and he is known as such even now, nearly a century after his death at age 31 in 1926.

ADAM: It was based on a popular British novel by Edith Maud Hull, who took pen to paper due to the boredom (and presumably the loneliness) of her husband being off in the war.

S: Valentino does a lot of wide-eyed staring, but his good looks and forceful behavior are just the sort of things devotees of romance novels expect and want in this kind of a story.

It is difficult for modern audiences to understand the fervor this film inspired, especially among women. Then, society was incredibly repressed and this film addressed sex more directly than audiences were used to. Virginity and purity were expected from women, so much so that a woman who had given into her carnal desires could expect to become an undesirable prospect for marriage. In a world where women had very few professional prospects, unmarried women could either became the ward of a family member or fall to a life of prostitution. Women who sometimes wished to be freed from the chains of their purity without the potential consequences got the next best thing with The Sheik, a chance to see it happen to someone else on the screen.

A: In the intervening century since this film’s release, I think we may have swapped repression for a whole litany of more damaging neuroses. Still, this film touches on something eternal: the human condition is a tug o’ war between daredevil biology and stultifying mores. The main characters in this movie, and most romantic movies in general, have ceded to that daredevil biology. An easy recipe for an engaging movie is to create a likable character and then have them make terrible decisions. Lady Diana Mayo (a fitting name for our fair queen) is a fun gal in an exotic land, escorted by her dull brother Aubrey (played by Frank Butler, who would go on to enjoy a long career as a screenwriter—he even had a hand in writing our previous watch The Perils of Pauline). Diana is an easy character to like and her journey is entirely foolhardy. It’s an engrossing combination for that sedentary traveler known as the moviegoer.

S: The story relies heavily on stereotypes which are often offensive to our modern eyes. One title card goes so far as to say that civilization has passed the Arabs by. The entire structure of the romance triggers associations with the MeToo movement. Ayres is independent, a new breed of women emerging during the 1920s. She is intelligent, has her own wealth, and decides she doesn't need a husband to give her life value. She wants to see the world and on her own terms. But she is punished for going against the grain. She is forced into submission by the sheik and brainwashed into believing she loves her captor. Yet she retains some remainder of her self-respect because she believes she belongs to Ahmed. She would rather die than be "taken" by the bandit, who believes all women are property, and has a harem of jealous women in his captivity to illustrate that.

A: In the midst of the film’s popularity, there was a publicity article dispatched to newspapers entitled, “Do Women Like Cave Men?” In it, Ayres dispenses with any notion that she would behave like her character. “I don’t believe a woman could ever learn to love a man who had been brutal in the beginning,” she says. The article goes on to say that The Sheik “…has awakened much controversy among women particularly, some taking Miss Ayres’ viewpoint, others differing in opinion.” Typical obfuscation! I thought this article would’ve finally cleared up this nagging question.

S: The Image release of this film features a beautifully tinted print with a themed music score by Eric Beheim. The middle-eastern themed music played on synthesizers put me in the right mood for the film. The sets are sumptuous and make this difficult movie more pleasant. Although I can appreciate the historical importance of this film, it is not an easy watch. I give it two stars.

A: I wanted more from this movie: more sex, more violence (is it too much to ask for one measly beheading?), at the minimum more intrigue. Instead, Valentino is freshly scrubbed and non-threatening, and Ayres fell short of the wild-eyed abandon that the character required. After the film’s conclusion, I revisited a couple scenes from 1977’s Sheik-spoof The World’s Greatest Lover. Although it’s played for laughs, the scenes between Gene Wilder and Carol Kane are far more electric!

The supporting cast is good. Adolphe Menjou struts in like royalty as the sensitive Parisian novelist, Dr. Raoul de St. Hubert. The film was reissued in 1938 and the amused review in The Washington Post perfectly captures Menjou’s aura as exuding “a faintly unwholesome Proustian air.” I would be remiss not to mention the snarling beast Omair played by Walter Long. One of the all-time great character actors, his ugly mug is probably best known from his appearances in several Laurel and Hardy shorts.

I watched the Kino release with Ben Model’s lively and thoroughly enjoyable organ score. I’m glad I finally saw it but agree that it’s more a cool historical curio than it is a hot-blooded sexy adventure. I’ll also give it two stars.

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Adam Williams
Adam Williams
Feb 06, 2021

The Barbarian sounds good. Being a pre-Code, maybe it would satisfy my prurient interests!


I would have seen this film closer to its half-a-century anniversary, still with a strong feeling of having enjoyed it. My only copy is in an unwrapped video, and, since you've both mentioned it, the musical score here is by and performed by Roger Bellon. Although all the writers are different, the two other films that popped into my head with what I think is a somewhat similar theme to The Sheik are The Barbarian (1933) and The Sheltering Sky (1990).

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