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Blu-ray Review: The Sheik (1921)

November 10, 2021

By John Corrado

A hundred years ago in 1921, Paramount released The Sheik in theatres. It’s a pretty special thing to be celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of a motion picture like this, and in honour of the occasion, Paramount has released a newly restored version of the film on Blu-ray.

Directed by George Melford, and adapted from Edith Maude Hull’s bestselling novel published two years earlier, the silent film propelled its leading man Rudolph Valentino into early movie stardom and became a hit at the box office with its million dollar gross.

A classic “desert romance” that would spawn sequels and copycats, the 26-year-old Valentino stars in the film as Ahmed Ben Hassan, an Arabian sheik who falls in love with Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), an adventurous woman from England that he takes as his prisoner. While she resists at first, Lady Diana eventually starts to fall for him in captivity, which all happens in the span of the film’s brisk 66 minute runtime.

Because of its subject matter and basic Stockholm Syndrome romantic plot, The Sheik is a film that has provoked controversy (then and now), and is obviously one that needs to be watched within the context of its time. But this in no way takes away from its place as an invaluable piece of cinematic history, and the Blu-ray (which presents the film with an original music score by Roger Bellon) restores the picture to something approaching its former glory, even if we can still see the wear and tear of its age.

The press release notes that “since original negatives for silent films rarely exist, Paramount searched the world for the best elements and used a print and an intermediate element called a fine grain. One source of the film yielded better results for image quality, another for intertitles. One of the elements was “stretch-printed” and had to be adjusted digitally during the restoration process. In the silent era there was no standard frame rate, so stretch printing was done to show silent films at 24 frames per second. In addition, tints and tones were digitally applied, guided by an original continuity script from the Paramount archive.”

It concludes by saying this “is the best picture quality The Sheik has had since it was originally shown in theaters 100 years ago,” which could be true. While there are still a lot of scratches and flickers that are noticeable throughout the film (especially on the intertitles), this is understandable given its age. For the most part, the sepia images have held up well and are presented on the disc with a surprising amount of clarity, including an interesting orange or blue tint to the scenes depending on if they are taking place in the daytime or at night.

Watching The Sheik now is like peering into a time capsule, and the fact that Paramount has taken the time to restore and release the film in such a way for its one hundredth anniversary is something worth celebrating. The Blu-ray is highly worth checking out for anyone interested in film history.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The disc comes with a single bonus featurette that explores the film’s legacy and is required viewing afterwards, but a dedicated look at the restoration process would have been a nice addition. There is no digital copy included in the package.

Desert Heat: 100 Years With The Sheik (12 minutes, 21 seconds): Leslie Midkiff Debauche, a film historian and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, helps contextualize the somewhat complicated legacy of The Sheik in this revealing and honestly pretty fascinating featurette. She talks about the film’s popularity in 1921, how it helped make Rudolph Valentino a movie star, and its place in cinematic history, including a nuanced discussion of the story’s controversial subject matter and how its themes were perceived then versus now.

The Sheik is a Paramount Home Entertainment release. It’s 66 minutes and rated G.

Street Date: October 19th, 2021

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