Another feature of...
Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension
Watching primo, Grade-A junk like Sheena can only invoke a bittersweet nostalgia amongst B-movie fans of a certain age. Ah, the ‘80s. The last decade during which goofy crap like this would consistantly be afforded theatrical runs. Back when a company like Cannon could dependably pack in moviegoers with ninja movies, break dancing films and Chuck Norris pictures. When drive-ins were dying, but not yet dead. Today, other than the occasional horror flick, cheapo exploitation fare pretty much bypasses the cinemas altogether. And we are all much the poorer for it.
Not that Sheena was an independent shoestring project churned out by the hacks at Cannon. No, it was produced by one of the major studios, in this case Columbia Pictures. Moreover, unlike Cannon’s typically thrifty and fast-paced fare, Sheena sports a ponderous running time lasting just barely under two hours (!!). Despite such quibbles, however, the film remains pure exploitation junk.
Veteran director John Guillermin helmed the project. (I’m assuming he got the Sheena assignment based on his having made a couple of Tarzan movies back in the ‘59 and ‘62.) After decades in the field, he would finally hit the big time with 1974’s The Towering Inferno, a Best Picture nominee. Really. However, Guillermin’s career peak passed quickly. Shortly after The Towering Inferno he directed the financially successful but much maligned 1976 King Kong remake. After that his resume gets spotty. 1978 saw his last decent theatrical film, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. The ‘80s proved rather less welcoming. He directed Sheena – thus earning a Razzie nomination as Worst Director – and then made the even more woeful King Kong Lives. After that came only an obscure TV movie.
Sheena was obviously intended as a showcase for actress Tanya Roberts’ prodigious talents. Which talents, both of them, had previously been displayed in 1982’s fantasy ‘classic’ The Beastmaster. Aside from her seminal topless bathing scene, The Beastmaster proved that Roberts’ lithe form was well suited to skimpy leather outfits. Roberts initially gained fame, however, as one of the replacement members of Charlie’s Angels. We’ll go a little more into her contributions here at the end of the review.
Sheena, a distaff Tarzan, first appeared in the ‘40s as a character in comic books and pulp magazines. She cemented her cultural significance with a ‘50s TV show. Played by statuesque, 6’ 1" blonde Irish McCalla, Sheena provided television-addicted baby boom boys with one of their first sex symbols. Probably the most interesting thing about this show, in light of the later adaptations, is that Sheena here remained (as far as I know) ‘merely’ a Tarzan-like figure. Both of the latter adaptations of the character, conversely, provided her with supernatural abilities. This seems like cheating to me, and smacks, to my mind, of sexism. Making a female character a bad ass by giving her superpowers, ala the recently canceled Dark Angel, is sort of muddying the waters.
After the TV show the character lay dormant and mostly forgotten for decades. Then we were treated to our subject today, followed by further pop culture repose. However, everything old eventually becomes new again. Oddly, or perhaps inevitably, both Sheena and The Beastmaster were recently parlayed into briefly extant syndicated TV series. Gena Lee Nolin starred in the former, becoming the latest voluptuous blonde to assay our Jungle Goddess. This seems appropriate, as an ex-Baywatch babe is roughly the modern equivalent of an ex-Charlie’s Angel. In this version, which lasted but a season and a half (despite Nolen’s attempts to goose ratings by appearing in Playboy and doing nude stills ‘in character’), Sheena was granted super-strength and given the Manimal-esque ability to actually transform into jungle beasts. Perhaps next time around she’ll be able to fly and command an army of monkeys who fire deathbeams out of their eyes.
SPECIAL NOTICE TO READERS AS JULY 21, 2002: Batches of props from the Gena Lee Nolin TV series are right now going cheap on EBAY!!
As I mentioned, our current subject came and went without leaving behind any progeny. (Unless you count a typically lame Marvel Comics movie adaptation miniseries.) You may have noticed, especially if you’re a visitor to this site, that there isn’t a Sheena II or Sheena Returns haunting your video shelves. Indeed, the film was a failure both financially and, even more so, critically. Aside from Guillermin’s Razzie nomination, Sheena earned numerous other nods that year. Roberts was nominated for Worst Actress; composer Richard Hartley for Worst Musical Score; David Newman, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Leslie Stevens for Worst Screenplay, and the film itself was nominated for Worst Picture.
The picture’s hard luck continued, however, and Sheena failed to take home a single award. To its detriment, it was up against John and Bo Derek’s Bolero and simply outclassed. Bolero swept every single category Sheena was in contention for. The humiliation all but destroyed Roberts’ career. Following a last major career gasp as a Bond Girl in View To A Kill, she eventually ended up in ‘erotic’ thrillers for the ubiquitous Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski.
We open on a truck driving down a pre-dawn jungle road. We
buy the fact that it’s nighttime, since we can barely see a damn thing
here. (And that’s on DVD, with a much higher resolution than VHS.) Inside
the truck is a family. An attractive 30s-ish mother is holding her sleeping
four or five-year old blonde daughter. This kid looks almost exactly like
the Young Ayla from 1986’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Which is
appropriate, since, as I noted in my review for that film, both girls are
given the exact same ‘origin’ story.
Luckily, this doesn’t prove to be the World’s Most Inhumane Speedbump. Instead, the buried fellow turns out to be the subject of the photo Mom was just looking at. Dad jumps out to look things over, spotting also a cave lying beyond the head. He then bends down to scoop up some of the dirt. He asks a native who suddenly materializes next to him – Dad seems to find this sort of thing pretty ordinary, as he doesn’t even start – if he can take a sample. However, the ground is, inevitably, "sacred." The tribesman declares that no one other than a Zambuli tribe member has ever seen this area before. Making me wonder what the deal with the road is, since none of the Zambuli own vehicles of any sort.
Another native, bearing a torch, runs around behind them and sets ablaze a large number of Ezee-Light Signal Pyres. Jungle drums begin pounding on the soundtrack, whereupon the entire tribe of spear-carrying Zambulis runs into view. They seem to appear from just off-camera, in fact, like they were standing there the whole time and waiting for a cue. Once they’ve assembled they begin to jump up and down and perform a native dance while waving their spears in the air. Well, the men shake their spears. The women shake their National Geographic-sanctioned bare breasts. While watching all this, I could but reflect on the fact that this movie was made in 1984. After that I began wondering who had taught that one native guy the Mashed Potato.
Mom and Dad watch all this with some apprehension. Their tot of a daughter, however, reacts to the commotion with a blissful sangfroid. At the conclusion of the dance, the guy-buried-to-his-neck is lifted from the earth. This feat is accomplished with bizarre ease, as if he were actually standing in a hole with a dirt-covered tarp around his neck. To Mom and Dad’s amazement, his body proves to be entirely free of blight. Dad, a doctor who apparently minored in Exposition, gasps, "It’s true! The healing earth exists!"
Later we see that the couple has erected a tent near the village. Leaving the slumbering Girl behind, they make to explore the cave that seems to be the source of the Healing Earth. A native woman promises to watch over the lass, but she slyly slips out under the canvas and follows after her parents. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad have entered the cave. They note that the interior of this can engender "weird echo effects." Still, as Dad notes, "echoes don’t kill people." As you’d expect, this remark will prove a rather obvious example of Ironic Foreshadowing.
Girl – clad, oddly enough, only in a diaper -- comes running up the hill after them. Well inside the cave, her parents are chipping away at a seemingly random rock. At the entrance Girl stops and yells "Mommy!" For seemingly little reason, Mom replies with a panicked shriek of her own. Sadly, Dad’s echo remark proves untrue. For the cavern is so unstable that the pair of screams causes a massive cave-in (!). Exit Mom and Pop, as the film charmingly assigns their daughter with responsibility for their deaths. Somewhat saddened – although not too much -- by the deadly result of her antics, Girl stumbles back outside.
There she is comforted by the tribe’s obligatory Wise Woman. She lifts the child aloft so that the sun is behind the tot’s head, resulting in a rather cliché halo effect around her blond locks. Then the Wise Woman begins the inevitable ‘this has all been ordained’ spiel. "The prophecy has come to pass," she explains. "On a day when the sacred mountain cries out, a golden god-child shall come from the depths of Gudjara. And she shall grow in wisdom and be the protector of the Zambulis and all their creatures. And she shall be called Sheena, Queen of the Jungle." The natives of her village respond happily, rushing forward, shaking their spears and shouting with great joy. By the way, did I mention that this film was made in 1984?!
We next see Young Sheena resting near a river. She’s now clad in a leather mini-skirt and her slumbering form is festooned with snakes. This is presumably to indicate her amazing connection to Nature and Its Creatures. However, it instead projects a weird, fetish shot vibe. I know she’s like five or six and all, but could somebody put a shirt on that kid? Then, just as I write that, we cut to her wading in the river and bending over to splash an elephant. As she stoops her skirt rides up and exposes rather too much of her butt. Is it just me or is this sort of bizarre? I just hope I don’t end up on some government list for having bought this movie.
Wise Woman introduces Young Sheena to such denizens of the jungle as "Shaba, the water horse." This is a hippo, of course, one that proves its mental acuity by yawning widely during his brief appearance. Then Young Sheena capers with monkeys on some kind of jungle vine playground apparatus that sort of works like a seesaw. Then Wise Woman – whose actual name, despite her prominence here, we haven’t yet been informed of -- reveals her ability to summon an elephant by holding a hand to her forehead and quivering her eyelids up and down. Young Sheena attempts to imitate her and manages to call forth an adorable baby hedgehog. Awwww!
Again establishing a pattern later followed by Clan of the Cave Bear, Young Sheena soon becomes Teen Sheena. Although she actually appears to be about ten, and so technically should be Pre-Teen Sheena. This version of Our Heroine is also provided with a costume that’s topless and sporting a too short skirt. Readers might be thinking that I’m a disgusting pervert for dwelling on this stuff, or even for noticing it. Well, I’m not the one who designed a costume for a lithe ten-year old girl that’s configured in such a way as to show off the lower curve of her bethonged buttocks. Damn, I never noticed how creepy this thing is. (Probably because I’ve never watched it on a large-screen TV before. In a theater it must have been even worse.)
Anyway, Pre-Teen Sheena is progressing in her training. This is established when she is seen summoning a zebra instead of baby hedgehogs. To a swell of manqué John Williams music, she climbs aboard for a ride...
Oh, a side note. The element most insistently derided by the film’s critics was the fact that the ‘zebras’ Sheena rides throughout the film are, in fact, horses painted white with black stripes.
So Pre-Teen Sheena climbs on her hebra (zorse?) and rides a short distance. She soon tumbles to ground, however, in a scene that reinforces my recent complaints about her attire. Still, her equestrian skills increase quickly, allowing for more lush music and further time wasting, albeit pretty, wildlife footage. And at least much of this film appears to have been actually filmed in Africa.
Sheena also proves to have mastered the bow, as she fires an arrow dead center into a target whilst riding her hebra. Later she addresses the Wise Woman as "Shaman." Is that her name? Because I don’t think that term originated on the savannahs of Africa. Why not call her Sensei while you’re at it?
Cut to another day. Astride her hebra mount, Sheena rides towards us from afar. She goes from a small figure to a close-up shot revealing that she’s now fully blossomed into Tanya Roberts-Sheena. While Pre-Teen Sheena was accompanied by manqué John Williams music, Adult Sheena is introduced with manqué Vangelis music. (Chariots of Fire had come out a couple of years before this.)
This belatedly kicks off the opening credits, over fourteen minutes (!) into the film. And while Sheena’s now-adult bosom is finally covered with the obligatory Raquel Welch cleavage-baring leather corset, the tracking shot does allow the audience to watch her chestal units bounce up and down in slo-mo for a couple of minutes.
We cut to modern urban African city of Azan, capital of the Kingdom of Tigora. A black fellow drives up to the offices of the Ministry of Resources. He’s driving a flashy red Mercedes convertible and wears American-style jeans and a shiny baseball jacket with "Cougars" written in script across the back. Needless to say, we’re thus instantly suspicious of him. Then he calls a secretary "baby," so there’s another point against him. The man proves to be Tigora’s prince, the younger brother of its king, although they don’t yet bother assigning him an actual name.
Upstairs he meets with Mr. Grizzard, a white American who looks like the winner of the Young David Warner Look-Alike Contest. Grizzard reveals confirmation of a newly discovered source of titanium in the land. The two are all sly and secretive about this, so apparently this is a big plot point. Especially since the site of this mother lode is Gudjara mountain, right where *gasp* the Zambulis live. This deposit is, we’re informed, worth "billions." We next learn that the Unnamed Westernized Prince plans to murder his brother that evening and make himself king. The exposition that imparts all this, by the way, is clunky in the extreme. The King must die because he protects the Zambulis and wouldn’t allow Gudjara to be mined.
As part of the scheme, Unnamed Prince has invited his old friend Vic Casey, a TV journalist for ‘Sports World’, to attend the dinner where the assassination will take place. Casey is doing a story on Unnamed Prince. So I guess he’s a player for the Cougars, as indicated by his jacket. Although the Cougars proves to be a football team, since Unnamed Prince identifies himself as the man who "kicked a 68-yard field goal against the Denvers!" Casey’s role will be to record the Unnamed Prince’s bogus grief for all the world to see. By the way, why do these stupid scripts keep waiting so long to name their characters?! Unnamed Prince has just engaged in a five-minute conversation. Couldn’t Grizzard have called him by name just once?
By the way, Grizzard takes pains to reminds Unnamed Prince that he’s due for a cut of the illicit monies. Oh, and then the Unnamed Prince gives Grizzard some pills (??) for his cough. Three guesses where this is going. The only thing lacking is Grizzard saying, "Remember, if I don’t get my cut I’ll spill the whole story to the authorities," followed by the Unnamed Prince replying in a sinister voice, "Oh, don't worry, my friend. I'll see that you get everything that's coming to you." I guess he could follow saying that with a villainous "BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!" sort of laugh, but that might be overkill.
Twenty minutes into the film and we cut to a scenic waterfall for the scene everyone’s been waiting for: The recreation of Roberts’ nude bathing sequence from The Beastmaster. First we get a full body shot from behind, showcasing our star’s glistening buttocks. Then she turns, allowing us to her breasts. Of course, she stays in profile, because full frontal would not do. In fact, we don’t get a close-up, or even a medium shot. (Thus I imagine the ‘full frame’ version on the film probably gets more play on this disc than the widescreen version I’m watching, since that would increase the image size of all this a bit more.)
With the elliptical ten seconds that caused the film to be made behind us – a scene that merits its own chapter stop on the DVD, big surprise -- most viewers can safely skip the hour and thirty-six minutes of running time still remaining. Unfortunately, that isn’t an option for this correspondent.
Nearby is Shaman. Through the magic of gray makeup in her hair, she now looks ‘older.’ Sheena swings over, that’s right, on a vine. Her hebra, meanwhile, is munching some grass nearby. Apparently Shaman has had a vision about the danger the King’s in. So she’s preparing to set off for the "place of evil," i.e., a city, where he lives. This is a good first scene for Roberts, or rather for those viewers hoping to have a laugh or two at her expense. She gamely, if with gross thespic inadequacy, spits out the lame dialog the script saddles her with. She’s told that an enemy is one "who takes without asking." This line will undoubtedly pop back up later in the picture, to supposed clever effect. In any case, after a purportedly heartbreaking parting, Shaman takes her leave.
Cut to a plane flying over the jungle. We’re shown a box in the cargo hold with a big "Sports World" sign on it, so that we ‘get’ who we’re meeting here. The aforementioned Vic Casey is the film’s obvious Hunky Lead. He’s played by Ted Wass. Wass will always be remembered by a select few for his doleful attempt at taking over for the late Peter Sellers in Blake Edward’s Pink Panther film series. As if that weren’t bad enough, he’s been given an obvious Odious Comic Sidekick by the name of Fletch. Fletch’s apparent ‘humorous’ trait here is that he’s trying to diet. The most notable thing we learn during this scene is that the King’s murderous brother is named Otwani.
Per tradition with the White Goddess Jungle movies – which remained a popular little genre for many decades – Fletch spots the swinging Sheena out his window. Of course Vic doesn’t see her and accuses his sidekick of hallucinating. This leads to further…well, you can’t call it comedy, because it ain’t funny. ‘Intent to Commit Comedy’ would be closer to the mark, I guess.
Oh, and Grizzard, the guy who was conspiring with the Unnamed Prince? We see him in a café, taking one of the pills the prince gave him. To my manifest lack of surprise, these have been poisoned and Grizzard quickly keels over dead. In fact, I’m writing this before he even takes the pill…yep, there it goes…and there goes Grizzard. Not before he has a flashback to Unnamed Prince giving him said capsules, though. This in case we in the audience can’t remember what occurred in the film all of five whole minutes ago. Look, I’m sitting here watching Sheena, a film I bought on DVD. So I can’t really argue that I’m not an idiot. Still, they don’t have to rub my face in it.
Vic’s plane lands and he and Fletch are met by a royal procession of vehicles. Jumping out to meet them is Otwani. "My buddy!" Vic yells to him. "Bad man of the Cougars!" First, has anyone in the history of the human race ever greeted a friend by calling out ‘My buddy!’? Second, this again appears to be insurance in case we don’t remember Otwani having described Vic as his "old pal." If you’re going to assume we can’t remember anything that’s happened up to now, why not just repeat the entire damn movie. Also, "Bad man of the Cougars"? This again is a sentence I can’t see anyone uttering in real life.
Even the King of Tigora realizes this. "Astonishing," he declares. "Is this the normal greeting in your country?" As a representative of the United States, Your Majesty, let me answer you. No. No, it’s not. In fact, it’s not a normal greeting in any country that now or ever has existed. Oh, wait, he wasn’t referring to the dialog, he meant the ‘high five’ the two shared. Well, OK. That was a normal greeting in my country. Admittedly, it was normal about ten years before this picture was made, but still…
Vic doesn’t ‘get’ who this guy is, and demonstrates a high five on him. "I’m King Jabalani," the fellow explains. Vic, realizing his faux pas, reacts with an embarrassed, "Oh, Jesus!" So…Casey is a professional journalist. Yet he can’t figure out that a well-dressed man in a royal procession, arriving with the King’s brother, might in fact be the King. Furthermore, he decides to respond to this revelation with a bit of blasphemy. You’re one smooooth customer, Vic. This is followed, furthermore, with a bit where Zanda, the King’s intended, steps forward and demands her own high five. This, one suspects, is meant to be somehow funny, although the evidence for this is largely theoretical.
Meanwhile, Shaman comes strolling into town, exhausted from her long journey. She sits at a curb to rest for a second and is immediately hassled by a cop. See, this shows how much more enlightened life in a primitive village is than in a big city. Why, the Zambuli wouldn’t bother you for sitting on their curb. If they had one, that is. Still, you see what I’m getting at. Anyway, Shaman gets arrested, for something. I found this a bit odd. Apparently it’s well known that the Zambuli and their lands are under the protection of the King. So you think they’d treat her with a little more respect. Pissing off your King seems like a bad idea, you’d think.
Anyhoo, we then learn that the King is suspicious of his brother. And that Zanda – who’s given a quasi-ass shot to compensate for Roberts’ demure attitude – is secretly Otwani’s lover. (Hilariously, Otwani decides to visit her while she’s getting a nude massage in the palace. Yes, that won’t draw anyone’s attention.) Oh, and it was Zanda who had Shaman arrested. Apparently she and Otwani immediately were informed that she had hit town, but the King wasn’t. Man, this guy deserves to get overthrown. Also, I’m not quite sure why the King’s prospective wife would be able to boss around the police department behind her fiancée’s back, but there you go.
Zanda has a plan to blame the King’s assassination on Shaman (!!), by planting a Zambuli longbow on the scene. Hilariously, she picks up the bow and quite casually pulls back on it. Do you know how many pounds of pressure are required to draw back on a long bow? Throughout the scene we get much further evidence as to how loosely strung this instrument is. Frankly, this thing wouldn’t fire an arrow through a cereal box.
Actually, now that I think about it, Zanda’s proving to be a villain is obvious. As a heroine, Sheena will require another woman to grapple with during the movie’s climatic Battle to the Death. I think we can safely assume that Zanda will be filling this part. Furthermore, I predict she will ‘accidentally’ be killed when Sheena inadvertently flips her onto a decorative spear, or something along those lines. You know what I mean, the villain will die to satisfy audience expectations, but in such a way so that Sheena isn’t really ‘guilty’ of the act.
Meanwhile, Shaman decides its time to bring Sheena into the movie more proactively, and so using her clutching - her - forehead powers to summon her protégé. Sensing her mentor’s distress, Sheena calls for her hebra and hops aboard. She manages to do this without quite braining herself on a low hanging tree branch.
Next we cut to Vic and Fletch preparing to leave their hotel. Earlier exposition informed the audience that a Col. Jorgenson and his men, who are to provide military muscle when Otwani seizes the crown, were hiding in the hotel’s basement. (Would this really be the best place to hide a covert paramilitary squad?) Of course, Our Hero and his Comic Sidekick somehow end up mistakenly taking the elevator to the basement, where these obvious mercenaries are conveniently arraigned for them to ‘accidentally’ be seen. This, by the way, follows an earlier scene where Fletch ‘accidentally’ saw a helicopter gunship stowed in a hanger.
This all annoyed me for several reasons. First, that our heroes are allowed to keep ‘stumbling’ over such obvious clues to the upcoming revolution. That’s just massively lazy screenwriting. Moreover, why are Jorgenson and his mercenaries such morons? Why does Jorgenson let Vic and Fletch leave after they’ve seen them? How is it the whole scheme is handled so sloppily, yet the King doesn’t know what’s going on? Doesn’t he have any sort of Intelligence or internal security apparatus? Lastly, why exactly would the sight of a helicopter gunship arouse suspicion? Is Jabalani the sort of moronic Hollywood ‘good’ King who doesn’t hold with having mean things like a military? I mean, this is Africa, for Pete’s sake. Governments get overthrown there by the hour, except for the most ironfisted dictatorships. A ruler who lacked armed forces to command would last about ten minutes.
Cut to the big palace dinner that night. We’re shown a crossbow strapped to a tree branch about fifty yards from the dining balcony. This is presumably aimed at the King’s position at the head of table. Again, this is problematic for a number of reasons. First, if the King’s personal security guys are so inept that they fail to spot this big honking crossbow strapped to a tree branch, then again, the King would have died long ago. Second, I suspect that this set-up represents a less than fool prove system for delivering a fatal shaft to the King’s chest. Finally, I’m pretty sure that a crossbow wouldn’t fire the sort of missile that a long bow would – crossbows, to make an obvious point, fire bolts rather than arrows -- so the whole ‘framing Shaman’ thing kind of falls apart. Not that it was a well-crafted ploy to begin with.
Fletch is filming the dinner as part of Vic’s report on the Prince Who Plays Football. Charmingly, Vic directs Fletch to showcase Zanda’s "boobs." (He then employs the ‘t’ word, in case we hadn’t yet decided he was a total ass.) This ploy cleverly allows for a POV shot that zooms to a tight close-up on her bountiful cleavage, so that we ‘get’ what they’re filming. Again, this is the fiancée of the King. By now I couldn’t decide whether Vic is more of an idiot or a sleazebag. I also couldn’t decide whether he’s less credible as a professional journalist or as the ‘hero’ for our film.
The King rises to deliver a toast, whereupon he’s hit square in the chest with the wooden arrow the crossbow somehow manages to fire. (Of course, he immediately dies from this, despite the fact that taking an arrow would hardly ensure a fatality, much less an instant one.) In another really awkwardly choreographed bit, Fletch manages to accidentally film the crossbow firing. So when he and Vic later review the footage…well, you get the idea.
Just to recap: First, Fletch accidentally saw Sheena from the plane. Then he accidentally saw the mercenaries’ helicopter at the airport. Then he and Vic accidentally rode the hotel elevator to the basement, where they accidentally saw the mercenaries. And now, lastly, Fletch accidentally films the instrument of King Jabalani’s demise, which in turn threatens Otwani’s entire Evil Scheme.
How’s that for a tight script, boys and girls?
Oh, and remember how I was remonstrating Vic for being a creep? (Yes, that was three paragraphs ago. But hey, if the film can worry about stuff like this, so can I.) Well, as he watches his close, personal friend run to the side of his fatally wounded brother, Vic rushes to hold aloft a spotlight so that Fletch – who climbs atop a chair to procure a better angle -- can film everything. You know, if the film were clever enough to explicitly have Otwani depending on the fact that his ‘buddy’ is a total prick, this would actually be sort of clever. Again, though, Vic is the picture’s hero.
Per their scheme, Zanda holds up the broken shaft, declaring it "a Zambuli arrow!" Then right on cue, Shaman is marched up onto the balcony by Zanda’s flunky cops, who also have the longbow in hand. "It’s a Zambuli woman," one Corrupt Copper declares. "We caught her with a bow." I love it when a plan comes together.
Meanwhile, the guys are developing the film. Vic continues acting like an ass, so maybe it’s on purpose. You know, so he can ‘change’ after meeting the Wonderfulness that is Sheena. An easy way to tell will be if he suddenly gives up chain smoking at that juncture. (My prediction: Yes, he will.) Oh, by the way, Vic and Fletch have a black assistant. Hmm, I’ve having a vision of things to come… Anyway, they see the crossbow firing the arrow and come to the obvious conclusion.
Fletch, wisely, wants to get out of Dodge while the getting’s good. Vic, of course, is obsessed with their story. He insists they go to the prison settlement where Shaman is being held so that he can interview her. (I like to be fair, so I’ll report a bit I actually liked. Fletch asks how Vic intends to get in to see her. "I’ve got a pass," Vic replies. Fletch, incredulous, demands to see it. Whereupon Vic holds up a wad of bills. OK, it’s not Moliere, but it’s the movie’s best moment so far.)
And so, as it happens, the boys are quite by accident on hand just as the hebra-riding Sheena arrives with an elephant to break Shaman out of stir. To the strains – and I mean that literally – of Sheena’s Vangelis-esque theme music, the elephant butts in the prison’s electric fence. The grand total of three (!!) guards are defeated by the elephant and two chimps before they can bring their guns to bear, which looks fully as ridiculous as it probably sounds. Actually, one of them is dispatched with a left cross from Vic, which seems like pretty damn odd behavior for a reporter. Following this he and Sheena exchange some rather exaggerated Significant Looks. Hey, wait…could it be they’ll end up falling in love?! How inspired.
Oops, my mistake. The prison actually sports five guards. Two of them were sleeping, and when they rush outside they are tripped with a stick held at ankle-height by the chimps. Luckily, they manage to drop the keys to Shaman’s cell as they flee, so that a chimp can grab these as well. Not exactly helping this moronic ‘comic action’ sequence is the overlay of Sheena’s rather mellow theme music, which sounds oddly like a slowed down version of the title track from Chariots of Fire. Shaman rises from her cell with a blotch of red make-up globbed onto her forehead, apparently meant to suggest the rough treatment she’s received from her captors. I can’t really explain how bad the acting is as the two women gaze happily at one another. Let’s just say that even for Tanya Roberts this is an embarrassing thespic moment.
With the ‘injured’ Shaman slung across Sheena’s hebra – why am I always writing sentences like that? – the elephant pauses to tip over a handy water tower. This crashes into the prison building, which, constructed as it is of flimsy sheets of unreinforced plaster, readily collapses. This is reminiscent of the scene in Orca when the titular hero knocks over a house conveniently hanging out over the water. By which I mean it’s both stupid and boring in a direct inverse ratio to how ‘cool’ the filmmakers thought it would look.
Sheena and her compatriots take off, with Vic and Fletch following behind in their RANGE ROVER. (There. I’m sure that bit of product placement will do the company as much good as their placement in Sheena did.) The elephant happens to run past a hanger continuing another helicopter gunship. I mean, it couldn’t be the same one we saw before, right? The men stationed their run away, apparently because elephants are known to be immune to gunfire. This allows the elephant to stop and bend the helicopter’s main rotor blade with his trunk. Why? Um, because it’s there, I guess. I mean... elephant… helicopter… C’mon, it was bound to happen.
Now that Otwani’s King, Jorgenson and his men have come out into the open. (Their total strength apparently consists of about twenty men, a jeep, an APC and three troop trucks. This looks like a job for MegaForce!) Otwani orders them to find and kill Shaman and Casey and whoever. Not Sheena, though. "She sounds interesting," Otwani opines. Zanda bristles it and tries to countermand his order. "Cool it!" Otwani replies. "No ‘woman’s lib’ stuff around here. I give the orders." Apparently killing both his king and his brother wasn’t considered dastardly enough; he’s got to be a sexist bore as well.
Oh, and if you guessed that Jorgenson is a sinister Germanic type with white-blond hair and a heavy accent, give yourself a cookie.
Vic and Fletch are driving blindly around the jungle, hoping to find where Sheena’s gone. Vic somehow spots from tracks – which look like they’ve been stenciled onto the ground – and jumps out of their RANGE ROVER for a look. I know Vic’s a city boy, but even I know that "hoof prints" don’t sport toes. Vic follows the tracks, which soon radically change in appearance, and inevitably ends up bumping into a lioness. This precipitants a comic scramble back to his RANGE ROVER. However, a male lion appears and sticks his head inside the vehicle, which is possible because Fletch hasn’t bothered to roll up the window.
Soon the RANGE ROVER is covered with lions. This, naturally, sets up the entrance of Our Heroine, who inevitably comes into view by swinging in on a vine. Mild amusement can be gleaned by the editing here. This allows her to end up on the car’s hood, despite the fact that her previously established arc would have obviously landed her well short of the vehicle. Between Shot Teleportation, we could call it.
Sheena bends over onto her hands and knees so that she can peer through the windshield. This JUST HAPPENS to mean that we get a really good shot of her cleavage at the same time. She orders Vic to return to "your evil, killing tribe," by which she means the Outside World, and warn off her pursuers. Fletch, meanwhile, will be kept hostage to ensure Vic’s compliance. Now, I can buy Sheena not understanding that the men hunting her might also wish to kill Vic. What I had trouble with was her ability to speak flawless English, despite being raised by an isolated African jungle tribe for the last twenty years or so.
Also, do you get the irony here? That the ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ Zambulis live a life of perfect contentment, free of the taints of want and greed and violence, while the so-called ‘civilized’ world is a great big Den of Iniquity? Did ya? Because I wouldn’t want ya to miss it.
So Fletch reluctantly gets out of the RANGE ROVER and – are you holding your sides in anticipation? – gets his jacket stuck in the door when he closes it. Then, when he gets it loose, he trips and falls to the ground. And he lands right near the mouth of a big lion. Whereupon he turns, sees the lion, and faints.
Following this comedic tour de force, we have a bit where Vic and Sheena talk to each other. The air’s supposed to be filled with sexual tension here, but in reality it’s about as steamy as Fletch’s jacket-catching antics were funny. By which I mean, not much. Vic identities himself as the one who punched the guard who was preparing to shoot her. "Remember?" he asks. Sheena just stares at him with her trademark blank expression. I mean, this all supposedly happened like four or five hours ago, so Sheena’s inability to place him is a tad unsettling. In fact, Roberts’ face remains so empty of, well, anything here that it became creepy. It was like watching a scene where a man starts chatting up a woman at a bar, only to discover after some minutes that she’s afflicted with severe brain damage.
Vic and Sheena’s tête-à-tête is (thankfully) interrupted by a screeching monkey. My first thought was, "Wow, what an intelligent monkey! I’m with you, pal!" However, he wasn’t commenting on the film, he was alerting Sheena to something in the distance. Sheena reacts by grabbing a rather convenient stick and digging a circular ditch around the RANGE ROVER, her, Vic and Fletch. Laughably, they aren’t very successful at disguising the fact that said ditch was pre-dug and haphazardly camouflaged with some moss. This allows Roberts to ‘dig’ it out (comparatively) quickly and without undue strain. As I watched the circle develop, I began wondering if she was planning to conjure up a demon. A demon aside from Jabootu, I mean. After all, he’s been hanging around for a while already.
When she eventually finishes – watching someone etch a large circle in the ground isn’t the most dynamic cinematic concept in the world – she does the forehead-grabbing thing. Apparently she’s created the circle as a safe zone. If Vic and Fletch stay inside it, the lions won’t molest them. If they leave… Sheena runs off to investigate the Monkey Alert. Vic steps out of the circle to follow her, whereupon a rhino roars out of the surrounding bush. Vic jumps back inside, sadly, before he could entertain us (and, no doubt, the rhino) by being trampled to death.
The Monkey Alert was about Shaman, who isn’t doing to well. In fact, when we cut to Sheena ministering to her under a tree, her elephant’s in the background digging out a grave with its trunk. (!!) Anyhoo, this is the Big Pathos Moment, when Sheena has one last tearful conversation the woman who’s been like a mother to her yada yada. In fact, the scene is comically akin to the bit in Tarzan the Ape Man where a weeping Bo Derek bends down over her dying, prostrate father. Except that Roberts isn’t nude and whitewashed with her nipples painted green, worse the luck.
Another similarity is that neither Derek nor Roberts prove anywhere near up to the challenge of such a big acting moment. Both thus inspire considerably more audience mirth than sympathy. Nor is either helped by the moronic ‘meaningful’ dialog provided to their respective perishing parents. "How soft, my daughter" Shaman sighs, ‘how pleasing to me. Your tears upon me, to extinguish the last embers." If she means the last embers of the viewer’s rapidly fading patience, she’s spot on.
The cherry on the sundae is when Shaman passes away and we cut to a series of ‘dramatic’ close-ups of Sheena’s various animal companions. (!!) Instead of making us reflect on the sadness of Shaman’s death, however, it instead provides an opportunity to ruminate on the obvious horsiness of Sheena’s ‘zebra.’ Meanwhile, the elephant trumpets a graveside salute, seeing as how they’re short of twenty-one guns at the moment.
The noise, however, serves to draw the interest of the nearby Otwani, Zanda and the mercenaries. I wasn’t sure why hearing an elephant in the jungle would prove so attention getting, but there you go. Then we cut back to Vic and Fletch, still inside their protective circle. "This is amazing," Fletch notes. "It even keeps the mosquitoes out." Apparently Shaman didn’t just teach Our Heroine animal telepathy, but also how to secrete oddly specific pheromones. Frankly, I find the idea that Sheena can command insect life more potentially disturbing her mastery of large beasts. Go ahead and have a rhino trample me, if you must. However, I’m not messing with anyone who can set a colony of army ants on me.
Here we get one of those obligatory Jungle Movie moments. Vic, not knowing that Shaman is dead, asks to see her. He’ll "carry her own words home with me and I can prove it to the world." Of course, there’s no reason to believe that he means that statement literally. He could, for instance, just mean he’ll write down what Shaman says. However, Sheena needs take him at face value, because this is the scene where he amazes her with the White Man’s Magic.
"You must think I’m a fool," she sneers. "Words are like the wind! They cannot be carried home!" Vic, however, has recorded her with a pocket tape recorder. Per tradition, Sheena is perplexed to hear her own voice replayed to her.
The problem I have with this is that Sheena’s at this point already left the jungle, even if only briefly. She’s seen electric lights, firearms, electrified fences, cars and trucks and other ‘inexplicable’ things. Therefore this scene would have worked better had it occurred before her brushes with modern technology. Only a little though, as material like this was corny back in the ‘40s. I actually was wondering if she’d react to Vic taking her picture by fearing he’d just stolen her soul.
As if this weren’t all cliché enough, Fletch has trouble starting up the RANGE ROVER – there’s some good product placement: Range Rover, the Vehicle That Stalls At Moments of Danger! – just as the mercenaries are approaching through the brush. Hilariously, Jorgenson stops the others to draw their attention to the sound of the grinding engine. This after all of them had raised their brows upon hearing a roaring elephant.
Anyway, one mercenary gets jumped by a lion, to about zero reaction from his teammates. Then Jorgenson sees Our Heroes and opens fire – while his numerous armed men just stand there. Despite the close range, and the fact that he squirts seemingly hundreds of bullets from his gun’s twenty round clip, he manages to hit absolutely no one. Sheena and Vic runs off and, the need for the car to stall being over, the RANGE ROVER instantly jumps to live and drives off. However, in a very clumsy piece of business, the door of the RANGE ROVER inexplicably pops open and the film proving the whole assassination thing falls out onto the ground.
Of course, it’s too dangerous for Fletch to stop to get it, so he drives on. Drives on, that is, directly at the guys now firing all their guns at him and tossing grenades in his direction. Personally, I’d have driven away from them, but what do I know? Luckily, the point-blank spraying of hundreds of bullets at his vehicle, not to mention a dead-on grenade explosion, serves merely to break a hole in his windshield as he makes his escape. However, Otwani finds the camera and its film and has it destroyed.
We get a moment meant to spotlight Sheena’s awesome jungle skills. This involves her ability to climb a tree. Admittedly, this isn’t all that impressive, so they have Vic display a Jerry Lewis-esque physical incompetence at the same act. Oh, plus he rips a seam in his sports jacket. Because it’s ‘funny.’ Actually, my theory is that Vic was having difficulties performing this task because he was busy staring up at Sheena’s long legs and thong-bedecked butt cheeks. In fact, my suspicion is that the real reason for this particularly pointless bit of business was to provide the camera an opportunity to do that very same thing.
Finally, Sheena clings to the side of the tree and pulls Vic up after he grabs her dangling foot. (!!) If you think about it, that’s just about impossible unless she’s supposed to have super-strength. Nothing else in the film suggests this, though. And so they manage to hide just at the very moment the mercenaries come into view. (Their inability to spot the two up in this not terribly leafy tree provides another risible moment.) Then the group’s tracker points to a nearby spot, noting that somebody slipped and fell there. "Did they go on?" he’s asked. "I’m not sure," he responds. Not sure? If they hadn’t, wouldn’t they still be standing in the exact same spot?!
There’s more such stuff here, but my brain hurts too much to catalog it all. Well, OK, so Vic loudly sneezes from his position, which is perhaps twenty feet from the assembled killers. However, they escape detection when a monkey in a whole other tree entirely pretends to sneeze too. In other words, even after having their attention drawn up to treetop level, they fail to note the guy in the blue suit and red tie hunkered up a tree fifteen feet away from them.
The end result of all this, unsurprisingly, is that mercenaries end up looking completely and utterly incompetent. It’s odd that filmmakers so often fail to realize that it’s difficult to foster suspense when your villains are made to look wholly ineffectual. Let’s sum up here: Sheena’s amazing and literally mystical jungle skills, honed over a lifetime spent in the wilds of Africa, allow her to escape from a party of professional mercenaries when she brilliantly decides to hide up in a tree. Hell, Rambo would have jumped out of a shallow mud puddle and slaughtered this entire bunch of losers by now.
Also, why doesn’t she just call up all the dangerous animals around here and have them attack the villains? (I mean, aside from the fact that there’s over an hour [!] of movie left.) They’ve already shown that, at a minimum, there’s a leopard, a half dozen lions, a rhino, an elephant and a mess of chimps in the immediate vicinity.
You could argue it’s because a lot of the animals would die in the process of killing her foes, and she wouldn’t allow that. (Although that notion will become harder to sustain following events later in the movie.) Yes, but they’ve established, even if it was meant to be a throwaway comic line, that she can also command insects and – presumably –arachnids. Imagine if she set all the mosquitoes and gnats in the surrounding area, not to mention wasps and ants and whatever, on her targets first. After about a minute of being assaulted by millions of bugs, they’d be in little shape to fire upon the wave of larger animals she could call in. They’d be cut down like wheat.
Fletch goes back to Azan, only to see cops swarming their studios. He hightails it over to Juka’s place. Conveniently, Juka has a copy of the incriminating tape – to be fair, this might have been set up, but I’m not interested enough to go back and check – and he and Fletch leave to go to Juka’s home village. "We’ll be safe there," Juka explains. Why? I don’t know. They know Juka was working for Vic, so when they find him gone from his house you’d think that’d be the first place they’d check. Anyway.
Then it’s back to Sheena and Vic. First we get a short bit where he strokes her hair while she’s sleeping, which I found a tad creepy. Next we get the scene that presumably got the film made. By which I mean an extended nude scene featuring Roberts, that’s right, bathing in a river. Annoyingly, it’s played for comedy. Which is annoying largely mostly because the film’s attempts at comedy are so wearisome.
Anyway, Vic is sitting by the riverbank, brushing his teeth with a thistle. Sheena walks by, naked as the day she was born (except for a flesh-colored crotch patch) and steps into the water. The ‘humor’ supposedly emanates from her unconscious nonchalance about her nudity and his ‘comical’ amazed gawking at the sight. Meanwhile, she, not ‘getting’ the reasons for his gaping bewilderment, exhorts him to bathe also. "You’re as dirty as a warthog," she announces. This statement is somewhat undercut by the subsequent reaction shot of Vic, face innocent of grime, his ‘80s mullet clean and unmussed, clad in a spotless white dress shirt and still wearing his tie. (!!) In fact, despite his travails in the jungles of Africa, we’ve yet to see him evince a perspiration stain or a sweaty forehead.
Still, the underlining reason the joke, such as it is, doesn’t work in that it’s built around Sheena’s supposed sexual innocence. (That and the fact that it’s such a patently cheap rationale to ‘justify’ the nude scene. Especially egregious is her wading in and beginning to wash while only knee-deep in the water, thus allowing all her goodies to remain available for viewing.) See, Sheena is one of nature’s innocents, not understanding the reactions Vic is having to her unclad form, yada yada. Now, I’m willing to believe that nudity is a casual thing among the Zambulis, and that Sheena is thus unacquainted with strictures against bathing naked in front of others. (Even so, unsurprisingly, the film is too chicken to show her bathing with members of her tribe. Wouldn't want any potential ticket-buyers to become angry at her appearing nude in front of a bunch of black guys.)
So, OK, her nonchalant attitude towards nudity is plausible. What I don’t buy is her ignorance of sexual matters. Let’s put aside the likelihood of the Zambulis being as matter of fact about reproductive matters as they apparently are about nudity. Even so, no one could have the sort of connection with nature that Sheena has without picking up on the facts of life. Kids raised on farms generally become cognizant of this stuff at an early age, much less a woman with telepathic links to the beasts of the jungle. Again, too, one suspects that her ingenuousness is meant to reassure the audience that Sheena has remained, uh, uninvolved with any of the Zambulis. Don’t want our White Jungle Goddesses messing around with the locals, if you know what I mean.
Mostly, though, this returns us to my main problem with Sheena as she’s portrayed in this film. Which is that she’s not in any meaningful way come into her own. When they called Tarzan the Lord of the Jungle, they meant it. Tarzan kicked ass and took names. His mastery of the bush and its inhabitants, both man and beast, was significantly derived from the fact that you challenged him at your own mortal peril. Sheena should have an equivalent mojo. Here, though, she’s laughably unworthy of her repeatedly uttered title of Queen of the Jungle. Princess of the Bathing Pond is closer to the mark.
Admittedly, this is her origin tale. By film’s end we will see her come into her own, to the extent that she does. Still, Sheena is already patently an adult; Roberts was a toothsome 28 (!) when the film was made. This is a character that should have been engaging in life and death struggles since her early teens. Here she doesn’t even carry a knife. In any sane portrayal of the character, there should come a point where Vic makes an unwitting misstep and nearly dies at the hands of a suddenly enraged Sheena. Whereupon he’d belatedly recognize her to be as potentially feral an animal as any lioness. This is why all this ‘Sheena as wide-eyed naïf’ stuff sticks in my craw so much.
Further painful farce ensues. Moving closer, Sheena instructs him to remove his "strange skins" and join her. "What animal are they from?" she inquires. Given that the Zambulis wear woven attire, this ‘misunderstanding’ makes even less sense than usual. Vic finally overcomes his astonishment at the situation and hurriedly seeks to shed his clothes.
His chest hair gives her pause, though. "Zambuli men do not have fur on their bodies!" she exclaims. "This cannot be!" Here, and I swear this is what happens, he starts pointing his thistle at her crotch, presumably to bring up the matter of her own ‘fur.’ Then, har har, he thinks better of it and brings his glance back up. "Would you get back in the water, please," he stammers. Hey, how about we finish this scene altogether and get on with the damn movie. That way it might be over some day. I mean, gad, we’re just now approaching the halfway mark.
My wish is granted – the one about the scene ending, not the movie being over – and Our Heroes press forward. Despite the fact that the killers are gaining ground on them, though, Sheena and Vic stop for *groan* another Meaningful Dialog scene. This one uses a herd of elephants as a scenic background, as if realizing that we’re desperate for something to distract us from the tiresome interaction of our leads. By the way, where are the animal rights people when such actually cruel misuse of animals is going on?
Vic finally gets around to trying to express his growing feelings for her. When he has trouble verbalizing them, he just leans forward to kiss her. However, she doesn’t ‘get’ the kiss (although she certainly performs her end of it in a weirdly non-awkward fashion.) "Mouths are for eating," she opines. "Why do you touch yours to mine?" Actually, here they had a chance for some actually funny comedy, by having Sheena display horrified disgust at Vic pressing his eat-hole on hers. Instead, and this is a curse of films with too much running time for their own good, the situation remains unresolved so that we can come back to it later.
So we cut to Fletch hanging out in Juka’s village. He’s playing poker and gets hosed by the tribe’s ‘special’ rules. I think it’s supposed to be funny because the sophisticated big city guy is being taken by some yokels. Juka appears and expositories that Otwani’s had all the phone lines leading out of Tigora cut. Plus the airports have been closed. (Interesting that he’s been able to do all this while snipe-hunting in the bush with Jorgenson and his crew.) And, he reports, they’re working at repairing the "gun-chopper," the one the elephant bent the rotor of. Wow, Juka, is there anything you don’t know? Like what African despot maintains iron control over his country with twenty mercs and a single helicopter gunship?
Vic and Sheena, meanwhile, are approaching the Zambuli village. He asks if the villagers possess firearms. "Never!" Sheena replies. "Guns are bad." Instead, they have bows and arrows. I’m not sure why guns are intrinsically more evil than bows, but there you are. In fact, the baldly stated proposition that guns are 'bad' seems a tad simplistic, although it remains a standard piece of Hollywood orthodoxy. Besides, the point about guns isn’t so much whether they’re good or bad, it’s whether they’re effective. And history tends to side with the guys with the guns as opposed to those lacking them.
We are further fed some extremely dubious malarkey regarding the history of the Zambulis. Apparently they were, in the distant past, "the greatest of all warriors." Until they spontaneously became pacifists under the guidance of, are you ready?, "She-Who-Is-Unknown." This is presumably meant to explain why, under Sheena’s eventually exhortations, the peaceful, sedate Zambulis will reclaim their warrior spirit during the film’s climax and help defeat Otwani’s forces. Fortunately, they will doubtless be aided in this effort by their moral superiority, since they will be pure in spirit and lack the unclean guns that taint their foes.
"Tiki" the monkey (oh, brother!) alerts Sheena to something in the distance. She goes for a looks, and Vic passes her some pocket field glasses that he’s suddenly equipped with. "Try them," he replies to her searching look. "They’re magic." Cripes, just because somebody lives in a jungle doesn’t mean that they’ll think anything technological is ‘magic,’ you patronizing moron. So she looks through them. "Bad magic!" she cries. "They’ve made you into a pygmy!" Of course, she’s looking through the wrong end. "You are a giant!" she exclaims after flipping them around. (When you look at something four feet a way through binoculars, does it really look ‘giant,’ or does it just look like an unfocused blob?) "Occasionally," he smirks, tossing out another of the film’s weirdly crass bon mots.
Sheena climbs a hill overlooking a narrow pass. On the road beneath she spies the bad guys’ convoy. She uses the magic spectacles for this, which is funny as the vehicles are easily within sight distance. Employing her Mystical Headclutch, she orders Chango (!) the Elephant to knock down a tree, thus blocking the road. (An elephant knocking over a tree – somewhere Freeman Williams screams in his sleep.) This is soooo cool -- if improbable, given the size of the tree -- that it’s shown in slo-mo. Pursuit is stopped until the tree, or a miniature model of it on a tabletop diorama, can be blown up.
We cut to yet more desultory comic relief with the comedy team of Juka & Fletch. This doesn’t prove to have any real bearing on anything, so we’ll move on. Following is a less than pulse-pounding montage of Sheena and Vic and Marika the Hebra crossing the veldt. Sheena runs, Vic grasps Marika’s rein (why would he have one?), Tiki rides Marika. Cut to Vic in front, Sheena behind, riding Marika through an elephant herd. Cut to Sheena in front, Vic behind, riding Marika alongside a lake. Cut to Vic riding Marika, Sheena walking ahead. Vic dismounts Marika, Sheena climbs aboard. By now I was wishing they’d just cut to a day calendar with the leaves blowing off.
This is all, again, accompanied by Sheena’s increasingly ubiquitous "Chariots of Fire: The Muzak Version" theme music. After a while this melody began driving me nuts. They play this short piece over and over and over again, even when it’s patently inappropriate. Which it isn’t here, although I’ll return to this topic later.
Sheena and Vic are next seen on foot, painstakingly making their way through an extremely nasty looking thorn thicket. Vic, getting nicked up – although not as badly as he should be -- questions the necessity of this. Sheena explains that the thorns will do worse to their pursuers’ trucks. "Their round rubber feet will be wrecked to pieces," she predicts. Sheena’s base of knowledge seems oddly random. She doesn’t know what wheels are, but is able to identify, from fleeting glances, that they are made of rubber.
For our next scenic shot, Our Heroes are found standing before a lake full of thousands of flamingos. This sets up another in our interminable series of ‘character scenes,’ and I can only hope that they will finally declare their love for each other and get this picture going. Sheena reveals that she understands they may both be dead before another sunset. Vic leans in for another kiss. "You are an enemy!" she accuses afterward, flummoxing her beau. "The shaman taught me," she explains. "An enemy is one who takes without asking." Told you that line would make its way back around.
This, by the way, would have been the perfect moment for Vic to find himself on the ground with Sheena’s knife pressed against his throat. Instead, he just asks her permission. She naturally grants it, and a rather silly display of ‘passionate’ kissing quickly ensues. (This being to kissing scenes what the pool sequence from Showgirls was to sex scenes.) Meanwhile, the majesty of nature is horribly degraded as the filmmakers use a fan or something to cause the assembled flock of birds to rise from the lake and fly off. This is indeed a spectacular sight, but its use as a backdrop for our leads’ exaggerated bout of smooching sort of ruins the effect. Seldom have so many been so disturbed as to provide so little entertainment for so few.
We cut back to the Convoy of Evil. Notwithstanding Sheena’s predictions, the rubber feet of her enemy’s trucks appear unscathed. However, their occupants all sport lots of red paint slashes, supposedly caused by the previously mentioned thorn thicket. This makes little sense for those riding in the raised beds of the troop trucks, but that those in the APC (!) would have such is downright nonsensical.
Emerging from the APC, Jorgenson walks over to one of the trucks. He’s shown two supposedly hacked up bodies laying in the truck’s bed. "These men got dragged through the thorn trees!" a subordinate angrily reports. Huh? ‘Dragged through’ by what, exactly? Why didn’t the men pass through the thicket on the trucks, like the others? I can only assume there was a scene showing all this that they edited out. Meanwhile, Otwani is planning his next EEE-vil act. Jorgenson’s men are to massacre the inhabitants of the next Zambuli village they come across. Once word of this is sent through the "jungle telegraph" (snort), the Zambulis near Mount Gudjara should panic and flee. This will leave the mountain ripe for the strip-mining.
Sheena and Vic hear tremendous noises emanating from the distance. Climbing a hill, they see the Convoy razing the village and slaughtering its inhabitants. This carnage is all seen in brief shots from a considerable distance. I actually found it weird that the filmmakers would build an entire village to burn down and then show all this so elliptically. Anyway, Sheena is badly shaken, finally comprehending the fact that guns (and flamethrowers, etc.,) might be bad, but they’re damn effective.
We cut to later, as the two stroll through the devastation. Sheena is struck by one particular pile of debris. "How can fire burn so hot," she asks. "How can even stone pots be made into ashes?" Vic tells her it was probably gasoline, although it’d take a heck of a gas fire to reduce stone to ash. This is a word he’s used before, and she recognizes it. "The water the wagons drink," she confirms. Her expression here indicates that this is a Lightbulb Moment. She stoops in the nearby rubble to pick up a perfectly intact bow. (Well, that’s convenient.) Raising it, she declares that she’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. It’s time to bring to fight to Otwani.
They race ahead of the Convoy. Don’t ask me how. Once in position, Sheena finds a tree whose leaking sap is highly flammable. (??) She demonstrates this by impregnating some jungle grass with the substance and setting it afire with Vic’s lighter. She then has Vic use his pocketknife to fashion a branch into a stick, er, an arrow. "I’ll make fire grass," she explains. (‘Fire grass.’ Oh, bru-ther.) Soon the shaft – which clearly didn’t come from the branch Vic was given – has his pocketknife bound to the front of it with more grass. Examining the result of all this, Sheena, to my vast delight, straightfacedly deems it "a good arrow." Oh, come on, it doesn’t even have any fletching. There’s no way you’d hit anything with this device.
Tiki the Monkey, being on watch detail, alerts them to the approach of their enemies. The two scramble up another hill, waiting for the vehicles to pass below them. At Sheena’s command, Vic lights the grass around the knife acting as their arrowhead. There’s a lame suspense moment as the lighter fails, but gee whiz, it finally ignites. As the small amount of extremely desiccated ‘fire grass’ burns merrily for over twenty entire seconds -- which is about five times longer than it would really last -- Sheena lines up her shot. To the absolute, laughing joy of my Bad Movie loving heart, we are now treated to a hilariously obvious arrow-on-a-string shot as the missile scoots down to the barrels of petrol the convoy uses for refueling. This is just magic stuff, and is even funnier when watched in slo-mo. Here the arrow-on-a-wire proves to be completely other than the one Sheena supposedly fired. The appearance of the shaft is quite different. Moreover, it clearly sports the fletching the other arrow lacked.
The barrels catch fire and the mercenaries disperse, anticipating a mighty explosion. If this happens, Otwani is defeated, since this handful of trucks pretty much represents the sum of his military assets. However, just as Our Heroes begin celebrating their victory, the repaired helicopter gunship suddenly flies right over their heads. (Odd acoustics in the jungle, that they wouldn’t have heard its approach.) The helicopter lowers itself over the fire and the wash from the rotor douses the flames. (!!) I’ve never heard of anyone using a helicopter to blow out a fire, and I found this sequence dubious in the extreme.
An enraged Otwani orders the ‘copter after his foes. This precipitates one of those deals where the protagonists run from here to there while hundreds and hundreds of bullets are fired at them to no effect. From the temporary shelter of a rock, Vic observes that "[The helicopter is circling away] for a better shot at us." Must be a hell of a big circuit, as the ‘copter disappears offscreen for over half a minute. Sheena desperately asks what they should do. Vic suggests hiding amongst some nearby trees. This is the sort of thing that makes me cringe: Sheena needs Vic to suggest they seek the only shelter within running distance? Please.
They makes the trees, gaining some advantage. However, on a nearby plain they see Marika the Hebra standing amongst a herd of…something. Got me. Gazelles? Gnu? African deer? Anyway. Frustrated in his attempts to find his targets, the pilot sees Marika and recognizes it as Sheena’s personal transport. To Our Heroes’ horror -- and, supposedly, ours -- he begins a lengthy attempt to strafe the animal, although he doesn’t manage to hit him or even any of the deer (or whatever). This looks really dumb, but what are you going to do? They undoubtedly didn’t have trained deer on hand, and the days where you could set wires to trip a running animal to simulate its being shot are well behind us. Anyhoo, fearing that if the pilot keeps firing for an hour or two he might eventually hit something, Sheena and Vic emerge from the woods and signal their surrender.
As they stagger to the ‘copter, the two engage in a simply excruciating spell of rueful ‘I guess this is it/I love you so much’ banter. How their guards can listen to this and not open fire is beyond me. Hey, you mooks! Give that gun to somebody who knows what to do with it! In the end, though, Sheena remains defiant. "The fire in my veins tells me I’m still alive," she avers. "I have not failed my people yet!" I’m assuming she’s referring to the Zambuli, because if ‘her people’ means us in the audience, then she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Otwani is soon leering at the manacled Sheena. This is, plot point, much to the displeasure of Zanda. She suggests tossing Our Heroine out of the ‘copter from high over the village waterfall. Since the Zambulis view her as their protector, this would break their spirit. Otwani has other plans, however, and denies her permission.
Instead, he goes to see that Vic is taken care of. He's taken aback, though, when Vic reveals the existence of film that proves Otwani to be behind his brother’s death. Laughably, Vic threatens to have it sent to the Organization of African States. Yeah, right. What are they going to do about it? Are all the other monstrous despots going to band together and kick Otwani out? Hell, compared to Idi Amin, for obvious example, Otwani’s the Good Humor Man. Anyway, Otwani orders a couple of mercs to take Vic to Azan to collect the film. Once they do, they're to finish him off.
Zanda, meanwhile, is refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. She commandeers the Tirgoran National Air Force – by which I mean the helicopter – and tells the pilot to head for the Zambuli Falls. Sheena pretends that the noise of the "firebird" (cripes) is giving her a headache. That’s right, time to clutch the old forehead. This precipitates the film’s massively goofy highlight. We cut back to the lake with the Flamingos. They raise their heads in answer to her siren call and take off in flight. Soon, although not soon enough, if you get my drift, the helicopter is flying through a swarm of these birds.
At her command, the avian attackers clamber into the open side door of the ‘copter – open as Sheena was to be dropped out of it – and begin to peck away at Zanda and the pilot. Now, I’m sure that having flamingos jabbing at your faces with their big honking beaks would suck. Unfortunately, though, the scene just plays as comedy.
This is largely due to an entire series of bad special effects used here. There’s bad bluescreen effects to show the ‘copter amongst the birds. There’s bad animation to do the same in long shots. Finally, there’s the really bad flamingo puppets used for the actual attacks. Not helping is that the two actors being ‘mauled’ have, for some reason, been told to react in a weirdly calm manner, as if overly-enthusiastic puppies were licking their faces. During the whole sequence they make nary a peep, staying almost entirely silent. Most of us, I suspect, would be screaming our heads off. Anyhoo, Zanda ‘ironically’ tumbles from the craft, thus meeting the very death she intended for our heroine (yawn).
The pilot, who at this point acts exactly like he’s been drugged and can’t stay awake – I’m with you, buddy – slowly glides to earth and crashes the ‘copter. (For some reason the model helicopter used for the crash scene has rubber rotors. Watch in slo-mo how they wobble up and down as the craft approaches the ground.) This allows Sheena to jump to safety, despite her chained forearms.
All is all this is a delightfully bad sequence, which by itself justifies watching the film.
During all this, Vic has been in a truck driving back to Azan. He manages to take out his one guard via a ploy involving annoying music – no, not the Sheena theme – and dumps the guy over the side. He then overpowers the driver, who is apparently quite deaf, given that he apparently didn't hear of the of previous tussling. Having assumed control, Vic turns the truck around and starts back.
Meanwhile, Sheena climbs a rock and stands before her Zambuli brethen. Holding aloft her bounds, she shouts "Even in chains we can defeat them!" Which actually isn’t a bad line, although its no "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" or anything. Still, it works. Having roused their warrior spirit roused, she and some tribal elders plan an ambush for Otwani's forces. During this part Sheena is free of her chains, and I had to wonder how the Zambulis got them off of her. Then she puts hand to forehead and does a big "calling all animals" thing as she assembles her army. (Although we are shown dozens of animals here, only five or six will actually take part in the attack.)
The convoy approaches. Sheena allows herself to be seen, leading her opponents onto a narrow jungle road by swinging along side of them on a series of vines. Of course, swinging on a rope, er, vine means that you’re moving in at a comparatively slow speed in a foreseeable arc. So all the gunmen would have to go is point their weapons ahead of her and let her own momentum carry her directly into their fire. Needless to say, this doesn’t happen. Nor do they manage to tag more than a couple of the Zambulis running amongst the trees, despite their bright red clothes and dyed red hair.
Eventually the road narrows further and comes to an end. Before they can retreat, the Zambuli forces stationed on the hill over them begin raining down spears and arrows. They also roll fiberglass boulders of various size down upon their position. Lastly, Sheena sends in her animal commandos. The mercs who fall to these die in especially horrible ways, mauled by a lion or crushed by an elephant or gored by a rhino. Ouch! I think I’ll take the spear to the chest, thank you.
Now, this plan would actually work, assuming your opponents allowed themselves to get into this position. The mercenary team comprises less than twenty men, even if heavily armed ones, against hundreds of missile-firing Zambulis. So my problem isn’t that the good guys win. It’s that they sustain practically no loses. Given the weaponry of the mercenaries, there should have been a five or ten to one kill ratio before the battle was over. Instead, the Zambulis emerge pretty much unscathed, which is just silly. (Especially since I think the Zambulis manage to kill more mercenaries than Otwani actually brought with him.) Otherwise, though, this is easily the film’s best sequence. Too bad the rest of it sucks so much.
Sheena sees sole survivor Otwani driving off – of course – and leaps onto Marika to pursue him. Soon the chase is thundering over the plains. This is the sequence where the film's mellow main theme is most ridiculously utilized. It’s the picture’s climatic action scene, for Pete’s sake, and the score sounds like something off a relaxation tape.
Smoke is issuing from Otwani’s truck, presumably to explain the risible fact that he can't managing to outdistance a hebra. At the same time, Vic is approaching from the opposite direction. Before he gets there, though, Marika takes a tumble and Sheena is thrown to the ground. Otwani turns around, intending to finish her off. She sets herself and fires an arrow through his windshield. Mortally wounded, he tries to run her down before he dies. However, Vic makes it there at the last moment and smashes his truck into Otwani’s. Ka-boom.
Sheena is saved. Vic, however, is badly burned and supposedly dying, or so we’re told. (Frankly, he really doesn’t look that bad.) This leads to a lot of tears and so forth on Sheena’s part, and the scene drags on and on. "I’ve had it, baby," he admits, "and all I can think of to say is ‘sh*t!’" Yep, somebody should have won an Oscar for that line. Eventually, though, all bad things must come to and end and we cut away. Good thing, too, because even if Vic hadn’t died yet my interest sure did.
Cut to nighttime. Fletch is in a truck being driven to the Zambuli village. Suddenly, the vehicle screeches to a halt. The driver has seen Vic’s head emerging from the earth. See, ending your movie where it started is a sophisticated scripting gambit. Right? Right?! Anyway, yada yada, Vic is completely healed. Cue another big celebration dance.
On to the next day, or some time in the future, or whatever. To Sheena’s shock, Vic announces that he plans to return to the outside world. The healing dirt could be the "cure for cancer" and he must take it back to civilization. (Why not have Fletch take it back? Never mind.) Moreover, he’s decided that Sheena mustn't join him. Modern man’s concrete caverns and shoes and insatiable pop culture would destroy her pure essence, yada yada. Moreover, the source of the healing earth must remain a secret, lest a few hundred savages are displaced in humanity’s insane rush to cure all disease everywhere. Well, that not how it’s said exactly, word for word, but that’s the gist.
From his plane, the departing Vic espies a tearful Sheena below. Yes, yes, she was first seen by them from a plane, and last seen by them from a plane. I get it. Then we cut to the end credits. These play over two solid minutes-plus of Sheena riding Marika the hebra, as her theme plays for (thankfully) the last time. Of course, the idea is that the lovers will reunite for the sequel. Luckily, they never got the chance.
As you might have gathered from the above review, Sheena is film blessed with a multitude of glitches. Some are more acute than others. Guillermin’s direction, for instance, is lackluster. Still, if that were the worst you could accuse the film of, we wouldn’t be discussing it today. The score also can fairly be described as merely adequate. Compared to the more patently awful music for, say, The Holcroft Covenant, it’s actually quite proficient. However, its high and rather overt ‘sound-alike’ quotient quickly becomes tiresome. This is probably why it was nominated for a Razzie – its blatant imitation of then popular scores and composers must have been much more obvious and grating at the time. Also, as noted above, the main theme is severely overworked, and repeatedly used in comically inappropriate sequences.
As noted above, the screenplay is one of the laziest I can remember. Coincidence after coincidence need occur in order to move the lumbering plot forward. Its ‘characters’ are broadly, and lightly, sketched. So too is the film's internal logic. The scheme against King Jabalani, for example, seems rather lackadaisically constructed for one centered upon an act of regicide. Moreover, the script’s ear for dialog is less tin than cast iron. In a ,movie like this you expect to roll your eyes at the patronizing, Wise-Peoples-of-the-Land aphorisms and such that the Zambuli characters are inevitably given. Less expected is that the ‘normal’ characters like Vic and Fletch will sound as false.
I also was struck by the largish amount of profanity on display. This and a few other elements make the movie a bit too rough-edged for children. On the other hand, the film is much too bland and tentative to appeal to the exploitation crowd and too dumb to appeal to your average adult. Its nudity is fleeting at best, so much so that you wonder why they bothered in the first place, and the violence is TV movie-level stuff. It seems obvious in retrospect that the swearing and occasional leering bosom shots should have been excised and the result marketed as a kiddie flick.
The cast is probably the biggest liability. I can’t think of one actor here who gives anything close to a memorable performance. The film desperately requires a veteran ham to provide us with something worth watching. A Donald Pleasance or M. Emmet Walsh would have done nicely. Even the lamentable Tarzan the Ape Man (1981) was savvy enough to hire Richard Harris. His thespian antics carried the picture after the appeal of looking at Bo Derek’s naked boobies had begun to wane.
If the supporting cast is dull, the leads are awful. Ted Wass’ short fling with movie stardom is mystifying. He’s not particularly handsome, certainly not in the way you expect movie stars to be. In raw charisma and acting talent he suggests a less impressive Bruce Boxleitner or Mark Harmon. What is more, the intentions behind his performance remain somewhat mysterious. I can’t tell if he’s just a bad actor or instead purposely acting broadly, perhaps at Guillermin’s request. In other words, is Wass attempting a straight performance and failing, or trying for a tongue-in-cheek performance (and failing). Did he think the film was meant to be camp? It’s possible. In fact, the whole film is like that. As with its inability to successfully target a concrete audience demographic, it’s also difficult to tell whether the film was attempting to be a straight action piece or a sly piece of spoofery. If I had to put money down I’d say the former, but that’s at best an educated guess.
If Wass is bad, Roberts is awful. She is without doubt a beautiful woman, and she certainly looks terrific in her skimpy leathers. Despite this, she’s not really physically correct for the part. Take her almost eerily pale blue pupils. In tandem with the expression of blank bewilderment she most often assumes, she suggests nothing so much as a distaff Andrew McCarthy. Roberts ends up projecting a tentative mien that ill befits a Jungle Goddess.
Moreover, while tall and lissome, Roberts isn’t actually very athletic. Her movements are imprecise, lacking the grace, confident strength and agility that should define her character. Sheena, remember, started out as a Tarzan clone in a rather more politically incorrect time. Admittedly, the manner in which she was drawn in her comic books constituted pure cheesecake, or what modern day aficionados refer to as 'good girl art.' Yet the fact remains that this earlier version of Sheena was generally found wielding a knife or spear while engaging in a frantic death battle with some fearsome beast or other.
This Sheena is drawn more as a flower child. During Robert’s early appearances she’s seen riding her horse/zebra, viewed taking a luxurious shower and swim under a scenic waterfall, and then lazily lounging under a tree and chewing on a flower stem. Not exactly a life of constant Darwinian struggle, is it? No rending marauding beasts with her bare hands for this jungle goddess. No steely infliction of cruel death on those who would threaten the tranquility of the ancient lands she safeguards. Hell, she isn’t even allowed to wear her traditional leopard skins, presumably for fear of upsetting the anti-fur crowd.
In this spirit, let’s more closely examine Sheena’s action heroine credentials. Take the film’s first big ‘action’ set piece, when she arrives to break Shaman out of prison. Notably, Sheena remains astride her mount the entire time. Meanwhile, the dirty work is done by her elephant, chimps and even city boy Vic. She only dismounts after the complex has been secured, and then to unlock Shaman’s cell and give her a hug. Frankly, I think the comic book Sheena would have slit the throat of her cinematic doppelganger in a display of pure disgust.
Of course, Our Heroine does ultimately engage in actual battle. Frankly, though, I remained unconvinced by her efforts. The actress playing Zanda brings a lot more juice to her part, and I found it difficult to believe that our tepid protagonist would emerge the victor over her. In real life I suspect this other woman would beat Roberts like a rented mule. In fact, except for the fact that the other actress is black – meaning you’d have to radically re-conceive the character -- I suspect she’d have made a measurably better Sheena. Which admittedly is one of those damning with faint praise situations.
Things I Learned™ intellectual property of Andrew Borntreger.
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-Review by Ken Begg