The blockbuster that was The Sheik

Move over Lord of the Rings. When it comes to sheer spectacle, a silent film from 1922 towers above them all.

As part of the “Imagining Arabia” website project, Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington historian Professor Kate Hunter has been studying the Rudolph Valentino blockbuster, The Sheik, and its effect on audiences in New Zealand and Australia.

Professor Hunter, who is Director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies and in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, says the Middle East has had widespread influence on our part of the world.

The Imagining Arabia site, subtitled “The Middle East in the Australasian Imagination 1890-1945”, covers different aspects of those experiences and of the interesting topics being investigated.

“We know that New Zealand and Australia have been closely linked with the Middle East since the 1890s in terms of travel, trade, security and immigration.

“By looking at our understandings of that relationship up to the end of World War 2—by studying souvenirs, stories, photographs, diaries—we can shine more light on the persistent cultural presence of Middle Eastern peoples and places in our imaginations.”

That work has included “a big chunk of research” on the impact of the film version of EM Hull’s The Sheik, Professor Hunter says.

“It was an absolute blockbuster.

“It was not just the film itself. It always involved a lot of live performances, vaudeville, a tableaux, a bit of dance, some opera, even a full orchestra at some of the bigger theatres. It’s interesting what they combined with a silent film.”

In the early 1920s, a visit to the “pictures” was a “phenomenon”, she says.

“It was guaranteed to be value for money. To compete with the colour and variety of other entertainments, such as vaudeville, industry magazines urged promoters to enrich the audience’s experience by decorating the lobbies of theatres and organising ‘stunts’ or promotional events.”

In New Zealand, The Sheik toured around local cinemas and ran for long seasons in the major cities, Professor Hunter says.

“Such was its popularity that the term ‘sheik’ came into common usage to describe any young man with less-than-honourable intentions towards a young woman.

“In sensationalist reporting of the 1927 Christchurch court case involving Victor Slater’s knife attack on Richard Martin, the father of Slater’s girlfriend Lola, Slater was constantly referred to as ‘her handsome sheik’ and was described as ‘handsome after the sheik style – with carefully brushed back hair, eloquent brown eyes, expressive lips to make him alluring in the eyes of a maid’.

She says the influence of Middle Eastern fantasies was also strongly apparent in the new cinemas themselves.

“The Civic in Auckland was finished in the late 1920s and was described as ‘a conglomeration of Moorish, Persian and Indian styles’. The ‘usherettes’ at the Civic dressed in voluminous pantaloons—which kept catching on the theatre seats—and wore turned-up slippers, while the male doorkeepers wore black dinner suits and black fez, complete with red tassels.

“The foyer of the Majestic in Christchurch was designed with ‘opalescent fountains, potted palms, leadlight windows and handsome hanging lamps’.”

Across the Tasman, theatre owners did not anticipate the sensation The Sheik would cause, despite its success elsewhere.

“Initially, only the Globe Theatre in Sydney screened the film. After two weeks of capacity houses for several screenings per day, the film began to attract attention. Usually, films screened for a few days in major city theatres before being distributed among the suburban theatres, and eventually going on tour around the rural centres.

The Sheik played at Sydney’s Globe several times each day for a full six months, only moving on to another theatre after strenuous and lengthy protests from suburban theatre owners.

“A prologue was arranged at the Globe within a week of the opening in which there was a showing of ‘Ahmed Ben Hassan’s caravan in the Sahara desert, Miss Mona Clive introduces a harem dance, whilst baritone Frank Charleton renders several song numbers to telling effect’.”

In cahoots with a perfume company, the theatre was intermittently scented with Indasia perfume, lending “mystic [sic] to a truly Oriental atmosphere”.

The Sheik was part of a series of desert romances and its success encouraged studios to make more of them, though none was even remotely as successful, Professor Hunter says.

New Zealand and Australian audiences could also see Palace of Darkened Windows (1921), Waiting for Dawn (1922), in which “the alluring harem scenes are unequalled in gorgeousness”, or Arabian Love (1922).

Tens of thousands of New Zealanders saw The Sheik but their reactions to it are difficult to ascertain, Professor Hunter says.

“Unfortunately, popular culture was not considered ‘collectable’ until very recently, so even fan magazines and memorabilia are scarce in our national collections. But the influence of The Sheik and desert romances more generally is discernible through popular language, fashion, and changing ideas of romance.”

Professor Hunter says anyone with interesting stories or artefacts can contact the team through the “Imagining Arabia” website.

Professor Hunter is giving a talk about her work on The Sheik at midday on Friday 19 June via Zoom.

For more information on the project, visit the “Imagining Arabia” website, at

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