Deconstructing Sheena could probably be its own intellectual pursuit. The film’s so many terrible perfect things in one. It’s inverted misogyny, it’s colonial racism, it’s misapplied camp. It’s bad acting from actors with no business in film so it’s this example of bad Hollywood trends. It’s also a notorious box office bomb, so there’s taking its rejection into account. Especially with acknowledgment of the era, politically and culturally. But it’s probably not worthwhile to fully deconstruct Sheena. After all, you leave the film on a positive note.
It didn’t go on one more minute. It stopped when it did. Its fourth or fifth ending, each more insulting–both morally and narratively–than the last, eventually ended and it stopped. Ted Wass stopped being onscreen and Tanya Roberts stopped talking. Because Sheena isn’t just a terrible movie with extremely bad acting and writing, it’s also exhausting. Sheena knows it’s too late. It knows it’s a bad idea. Yet it keeps going, because apparently someone thought pacing out Roberts’s topless scenes for maximum effect was a good idea in a PG-rated action movie ostensibly for a female audience. I mean, Roberts is the lead, right? She gets to be the white savior.
Oh, right. No. She doesn’t. Because Wass, who’s a sports reporter in search of his breakthrough to Dan Rather, doesn’t just save the day, he saves the world. The movie opens with Sheena as a child–a prologue running roughly twenty minutes of just awkward badness in 1984, and some lousy photography from Pasqualino De Santis (which is surprising as the crew is otherwise excellent)–and it’s about her dad saving the world. Except it’s going to be Ted Wass, who actually gives worse of a performance than Roberts. Wass doesn’t try. He just acts badly. The script is bad, his character is bad, his sidekick–Donovan Scott–is even worse in every way, but Wass also is completely inept. He can’t even sell not being able to light a Zippo.
And Roberts is running around almost naked, frequently doused in sweat, made to be docile to Wass even though she’s been Queen of the Jungle–meaning she has to run behind him–riding a zebra or an elephant, doing bit work with chimps, standing in front of an African village and pretending to be their spiritual leader? Roberts is not good. She’s not good once. She does try sometimes. But this movie puts her through awful plot developments.
Then there’s the political intrigue, involving pro football player and African prince (Trevor Thomas) plotting to assassinate his brother, the king. France Zobda plays the woman they both want. It ties into Wass curing cancer.
Thomas even has a Great White Hunter for a mercenary, played by John Forgeham, who’d have the movie’s one good line delivery but director Guillermin wasn’t paying attention. Because director Guillermin really isn’t paying attention to much in Sheena. There’s some decent direction, but none of the action works. Ray Lovejoy’s editing is fantastic in everything except the action scenes. Guillermin gets more than enough footage everywhere else, but the action’s rushed and weak.
Maybe because Sheena’s supposed to have this army of awesome animal sidekicks helping out but they get no personality. They occasionally have a moment, but it’s like no one wanted to shoot any scenes with the animals. Sheena’s not for kids, after all, it’s for twelve year-old boys who want to see Roberts’s multiple bathing scenes. But Guillermin isn’t enthusiastic about it. De Santis is, however.
Guillermin’s enthusiastic about the Kenyan location shooting and he’s sort of enthusiastic about Elizabeth of Toro as Roberts’s adoptive mother and mentor. It’d be nice if he’d been enthusiastic enough to get her a name better than just “Shaman.” Sheena is written campy, acted badly, directed for location, and produced for gaze. It’s a mess and it’s awful.
Okay music from Richard Hartley–which almost gives Guillermin the one great action sequence of the film, before he chokes on it–excellent editing from Lovejoy, fine production design from Peter Murton.
But Sheena’s a crappy movie.
Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by David Newman and Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on a story by Newman and Leslie Stevens and on a comic book created by Jerry Iger; director of photography, Pasqualino De Santis; edited by Ray Lovejoy; music by Richard Hartley; production designer, Peter Murton; produced by Paul Aratow; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Tanya Roberts (Sheena), Ted Wass (Vic Casey), Donovan Scott (Fletcher), Elizabeth of Toro (Shaman), France Zobda (Countess Zanda), Trevor Thomas (Prince Otwani), Clifton Jones (King Jabalani), and John Forgeham (Jorgensen).