We can watch The Sheik, one of the most popular of the silent-era films, for its almost comical stereotyping of the Arab culture — Rudolph Valentino, in the title role, plays a wealthy royal who buys women as he would any other property. We can watch it for its almost comical bending to segregation — both the film and the book it was founded on, to comply with anti-miscegenation laws forbidding relations between the races, revealed the Arab Sheikh was really a European. Or we can watch it for Rudolph Valentino himself, the desire of all women, the George Clooney of his day. Plenty of people went to see the movie for the last reason alone.
On this day, October 21, in 1921 The Sheik, with Rudolph Valentino in the title role and Agnes Ayres as Diana, his headstrong but ultimately loving bride, opened. It became the defining role of Valentino, much to his dislike.
The real life Valentino was anything but his screen counterpart. He adamantly refused to consider the Sheik a real character: once, when asked if Lady Diana could fall for a ‘savage,’ he replied testily “People are not savages because they have dark skins.” This was to be Valentino’s only foray into Arab romance novels, although it proved a resilient enough genre to support dozens of copycat features. He returned to what he played best: the Latin lover.