Valentino went back to the old Middle East well one more time. Ahmed, the son of the title character of The Sheik, loves a dancer named Yasmin. After coming to believe that she betrayed him to bandits, Ahmed seeks revenge. Valentino-style. Valentino’s final screen appearance is also one of his best.
The men in this family never learn…
Valentino made many films after achieving stardom but there was one role that he hoped never to play again: his signature part as the lusty sheik. However, due to contract disputes and unfavorable press, his career needed a shot in the arm and the one role he did not want was the one role his fans wanted to see him in.
With the success of The Eagle, Valentino had finally hit on the perfect balance of passion and action needed to draw men, as well as women, to his films. While The Sheik had featured Valentino in only one action scene, The Son of the Sheik took a page from Douglas Fairbanks and peppered the script with chases, fights and escapes.
Valentino plays Ahmed, the spoiled son of Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan and Diana, his English wife. Ahmed has been carrying on a secret love affair with a dancer named Yasmin (lovely Vilma Banky). Yasmin’s father, Andre (George Fawcett) is a Frenchman who leads a renegade band of entertainers. They moonlight as bandits but it is honest Yasmin’s dancing that supports them.
The most villainous member of the troupe is a Moor named Gabbah (Montagu Love). Andre promised to give him Yasmin and he watches her with a possessive eye. When Gabbah finds out about Ahmed, he is jealous but he also realizes that there is money to be made. Ahmed is clearly rich and his people must be able to afford a hefty ransom.
Ahmed’s friend, Ramadan (Karl Dane), tries to convince him that he should not make the journey to see Yasmin alone but Ahmed doesn’t listen. He and Yasmin are deeply in love. Gabbah and his henchmen wait until Yasmin leaves and then they attack and overpower Ahmed. They want a ransom but since he will not name his family… Well, like all movie villains, they have ways of making him talk. While torturing Ahmed, Gabbah gloats that Yasmin was a willing accomplice and used herself as bait to lure her victim.
Yasmin hears that Ahmed is in trouble and steals out to rescue him. Faithful Ramadan gets there first, though, and drags Ahmed to safety. Yasmin is just happy that he is safe. Ahmed recuperates in Touggourt, all the while brooding over Yasmin’s betrayal. Ramadan finds it all very amusing. Then Ahmed hears the sounds of a dancing troupe. It’s Yasmin dancing in the street. She sees Ahmed and greets him but he rebuffs her. But seeing her again has put an idea in his head. She used his love to betray him; he will use it to revenge himself.
Yasmin is dancing that night at Café Maure, a dive in Touggourt. In between performances, she has to beat off the advances of Gabbah. Ahmed bursts in and, with Ramadan’s help, carries Yasmin off before anyone can stop him. Yasmin doesn’t know the lies Gabbah told Ahmed. She thinks he has come to rescue her from her terrible situation. She doesn’t understand why he is so cold during the journey to his camp. Once there, though, she quickly finds out. Ahmed won’t listen to her protestations of innocence. He stole her away for revenge and he means to have it…
The Son of the Sheik was the hit that Valentino needed but, sadly, he died before he could benefit from its success. Constantly revived over the years, it is a film that showcases his talent, charm and what Elinor Glyn would call “IT”. The film is often called tongue-in-cheek. I’m not sure that is the right way to describe it. While there is definite comedy relief, mostly in the form of the jovial Karl Dane, the action and romance are played straight. Perhaps a better term would be self-aware.
Every member of the cast, from Valentino to Vilma Baky to Montagu Love, knew they were making escapist fare. Slick, fun, fast-paced and rather sexy. They played their parts accordingly and the film benefits greatly. The Sheik, on the other hand, didn’t seem to know what to do with its lurid plot. Characters acted with no apparent motive and the story had holes you could drive a camel through.
The Son of the Sheik shows a little, implies much and embraces the spicy nature of its tale but it does so tastefully. The plot is simple but tight and effective. This is partly the result of the filmmaker’s excellent decision to jettison the source material.
E.M. Hull, who had authored the novel The Sheik, had written a sequel in 1925 called Sons of the Sheik. Ahmed and Diana married and had twin boys, one of whom looks just like mom and was raised in England for some ridiculous reason and the other who looks just like dad and was raised in the desert. East vs. West is once again played out in the form of sibling rivalry.
The movie scenario sensibly chose to eliminate the English son. While they were at it, the filmmakers got rid of the silly and dated plot involving oh-so-wicked Germans committing Hunnish villainy. Mrs. Hull seemed to forget that the Great War was over.
In the book, Yasmin is a dancer who entrances both brothers but it turns out that she is a lost French aristocrat. You will recall that at the climax of the first film, it was revealed that the senior sheik was a lost Spanish/English nobleman adopted by Arabs as a way to wiggle out of any question of an interracial marriage. These European nobles must really learn to be more careful with their children and not leave them lying about! In the film, she is a Frenchman’s daughter, nothing aristocratic about it.
Valentino took great pleasure in playing both father and son in the film. Agnes Ayres, who is specially thanked in the opening credits, reprises her role as Diana. She and Valentino manage to have more chemistry in their short scenes together than they mustered for the entire running time of The Sheik. Valentino plays the senior sheik as a blustering but loving father in the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did mode. Diana is quick to remind her husband that their son is hardly the first to snatch a girl but the Sheik sets out to give his son a stern lecture. Don’t miss Valentino put a supportive arm around his own shoulder.
The scene where Ahmed confronts Yasmin for her supposed betrayal is one of Valentino’s best scenes, though it also owes much to Vilma Banky. A delicate beauty, she also had the spunk needed to stand up to Valentino’s aggressive romantic style. Her expression turns from innocent love to horror as she realizes that her lover believes that she is a strumpet and thief. It turns to tearful hatred when she realizes how far his anger has twisted his love for her. And finally, panic when she discover what he means to do about it. (Obviously, what follows is not okay and I really wish the film-makers had gone another route.)
Karl Dane is always a welcome sight in silent film. Burly and amiable, he was often cast as the strong-heart, soft-head type of best friend. (But Ramadan? Ramadan? That’s like having an American character named Thanksgiving or President’s Day.) Montague Love was one of the more accomplished villains of both silents and talkies. As Gabbah, he provides a strong antagonist for Valentino to play against.
For silent escapist fare, Son of the Sheik cannot be surpassed. Able direction from George Fitzmaurice, a wonderful supporting cast and Valentino doing what Valentino does best create a splendid silent film experience, ideal for first-timers. I should, however, add the obvious caveat that this movie is absolutely not politically correct. It is sexist. It mixes up its cultures. If you actually sit down and think about the plot, it is quite icky. I have to admit that this film is a guilty pleasure for me. I should really know better.
In spite of it being the cornier movie, though, I actually watch The Sheik more often than its sequel. What can I say? I love kitsch.
Where can I see it?
The Son on the Sheik has been released on DVD in several different editions. The Kino edition is available as a standalone movie while the Image edition bundles it as a double feature with The Sheik. The film is also available via streaming.