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Impact of Silent Film The Sheik

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1808 words Published: 19th Oct 2021

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Silent films in the 1920’s were able to transport its viewers to exotic, and sometimes, mysterious places. They, as a visual medium, provided the working class citizens of America a spark of fun at their leisure as wages rose and work loads decreased. The significance of films in the 1920’s were not much more different than they are today. They were able to define careers and create sub-cultures members of which depended  on the success of a film. One exceptional film released in 1921, The Sheik, is an American silent film that was directed by George Melford. The silent romantic drama starred an Italian immigrant Rudolph Valentino who portrayed a character that bore no resemblance to Arab leaders known as sheiks. The Sheik is an adaptation of a romance novel that was written by Edith Hull, the wife of a British farmer. George Melford’s feature-length silent film The Sheik was a success for himself, Rudolph Valentino, and the box office as the movie explored gender roles, revolutionized the Arabian genre in film, and created the first male sex symbol.

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The film scantily tackles the book’s portrayal of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan’s rape of Diana Mayo. The use of sexual exploitation in the book was merely censored in the film, which proved to bring bad reviews from critics that enjoyed the book due to the excitement of the sexual fantasy. Director George Melford exclaimed in an interview done by Motion Picture Magazine that “we have handled the frank scenes in 'The Sheik' so delicately that I think the censors will be the only disappointed reviewers” (Melford, 74). This change for the film concerned critics on whether the film would be as thrilling as the novel or not. Critics wrote that The Sheik is not an exciting motion picture as they account for the heavy censorship of the film in contrast to the novel, regardless of how well the film coincides with the novel (Motion Picture Magazine, 108). However, Melford proved critics wrong as he wins the hearts of female viewers due to Valentino's playful treatment of Agnes Ayers’character within the film. During the running of the film, critics felt that the film would fall flat just because it left out the rape scenes from the book, however, the movie went on to become a smash hit in box office history. The success of the film was mainly due to the exploration of gender roles, and more specifically, the role of Rudolph Valentino.

Melford’s twist on gender roles in the film was able to show its audience, at the time, the power of masculinity and how both men and women were subject to the female and male gaze within silent films during that era. In the beginning of the film, Diana is described as a socialite who is tired of attending bachelor parties, creating the idea that she is sexually subjected to by men. However, the film twists this narrative as Sheik becomes the subject of the female gaze. After kidnapping the socialite, handling her with such force, then later subjecting to her fascination of him, Sheik gifts her a gun and sets her free only to save her again. The character development, as well as the looks of Sheik proves to be a good tactic as part of the success of the film. A handsome, smoldering British-Arab was able to hoodwink Diana into having stockholm syndrome. Samuel Goldwyn exclaims that this tactic devised by Melford got Valentino to become “the most talked-of personality the screen has ever known”, if his looks did not already (191). Female fans were in awe of this erotic handsome man, who was able to capture and tame a reckless white woman. One could say that the movie for today's standards had no cultural sensibility. At the time this was a well accepted film, but to see how gender was treated  in the motion picture during the times where the world had just come out of WWI is an interesting study. In the historical context, a white submissive female with a British-Arab dominant character is a bit off.  During this period there are still a lot of cultural prejudices towards race in racially intertwined relationships. Most art is created to please the upper middle class, and interestingly enough this movie does the opposite. However, one should note that the male figure is still dominant, that the power and the riches is still given to a male character with a bit of a twist of him being a British-Arab.

Let us now discuss the simple ramification of the idea of women admiring men. In this film in particular this factor attributes to the film’s overall success. That the male gaze can be used in reverse as the female gaze, and sometimes even more beneficial to a film than if it were to rely heavily on the male gaze. Some felt that the film was not good because it impacted society with all the wrong ideas of how to handle women while others appreciated the film because it gave important information on subjects such as gender roles and sexuality (Geyer, 9). Despite the mixed reaction from the critics, the film became a success in theatres.

The Sheik remains to be one of the most-watched silent films, and because of it, the most read novel from the 1920’s. Barret Kiesling writes that “before The Sheik, everybody laughed at Arabian plays… the public wouldn’t accept a title like The Sheik and after it succeeded we had a million similar…” films that emerged because of it. A New York Telegraph article writes that the film, created on a $200,000 budget, was the first to surpass the one million dollar threshold and has done so only one year after its release, a number that has never been seen before. The film was so popular that George Melford’s reach extended to Asian markets, further solidifying his legitimacy as a director and extending Paramount Pictures’ markets. The Sheik became the first film to make their star, Valentino, an international super-star during the 1920s (Goldwyn). The director of the film, George Melford, became a household name in the production industry due to this film. Jesse Lasky, an American producer, exclaimed that “The Sheik would prove to be a great box-office production.” Melford’s career also flourished after producing The Sheik, as such, he went on to sign to Jesse Lasky’s company for ten years, and in the same year, became one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Directors Association. Additionally, Valentino was an Italian actor based in the United States and his role in The Sheik solidified his acting career thus defining not only his career but also his reputation and the legacy he left behind as an actor.

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The film was well-produced even though it reflected and perpetuated the famous cliché’s about Arabs. The film was not only able to showcase some of the common myths available in the Middle East but it also ascertained how power was used to benefit some people. The women have in the past complained of being mistreated by men. So much so that the film was actually barred in Kansas state because of the negative depictions towards women (Variety). However, the ban did not pull through after major backlash from the general public, exclaiming that the film was not only massively successful, but because it provided a niche of desert films and a commentary on gender roles the likes of which has never been done before (Motion Picture News).

The production of The Sheik and novel were intended to inform and educate the audience and the readers. Some of the major lessons from the Sheik are the impactful knowledge it gave the audience on how they can understand both the explored and unexplored culture in a society. The work is valued and continues to be used 100 years later because it covers major insights that happen in society and the revolutionary milestones that the film itself has achieved. Different individuals continue to resonate with The Sheik regardless of the controversy it displays on women and how they are exploited sexually for love. The film became popular because it reflected the social orders and disorders that happen in a society. It also shows some sort of power in both men and women who decide to use their powers to gain in specific areas. The female body is used as a powerful tool for women while men use their attractiveness and riches to attain some level of power in society. This has been an interesting discovery of mine that even in the 1920’s female and male power dynamics were so portrayed and the success of any film, even then, was dependent on exploitation of gender roles.

Works Cited

  • “Agnes Ayres.” The Blue Book of the Screen, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, The Blue Book of the Screen, Inc., 1923, pp. 2,
  • “Chicago and the Mid-West.” Motion Picture News, vol. 24, 1 Dec. 1921, pp. 105., www.archive.org/details/motionpicturenew24moti_7/page/2360/mode/2up.
  • Geyer, R. “Exploitation Counts in Australia.” Paramount Pep, vol. 6, 1 Jan. 1922, pp. 8–9., archive.org/details/paramountpepjanj06unse/mode/2up.
  • Geyer, R. “Paramount Scores in Japan.” Paramount Pep, vol. 7, 1 Jan. 1922, pp. 8–9., archive.org/details/paramountpepjanj06unse/mode/2up.
  • Goldwyn, Samuel. Behind the Screen. New York: George H Doran Company, 1923. Internet resource.
  • “Good Results.” Paramount Pep, vol. 6, no. 29, 23 Jan. 1922,p.4.,www.archive.org/stream/paramountpepjanj06unse#page/n33/mde/2up/search/Th e+Sheik.
  • Kiesling, Barret. “Sales and Production Wedded.” Paramount Pep, vol. 7, no. 23, 14 Dec. 1922, p. 2., www.archive.org/stream/paramountpepjuld07unse#page/n345/mode/2up/search/T he+Sheik
  • “On Tropical Island.” Paramount Pep, vol. 7, 1 Jan. 1922, p. 15., archive.org/details/paramountpepjanj06unse/mode/2up.
  • One Stolen Night” Variety, vol. 69, 1 Feb. 1923, pp. 36–41.,archive.org/details/variety69-1923-02/page/n87/mode/2up.
  • “Record Run in Indianapolis for ‘The Sheik’” Motion Picture News, vol. 24, 1 Nov. 1921, pp. 80., www.archive.org/details/motionpicturenew24moti_7/page/2360/mode/2up.
  • “Rudolph Valentino.” The Blue Book of the Screen, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, The Blue Book of the Screen, Inc., 1923, pp. 252, archive.org/stream/bluebookofscreen00unse#page/252/mode/2up.
  • “‘Sheik’ Barred in Kansas by Women” Variety, vol. 64, 1 Nov. 1923, pp. 42., https://archive.org/details/variety64-1921-11/page/n25/mode/2up
  • “Valentino to play in ‘Beyond the Rocks’” Motion Picture News, vol. 24, 1 Nov. 1921, pp. 80., www.archive.org/details/motionpicturenew24moti_7/page/2360/mode/2up.


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