Vintage Entertainment

The Sheik: A 1921 Blockbuster Movie

Rudolph Valentino stares ahead of him in The Sheik, a 1921 blockbuster silent film.
Rudolph Valentino as Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik

As often as it appears in cultural references, I had never seen Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. This 1921 silent movie truly turned into a blockbuster film. It grossed over one million dollars in ticket sales in 1921. Not a bad return for a movie that cost $200,000 to make. It was touted in the newspapers as a wildly popular film after its opening in October. And this was only Valentino’s second film. By 1926 he would be dead.

A Man, a Woman, a Second Man, a Romance!

The Sheik is classified as a desert romance. This romance genre knew popularity in the past, but its fashionableness waned by 1919 and apparently needed a revival. Enter The Sheik. The movie’s action takes place in the deserts of Algeria and in the town of Biskra. (In real life, Biskra is a capital city of Algeria.) Headstrong Lady Diana Mayo determines to travel by herself over the desert. However, she fails to reckon on Ahmed Ben Hassan. She meets Hassan, the Sheik, fleetingly before she leaves Biskra and he decides that she is the one for him.

You can imagine how the rest of the story plays out. (Or, if you can’t, maybe spending an hour and a half watching the movie would prove an interesting time.) There’s a Sheik, a Lady, a Doctor, and a cast of servants and followers.

Actress Agnes Ayres plays Lady Diana Mayo in The Sheik, a 1921 blockbuster silent film.
The lovely Agnes Ayres plays Lady Diana Mayo in The Sheik.

One of the marvelous aspects of modern technology is that you can bring vintage arts easily into your life. You don’t have to wait for a Twenties revival at your nearest retro movie house, if you even have one of those nearby. You can dip into vintage life and culture any time you like. Thanks to sites like YouTube and the Internet Archive, surviving silent movies like The Sheik are only a quick click away. A click on either highlighted link takes you directly to The Sheik, a 1921 blockbuster silent movie.

Cultural Context and The Sheik

Does the movie have cultural issues? Of course it does. First of all, it was made in 1921, during a time when viewers regarded anything outside industrialized city or rural town life as exotic. Second, don’t expect this movie to present Algeria in any realistic way. This is a fantasy, borne of the author’s memories of living in Algeria as a small child in the 1890s. You will see that clearly in one of the early scenes that present two cultured British characters discussing Lady Diana’s escapades. In addition, this is the Algeria of colonialism, and you will note references made to the French language throughout the film. The French governed Algeria from 1830 until the 1960s. Therefore, anyone watching this movie in 1921 would experience no surprise that many of the characters speak French. Of course they spoke French. It was French Algeria in 1921.

If You Want to Read the Book

The movie was adapted from a book by E. M. Hull. Edith Maud Hull was a British author, and The Sheik was her first book. Several other romances followed it, but The Sheik remains her best known work. Wildly popular when it was published, the book sold millions of copies. Read it here, at Project Gutenberg.