Why do so many American males protest so much Valentino’s Sheik Ahmed? At first glance, he is simply another athletic charmer, seizing what he wants, rescuing as he sees fit--all the while hands on hips, laughing easily. An Arabian Zorro, yes?
I am, of course, being disingenuous. I know as much as anyone who has seen The Sheik that a certain, ah, excess permeates the movie, at once ridiculous and irresistible. The ochre-painted faces, the constant desert tableaux, the patient camels and donkeys--and above all Valentino, infinitely pleased with himself, his mouth open, teeth shining--without embarrassment, inventing an image.
Two themes take on a particularly delirious character. The first deals with female independence--actually, its “cure.” Lady Diana--played by Agnes Ayres without much fuss, plucky and matter-of-fact, dressed in her pants and stalwart on her camel--desires to venture into the desert alone--well, at least without a white male guardian. But she is promptly kidnapped by Ahmed, and her independence is settled by a rape--presented elliptically, of course, but the effect of the moment is still ... I will simply write “strange.” Oh, I know all about that “strong male” stuff--but most of us, male and female, also know that myth is as flimsy as a copy of the Police Gazette, as easily torn as tissue. Such gruff (all right: brutal) male dominance may seem to some an attractive prospect--so why do men loathe Valentino? After all, he lives this sordid fantasy.
Thus the second theme: male sexuality. And this may be the rub. Has Valentino revealed a secret wish, that male sexuality is as beautiful as the female variety? The English woman marches toward “maleness," while the Arabian male flows in silken spirals. Ahmed approaches the bed, where Diana lies white and supine (her bullets reduced to blanks--a potential symbolism I will not dwell upon), his own figure glowingly “pretty”--and he sings to her; as he exults, “I always sing when I am happy--when events and things please me.”
The film labors mightily to have it both ways; and it is in the line of separation between open sexuality and convenient melodrama where the picture grows most interesting. If Valentino makes women swoon and men gnash their teeth, it may be because he stands, his robes swirling, his clean face long and set, in the space between, having it both ways, so to speak, just as his audience does. For once, someone on the screen appears to be deriving as much pleasure from the cinema tension between reassurance and revolution as do the audience--again, perhaps drawing gender lines, but only because men are more afraid to admit to their femaleness than are women to dabble in the male. And so both of us have to hide in desert sands to play at being each other.