Part animal. Part legend. All woman.
Will Eisner and S. M. Iger's "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" first appeared in Jumbo Comics in 1938. This scantily clad heroine was one of the first and easily the most popular of a spate of "girl Tarzan" characters which have surfaced from time to time ever since. Her adventures continued through comic books and pulp magazines until the 1950s. There was even a short-lived television series entitled "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle," featuring the fetching Irish McCalla as the leopard skin-clad wild woman. Throughout her life in print and the small screen, Sheena stood out from the rest of the "sexy white jungle goddess" characters. She was portrayed as a genuinely strong female character, much more likely to be rescuing her male companions than awaiting rescue herself.
The Sheena character finally made the leap to the big screen in 1984. Tanya Roberts (A View To A Kill, Charlie's Angels, That 70s Show) dons her loincloth and prepares to rumble with evil forces in the jungle.
Facts of the Case
When Philip and Betsy Ames die in a cave collapse in Africa, their daughter is left to be raised by the native Zambuli tribe. Due to some strange prophecy about the cave in which her parents died, she is viewed as a child of the gods and is entrusted to the care of the Shaman (Elizabeth of Toro). As the child grows up she learns much from the Shaman about the lore of the jungle and the ways of all its creatures; she is even entrusted with the secret of telepathic communication with the animals. She lives an undisturbed life as protector of the jungle and of the Zambuli people. Outsiders rarely disturb their territory, since that part of the country is under the special protection of the King of Tigora (Clifton Jones—Space: 1999).
However, trouble is brewing in Tigora. The king's son, Prince Otwani (Trevor Thomas—International Velvet, Inseminoid) has designs on his father's kingdom. He is conspiring with the king's mistress Countess Zanda (France Zobda) to kill his father and take over the country. The Shaman has a mystical dream that foretells these events, and leaves the safety of the jungle to warn the king.
Now, this is where things get a little weird. In addition to being a power-hungry schemer trying to steal his father's kingdom and mistress, Otwani is also a record-setting placekicker in the NFL. (This presumably explains why he has an American accent that sounds like Eddie Murphy's impressions of white people.) A pair of TV sports journalists has followed him to his home country to do a feature story on the life of this royal football hero. Vic Casey (Ted Wass—Oh God, You Devil, Curse of the Pink Panther, Blossom) is the smooth-talking reporter looking for a career-making scoop; "Fletch" Fletcher (Donovan Scott) is his slightly nervous, slightly chubby cameraman who appears to specialize in comic relief.
When the king is killed and the Shaman is framed for it, Vic and Fletch realize they are on to a much bigger story than they had anticipated. Otwani sends out the ruthless Colonel Jorgensen (John Forgeham) and a squad of heavily armed mercenaries into the jungle for unclear reasons, but mostly to harass and kill the Zambuli people. Somehow Vic and Fletch wind up in the jungle as well, they meet up with Sheena, and join forces to defeat the evil Prince and his evil henchmen in their evil plans.
The director responsible for this movie is John Guillermin. His track record is so varied as to border on schizophrenia. His filmography includes relatively well-received films such as The Bridge at Remagen and The Towering Inferno. He has also been responsible for projects like the horrid 1976 remake of King Kong. Along the way, he has made his share of jungle adventure pics, including at least two Tarzan adventures and Shaft in Africa. Sheena might not be the worst movie he ever made, but it must be close.
Cinematography is by Pasqualino De Santis, perhaps best known for Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. His work is probably the only positive about this movie. While no one was looking he managed to capture some very nice footage of the African plains and wildlife; it's quite nice, in an Animal Planet sort of way, but hardly makes the movie worth watching.
The script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (King Kong (1976), Flash Gordon (1980)) and David Newman (Michael Jackson: Moonwalker, Mutant X) is atrocious. Aside from the apparently drug-induced plot discussed above, this movie contains some of the worst dialogue I have ever heard. This includes Vic Casey's dying words (don't worry, that's not a spoiler, he comes back to life) to Sheena: "I've had it baby. And all I can think of to say is 'shit!'" Ted Wass is a pretty terrible actor, but I really can't imagine anyone who could make that line work, apart from maybe Governor Ventura. Tanya Roberts has her own dialogue problems courtesy of these two writers; I still can't figure out why the Shaman who raised Sheena, and all the other members of the tribe, spoke relatively good English while she struggled along in monosyllabic Tarzan-speak. I assume these two were also responsible for the weakest gimmick in the movie, Sheena's ability to communicate telepathically with the animals. I suspect that 1982's The Beastmaster (which also featured Roberts) may have been an influence in the decision to make her into a psychic Dr. Dolittle.
Tanya Roberts is Sheena, and that is perhaps the greatest weakness in the movie. Roberts is physically stunning, but has nowhere near the level of athleticism required to be believable. She looks like, well, one of Charlie's Angels when what is called for is something more on the order of Xena, Warrior Princess. (I also can't figure out how she could grow up in Africa but only get as tan as I do after a single day at the beach, but I'll let it go for now.) She is generically pretty at best, and has almost no acting ability whatsoever. Sheena is a woman of few words, but Roberts takes the time to chew each one carefully. Her delivery is a strange mixture of Marilyn Monroe's husky whisper and the halting, broken delivery found so often in the Tarzan movies, with perhaps a bit of Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeanie thrown in for good measure. Roberts possesses only two facial expressions, "confused" and "pouty trying unsuccessfully to be alluring." Perhaps her worst moments come when she places her hand to her forehead, just as the Shaman taught her, and goes into some sort of trance in order to communicate with her animal friends. The first time she did this, I thought she had forgotten her lines and was trying very hard to remember them.
There are few special effects in this movie, and for the most part they are done fairly well, but there is one moment that deserves comment. The scene comes at the end of the picture, as Roberts fires an arrow through the windshield of an onrushing jeep, killing the driver. Even at regular viewing speed, it is clear that the windshield shatters an instant before the arrow hits it; slow the shot down and watch it in slow motion for an even bigger laugh.
This DVD presentation from Columbia TriStar looks better than I expected. The video is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. [Editor's Note: The widescreen edition Erick reviewed never made it to retail markets, with Sony opting to release a Full Frame image instead.] The picture is surprisingly sharp and clear, even in darker scenes. There is some aliasing but not much edge enhancement evident. Brightly lit scenes are sharp, with quite good color fidelity. Overall, there is some occasional softness or haze to the image, and some grain and occasional yellowing associated with the age of the print, but overall it's not a bad transfer. There is also some noticeable but not severe background artifacting and some loss of definition in fine textures, again especially in darker scenes. For example, in one interior scene we see an African gentleman sporting an Afro; based on the lack of texture definition his hair looks like it might be a solid piece of molded plastic. Overall the picture is good, but it also lacks some of the sense of depth that the best new DVD releases give.
The audio is provided in a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix. There are few directional effects through most of the movie, except for a few instances of background insect noises or animal sounds. The rear channels do get put to use for the pompous guitar/synthesizer score which sounds like a Chariots of Fire rip-off and often accompanies overly long shots of Sheena riding her zebra. The use of the surrounds does pick up a bit by the end of the movie, so that the helicopter flybys in Chapter 22 and the final battle scene in Chapter 26 show a lot more robust surround environment. The sound is weak throughout in the low end of the register, which means that sound effects such as gunshots, explosions, or elephants pushing over a tree lack the desired punch.
Extra content is almost nonexistent, and is limited to two "bonus trailers," one for Jumanji and one for Buddy, starring Rene Russo and a gorilla.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On the surface, Sheena appears to be exactly as described above: a tacky, cheesy adventure with no substance whatsoever, almost lovable for its sheer badness. On another level, however, it provides an interesting look at the racial and sexual politics of the entire "Tarzan" genre.
Like Tarzan before her, the "Sheena" comics of the 1930s-50s were not exactly paragons of racial or cultural sensitivity. Indeed, the very concept of the Sheena character, or Tarzan, for that matter, seems to be rooted in what Rudyard Kipling famously (infamously?) called "The White Man's Burden." There is an unmistakable air of racial and cultural condescension that permeates works of this kind. In these stories, our hero often fights to save the native "savages" from their own corruption, just as Sheena must do in this movie. Often they are referred to as "pygmies," thus reducing their stature (literally and figuratively) in comparison to the great white hero. The Sheena character is no different; there is an openly stated assumption that the crazy Africans need this vapid blonde girl to protect their jungle and their way of life, and are unable to do so without her help. The suggestion that peoples and ways of life that have existed for thousands of years suddenly require monosyllabic white figures as protectors should be seen as laughable, if not insulting.
The depiction of the Sheena character herself is no less disappointing. In the old comics and short stories, she was a sexy fantasy figure for young male readers, but she was also a strong, independent, resourceful character. In this version of the tale, she is completely passive, relying on those around her for direction and a course of action. There is a point in the movie where it appears that there will be a reversal of roles; Vic Casey is the slick city-boy who needs Sheena's help to survive in the wilderness. However, it doesn't last long, and soon she turns into Dale Arden in a loincloth, crying out "What should we do, Vic Casey?" This becomes the most pronounced at the very end of the movie, when Vic saves the helpless Sheena once and for all from an impending doom that she is powerless (or at least too stupid) to avoid. Also, rather than the wise jungle protector, she is portrayed as innocent and naïve to the point of stupidity. She is depicted here as an almost retarded, childlike idiot-woman, unable to grasp the simplest facts about the modernized, technologically advanced people who threaten her home. Finally, her helplessness is made complete by her ability to communicate telepathically with the animals. At first reading, this may seem like a great power for the character to have. However, it actually makes her look even weaker, for she now does not have to rely on herself at all, but is simply able to call the animal cavalry to the rescue any time she faces a sticky situation. In short, we now have an all new dimension to the weak-woman stereotype; not only is she inferior to men in her abilities, but she is forced to rely on animals to save her, thus making her inferior even to them.
The objectification of Tanya Roberts as Sheena is also much more complete here than it ever could be in her print incarnations, due to the inherent versatility of film as a medium for voyeurism. Whether intentionally or not, almost every shot is framed so that our attention is drawn away from her face and towards her other feminine assets. Several of her entrances are carefully staged so that the first thing we see is her legs and buttocks, or perhaps cleavage, with her face coming later, as an afterthought. Even in static shots, she is carefully framed and posed so that her shapely legs are the most prominent thing on the screen, drawing our attention away from anything else. Low camera angles predominate, again showing off Roberts's lovely legs or bare midriff, or perhaps getting a peek at her buttocks. Finally, there are also two bathing scenes where she appears fully nude. The first one is a shower scene under a waterfall, and the second time she bathes herself in a pond right in front of the Vic Casey character. These scenes pretend to show Sheena as the innocent child of nature, unashamed by her own nakedness and at peace with her world. In reality we recognize them for what they are—gratuitous T&A shots. (As an aside, the inclusion of these shots makes me wonder how this picture ever got a PG rating, especially way back in 1984. If nothing else, there must be some implied insult to Ms. Roberts that she could appear completely naked and be seen as so benign as to be able to escape an R rating. Of course, this was also the case with The Beastmaster back in 1982.)
As a movie, Sheena is a mess at almost every turn. It is completely worthless, and yet retains that certain appeal that only a truly awful cheesefest can provide.
On the other hand, if one looks past the completely inept writing, acting, and general moviemaking, perhaps Sheena has a purpose after all. It is far more interesting for what it unintentionally says about certain western cultural attitudes than for anything it intentionally tries to accomplish.
On a final note, there is currently in syndication a new Sheena TV series starring former Baywatch babe Gena Lee Nolin. The more things change…
Cinematic rubbish or fascinating cultural artifact? You be the judge.
We stand adjourned.
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