No courage in romances

May 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

It’s depressingly easy today to call silent movies out on the racist representational shorthand their narratives sometimes resort to (Arabs, Asians, Blacks acting usually within the confines of conventional literary prejudices). But they could be called out on it during the 1920s, though I haven’t seen this point often raised in cinema criticism of the time, at least not in a “main stream” news outlet. The review is about The Sheik (1921), and it is from the New York Times (7 nov. 1921):

Somehow, this doesn’t seem to be exactly the idea of Mrs. Hull’s novel as reported in the book reviews, but never mind: here’s the picture tale of a nice sheik and his agreeable English girl. And you won’t be offended by having a white girl marry an Arab, either, for the sheik isn’t really a native of the desert at all. Oh, no: he’s thhe son of a Spanish father and an English mother who were killed when he was a baby so the old sheik could raise him as his son. These romantic Arabian movies, you know, never have the courage of their romantics.

To be absolutely fair, in The Sheik, while the (English) girl (Agnes Ayres) is indeed reassured that the sheik (Valentino) is not of Arab origin — and though somehow that information is supposed to validate the entire love story that has sprung between them — nothing is said of the sheik’s cultural roots: the racism is based on blood identity, but the sheik’s cultural identity never becomes an issue. I may be reading too much into that (the blood identity being probably thought of, in those very primitive days long before multicultural thinking, as the true and only real identity), but I find the omission worth pointing out (and it’s not like the film has forgotten about the sheik being Muslim: the last four shots are of men praying to Allah outside the sheik’s tent, and the last title read: “All things are with Allah!” — though that could just be for exotic purposes).

Am I wrong ? Are there many more examples out there of critical dismissals of ethnic stereotypes in US mainstream 1920s press ? 



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