The Sheik, Changing Social Mores and French Algeria: A Semi-free Association Writing Exercise Part 1

Last week I was browsing YouTube for clips of Rudolf Valentino, which got me thinking about The Sheik, Hollywood blockbuster of 1921 and the movie that made him an icon. I first saw the film in my early teens and it went straight to my limbic system. Instead of New-Kids-on-the-Block, I was the classroom eccentric who was into Weird Al Jankovic, Dvroak’s New World Symphony and film star who’d been dead since my grandmother was 4 years old.

That phase passed, and I hadn’t really thought about either the film or actor in at least a decade, when the idea came to me that YouTube might be a source for bits of silent movies. I set out to look for Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera and The Shiek. Both films having been major productions in their day, I figured the odds would pretty good that clips from them as well as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would be available. I needn’t have hedged my bets, though, since along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and a Danish film from 1923 I hadn’t heard of (Vampyr) were readily available, mostly as music video-style tributes. A couple were even offered as full length downloads posted by some serious connoisseurs.

If I’d gotten that far Nosferatu (1922) or The Lost World (1925) probably would have popped up as well, but by that point video surfing on YouTube had reminded me of my teenage crush and I thought I’d see if I still had the same reaction. Valentino’s cult is alive and well if the selection and appended commentary is anything to go by, though it’s biased in favor of he scenes where he gropes his co-stars. Part of the appeal to my teenage self was the desert romance setting. Exotic locations, the British Raj, and a lingering interest in classical archaeology nurtured by National Geographic specials, Indiana Jones and every mummy movie produced by Hollywood or Hammer Films up to that point served to prime an already active imagination. As for The Sheik, lushly dressed sets and implied sexual tension that even a 13 yr old could pick up were enough to bait and set the hook. Perceptions change, no surprise there. I’m kind of sorry that the appeal has faded, it would be very trendy, in a geeky way, to moon over a silent screen star. The man did have a nice smile, especially in the more relaxed off-set shots.

Looking at the movie, the sets are still beautifully done, but the message conveyed by body language has changed. The broad gestures and facial expressions are a stylistic convention of the genre I’m willing to accept, but find faintly hokey. Partly because these expressions have been used for comedic effect in so many other films. In particular, the wide-eyed expression Valentino favors for emphasis makes him look maniacal rather than passionate. I’m reminded of Victor Frankensteen at the end of Young Frankenstein, when the new Frau Frankenstein asks ”. . . but whatever was it you got from him?” There is also a physical resemblance to Rufus Sewell, as Seth Stark Adder, at the opening of Cold Comfort Farm, where he poses in a way to project bovine virility (tongue very much in cheek). Strangely enough it was the Italian accent that really threw me. I found a voice clip of “Kashmiri Song” recorded as part of the publicity surrounding The Sheik, and I was aurally unprepared for him to actually sound Italian. Somewhere along the line my brain had conjured up a French or eastern European accent, maybe an Egyptian one at a stretch. It weirded me out. The dissonance got me thinking about movie treatments of novels, which is where The Sheik had its roots—one of the first modern romance novels, published in 1919 by an Englishwoman named E.M. Hull. She lived a quiet, almost invisible life as the wife of a gentleman pig farmer according one online source, until WWI when she took up writing to pass the time.

What all of this came around to was that I’d never read the book, and I thought maybe I’d find some of the missing character depth there. Even before the film had women shrieking in the aisles like teenyboppers at a Beatles concert, the novel had a reputation for being steamy by the standards of early 20th Cent literature. I figured it couldn’t be any more boring than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. So I downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg and sped read through it. After reading it I started seeing connections to other stories on film and in print including the Mummy (1932), The Lion and the Wind (1975) and The Blue Sword (Robin McKinley).

On a first pass, story is very much a product of its time, and firmly placed in the romance genre. Set in the then contemporary European ex-pat community of French controlled Algeria and centering on the relatively new archetype of the wealthy, headstrong, adventuress. Lara Croft has come a long way since then. Pretty, athletic and virginal, Diana Mayo has few family connections other than a stuffy, spoiled brother decades older than her, who she chooses to blow off since she has gained legal control of her trust fund. In a rather clumsy piece of foreshadowing he hopes to god that someday she’ll run into a man who’ll make her obedient. So she makes a few snide comments and goes off on a trek into the desert without him. Unfortunately for her there’s a lusty cheiftan with a fast horse and a lot of armed followers waiting a few sand dunes over. Blah, blah, blah. No one has ever dared be so familiar! Blah, blah, blah.

Matches the movie pretty closely, so my immediate reaction was that I could write something better using the same general idea. I’d need to read memoirs and/or biographies of Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark, then raid Wikipedia for the geography, climate and history of French colonialism in Algeria. Presto! One slushy writing exercise later I’d have some thing to post, or hide away in a box depending on my mood. It would probably never see the light of day, but why not give it a try? At the very least I could write about the importance of staying hydrated and the seductive scents of night blooming flowers. More aspects to consider kept piling up. Life has to have been pretty lean around the oasis, so even the chief’s new concubine couldn’t sit around on her hands all day (forget those dreamy-eyed diaphanaceous silk wearing odalisques), but what could she be trusted with? What could a pretty little foreigner like that even do? Would it be possible to write in a way that would trim out most of the overt racism, but leave the class consciousness intact, so it was more of an urban-nomad than ethnic conflict? The 1920’s colonial feel was something I wanted to maintain, but with better motivation than “I wanted to jump your bones so I came up with this elaborate kidnapping scenario involving a couple hundred tribesmen, a dishonest guide, my French valet and your own naïve impulsiveness”. And that is where the writing exercise ran aground under it’s own weight.

I went back for a second critical reading looking at the social dynamics, and took a side trip into Algerian history, which I’ll cover on a later post. Some related articles below:

1) Source: Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970), 217–218, 220–223.

2) Valentino’s Sheik: An ‘Other’ Made to Swoon Over by Neda Ulaby

3) Hull, Edith Maude – A forgotten Derbyshire writer

4) “English sheiks” and Arab stereotypes: E. M. Hull, T. E. Lawrence, and the imperial masquerade, by Elizabeth Gargano

5) Project Gutenberg e-text: The Sheik

6) searches for “Rudolf Valentino”, “The Sheik” and “Kashmiri Song”

-posted by tytoalba


2 Responses to The Sheik, Changing Social Mores and French Algeria: A Semi-free Association Writing Exercise Part 1

  1. Dana says:

    This very much reminds me of the early 20th century movies we watched for the class I took on “Colonialism in Spanish Film.” Oh, the otherness! Truly, you can’t beat an Arabian fantasy for an excuse to have the female lead bare her stomach.

    I’m with you on The Blue Sword, but I do have to admit to being very relieved that Harry at least got to be a tomboy from the get-go. I was actually just thinking the other day about how a big part of fantasy literature with female leads could never really be seen as historical fiction, because part of the fantasy is giving the women enough equality to make the living life not only bearable, but interesting enough to support an adventurous plot. Getting off topic though. Anyway, yes, there’s been a lot done with this plot, and now I have many things to Google. I eagerly await the next post.

  2. […] I had envisioned part 2 (part 1 here) as comparing and contrasting the continuum from reel–>read–> real. In the future […]

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