The Son Of The Sheik

US (1926) Dir. George Fitzmaurice

It’s the same old story – boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl fall out, boy whisks girl away to be his slave… okay maybe that last bit isn’t quite the norm, and definitely wouldn’t fly in 2020 (except maybe in the Middle East). But in the 1920s, this was what romance was all about.

Ahmed Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) is the son of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan (Valentino again) and English nobility Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres). When a travelling troupe of entertainers, really thieves in disguise, arrive in town, Ahmed falls in love with their star attraction, young dancer Yasmin (Vilma Banky), daughter of the group’s leader, and they begin a secret affair.

But when Yasmin’s father Andre (George Fawcett) and his most vicious bandit Gabbah (Montagu Love), find out they plan to kill Ahmed. But realising his pedigree, they instead capture Ahmed and hold him to ransom, telling him Yasmin betrayed him to rub salt in his wounds. Eventually freed by his best friend Ramadan (Karl Dane), Ahmed kidnaps Yasmin in the first step of his revenge.

Rudolph Valentino was cinema’s biggest male heartthrob in the 1920s, having catapulted to stardom with 1921’s The Sheik, based on the novel by E. M. Hull, as was this sequel. But like many stars, their rise to the top would lead to an equally quick fall and Rudy fell victim to a couple of flops where he eschewed his usual great lover role in a bid to be taken more seriously as an actor.

Moving to United Artists, president Joseph M. Schenck felt a return to his greatest trope would revive Valentino’s career and bought the rights to Hull’s sequel. Naturally, this plan worked but not quite as expected – Valentino died aged just 31 before the film’s general release thus never got to see his star status return to its former glory.

Leaving behind a trail of millions of broken hearts around the world, this was quite the unintentional swan song for Rudy but he left his fans with exactly what they wanted from him. Questionable sexual politics aside, this is Rudy is all his smouldering, sharp featured, soft focused, bare chested, sensuous glory, just as the ladies liked him, though the character of Ahmed isn’t quite as charming.  

A rather spoiled and entitled chap, Ahmed may feel a burning love for Yasmin and wants to treat her like as princess but the speed in which this romance blossoms makes us wonder if Ahmed isn’t really just a player, looking for his next conquest. After all, his father wasn’t exactly a paragon of sensitivity when it came to women, and it would seem this apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, even with his mother’s influence.

When Gabbah and his motley crew try to abduct Ahmed, he shows he is not just a pretty face and fights them off until the numbers games falls against his favour. Tied up and tortured, Ahmed refuses to name his father for Gabbah to squeeze the ransom money out of, so he tries a different tact, telling him Yasmin was simply a lure and a pro at that, which Ahmed is quick to believe.

Since Yasmin is the totem of virtue and innocence of this tale, we know this isn’t true, but Andre had promised Gabbah that Yasmin would be his wife and was tired of waiting. Turning Ahmed against Yasmin should expediate the completion of this arrangement, yet Yasmin’s heart is so pure and chaste she can’t stop loving Ahmed even after he kidnaps and enslaves her.

Despite its classic status it is hard to watch this film and not wince at the lack of agency Yasmin has as the love interest. Sure, she has a waspish tongue when needed, but her role amounts to little more than a simpering damsel in distress and eye candy for the chaps. There is a pervasive misogynistic tone which might be to reflect the patriarchal Arabic mentality, the worst example being a quip early on from one of the thieves – when asked his wife’s name he said he didn’t, adding “When I want her I just whistle”.

I get it was supposed to be a joke, and they laugh it off too but the rest of film doesn’t offer much of a counter argument to this attitude to appease modern audiences – and this was written by a woman too! Lest we overlook the crucial matter that this film is all about Valentino though, and as the hero of the tale, he has to show something other than chauvinism which thankfully he does.

Taking his cues from Douglas Fairbanks, Rudy recalls his swashbuckling exploits from previous films like The Eagle, and treats us to a climactic fight against Gabbah, his band of thieves, and a whole café of ruffians. Elsewhere, there is another challenge as our star has to play his own father, a stern patriarch annoyed his son has chosen his own wife, but also whilst in the same scene as Ahmed!

For 1926 this was quite a task and whilst stand ins are obvious – his father’s beard was a great help in disguising this fact – the edits are too quick to expose this. But they didn’t always take the easy way out and the very impressive split screen overlays of the two Rudy’s interacting in the same wide shot stand up to modern scrutiny exceptionally well, whilst giving Valentino a chance to show off his acting chops.

Valentino fans in 1926 were well served with The Son Of The Sheik, so it feels churlish to have so many misgivings about its content when viewed today, for what wasn’t meant to be a profound artistic statement but a simple crowd pleaser, which it was. It shimmers with the requisite historical charm of classic silent cinema, though is sadly overshadowed by the unfortunate circumstances of its legend as Rudy’s last film.