In the 80s comic book-based movies were not quite the marketable thing they are today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t even a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye yet, so when producer Paul Aratow began to bandy around the idea of bringing this old 1940s comic character to the big screen he was really going out on a limb, and while I give him credit for having balls to go with a “superhero flick” as female leads at the time was far from the norm, but it’d have been nice if he’d managed to come up with a viable concept for this film and avoided producing one of the biggest cinematic duds of the decade.
Premiering in 1938 the comic book “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” told the story of an orphan girl who had been raised by an African witch doctor and somehow developed the ability to communicate with wild animals, basically she was a female Tarzan, but it should be noted that she was the first female comic book character with her own title and it was a successful title at that and it spawned several adaptations over the years, including a cool 26-episode television series in 1956, but when the 1980s rolled around a big-screen version was brought to life, one that was very loosely based on its comic book cousin.
The movie opens with a pair of idiots investigating rumours of a mystical “healing earth” whose powers are said to flow forth from the sacred Gudjara Mountain, but their investigation ends in tragedy, both of them killed in a cave-in, leaving their young daughter an orphan and to be raised by the Shaman of the Zambouli tribe (Princess Elizabeth of Toro), who states to her people that “The prophecy has come to pass. When the sacred mountain cries out. A golden god-child will come from the depths of Gudjara and she shall grow in wisdom and be the protector of the Zambouli and all their creatures. And she shall be called Sheena.” You have to admit that’s a lot of pressure to lay on a little girl who’s barely out of diapers. With a nice little montage of Sheena (Tanya Roberts) growing up, where she learns much from the Shaman about the lore of the jungle and the ways of all its creatures, as well as her telepathic communication with these animals, she is soon ready to be the Lord of the Jungle…sorry, I mean Queen of the Jungle.
Note: The roles that Tanya Roberts choose seemed to often include bathing by a waterfall. She skinny-dipped in the horror film Tourist Trap and bathed nude in this film, as well as in The Beastmaster. To be fair, If you got something that works I guess you stick with it.
Of course, this film isn’t just about communing with nature and nude bathing, if only that were the case, as we also have a plot concerning the assassination of an African King (Clifton Jones), with his Prince Otwani (Trevor Thomas) conspiring with his brother’s fiancée, Countess Zanda (France Zobda), so that they can exploit the Zambouli land, which turns out to be rich in titanium, and the framing of the Zambouli Shaman for the crime. There to document what he thinks to be a simple puff piece about Prince Otwani and his post-sports career life is reporter Vic Casey (Ted Wass) and his comic relief cameraman Fletch Agronsky (Donovan Scott), who accidentally films evidence that would prove that the Shaman did not kill the king. This leads to all our main characters crossing paths during a jailbreak, a rescue that does succeed, kind of, because the Shaman still dies of her wounds and this results in Vic and Sheena being on the run from Prince Otwani and his small mercenary army. This chase takes up the bulk of the film and it’s less than thrilling. Lucky for Sheena, but not us, her ability to call for “animal assistance” keeps the two of them one step ahead of the bad guys.
What is nice is the fact that the film was shot on location in Kenya and the photography is quite spectacular, as is the wildlife action that animal handler Hubert Wells executed to bring this story to life; including lions, some elephants, a pair of chimps and a rhino – the flamingo attack on a helicopter, not so much, but the rest of the film’s bestiary is excellent – and the final jungle fight between the Zambouli and the mercenaries is quite fun, giving us some truly good pulp movie carnage to keep even the most jaded ten-year-old happy, unfortunately, the film’s “White Savior” trope was already problematic by this point in time yet director John Guillermin decided to double down on this idiocy with a scene of Sheena, surrounded by her African tribe, proclaiming “See! Even in chains, we can defeat them! Turn your minds back, my people. Remember yourselves a thousand, a thousand moons ago! Bring your bows!” and this moment is embarrassing beyond words.
• On my list of things I never needed to see, please add the sight of a thirteen-year girl riding topless on a zebra. Just no.
• In the comic book, Sheena could communicate with animals, much in the way Tarzan did in the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, but for this movie, she now has some form of telepathy with the beasts, which is an idea one must assume they borrowed from The Beastmaster, which also starred Tanya Roberts.
• Coming down in the hotel elevator, Ted and Fletch are shocked when the elevator door opens to reveal a group of mercenaries readying for battle, but why were these guys stationed right outside the elevator? If you want to keep your planned coupe secret maybe don’t hang out in the lobby.
• If Prince Otwani was always planning to assassinate his brother what was the point of sneaking in his own personal mercenaries, with his brother dead he becomes king and thus there is no need for his own army. Now, if he was staging a military coup that would make some sense but with the whole “Framing the Zambouli” plan it’s completely unnecessary.
• For the prison break, where Sheena and her animal friends bust the Shaman out of an armed military compound, composer Richard Hartley decided to go with some sort of acoustic guitar love theme, which is not what you’d expect to hear during a supposed action sequence.
• When Vick kisses Sheena, she says, “Mouths were given us to eat with. Why did you touch yours to mine?” but she was raised by the Zambouli tribe, not wolves, did the people of her tribe not kiss? Is this type of affection not known in the jungles of Africa?
• It’s also kind of hilarious that during the Shaman’s entire death monologue we have the elephant in the background digging her grave because there’s no sense in waiting until she’s cold.
The film’s cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis does a great job of capturing the beauty and power of the African landscape, and as mentioned, the animals are fantastic here and are the true stars of this movie, but I swear film composer Richard Hartley thought he was writing the score for a sequel to Chariots of Fire and not a pulp adventure film as almost every piece of music suffers from a complete disconnect from what we are actually being shown on screen. But the true criminal here is John Guillermin whose direction is amateurish at best and with what looks to be a complete misunderstanding of the subject matter, and this is the man who directed Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan Goes to India, which are arguably two of the better entries in Tarzan’s Cinematic Career, and while you can laugh at Tanya Roberts as she gazes blankly into space while spouting some of the most inane dialogue imaginable, I’d have to lay a lot of the blame for her performance on Guillermin whose direction is more than suspect.
Note: Tanya Roberts pressing her fist to her forward, as she telepathically communes with the animals, never stops looking wonderfully silly. Is she calling her animal friends or suffering from Brain Freeze?
It should be noted that Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, the creators of Sheena, weren’t even credited for this movie, but I’m guessing it’s safe to say that neither one of them would have been too upset if they’d learned of this snub. Though to be fair completely fair to the filmmakers, taking a character from the 40s and trying to make a modern adventure film out of it was always going to be tricky, and one has to give credit where credit is due in the willingness to produce a female-led action movie during a period in time where this was still quite rare, sadly, with a terrible script from Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Newman, which included some truly laughable dialogue, and acting that ranged from bad to “what the hell they thinking” there was no way this film was going to be a success, but it does remain entertainingly bad and if watched with the right mindset you will probably have a good time.
Movie Rank - 4.5/10
In the history of bad comic book adaptations, Sheena is but a small speed bump on the road to some truly big-budgeted disasters – I’m looking at you Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – and this film does not shy away from proving that fact, yet there are definitely areas in this film to entertain even the most discerning of comic book movie fans as there is some goofy fun to be had.