Rudolph Valentino first appeared on the silver screen in an uncredited role in a lost D. W. Griffith film called “The Battle of the Sexes” in 1914. Several other films followed in which he played exotic and villainous roles. But after he made “The Sheik” in 1921, he became the biggest male sex symbol in the movies.
Count The Sheik as one of the most unprecedented pictures in Hollywood history, since no other star achieved such heights of fame in the early days of cinema. Valentino plays the title character, Ahmed, a rich and confident ruler of a kingdom prone to roving bandits and sand storms. When a free spirited English woman, Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), decides to hire a guide for a solo tour of the desert, Ahmed abducts her and tries to bend her to his will. He holds her captive and attempts to rape her, but the force of her will prevents it. Eventually, Ahmed changes tactics and tries to get her to fall in love with him.
Paramount Pictures provides a spirited production that includes many extras charging on horses through the desert. The film takes place mostly in the desert, but it explores Lady Diana’s world briefly in scenes at a casino hotel. Lady Diana flirts with danger at every opportunity, and even infiltrates Ahmed’s entourage by dressing up as a dancing girl. She remains a powerful force throughout the film, despite her humiliating captivity.
A very young Adolph Menjou plays Ahmed’s friend, a novelist who is sympathetic to Lady Diana. His appearance in the story adds to Ahmed’s vulnerability, since he confronts the ruler about the abduction of Lady Jane. Menjou lasted for decades in the movies, became a Hollywood raconteur, and even wrote a fascinating autobiography about his years in Hollywood. In The Sheik, Valentino defined a new style of leading man, which trumped the dapper and sophisticated version characterized by Menjou.