Released in late August, 1984, Sheena – or as it was initially advertised as Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle – wasn’t a remarkable film by any stretch of the imagination. Critics were not moved to any great degree by its story, and – from what I can recall – it was widely panned for inferior performances paired with what viewers thought was ‘progressive’ nudity. Though rated PG by the Motion Picture Association, the movie features Roberts’ body of assets in mostly what I’d call ‘modest glory,’ and I have a vague recollection that those more culturally in-the-know than I felt otherwise.
Still, Sheena hasn’t found cult status in much the way other films with similar goofiness and treatment have. In fact, one could argue that it’s a forgotten film from the 1980’s, a time when cinematic Fantasy was experiencing a bit of a cultural renaissance thanks to features like Conan The Barbarian (1982), The Beastmaster (1982), and The NeverEnding Story (1984), along with many, many others. So in the hopes of perhaps righting that cultural wrong, I thought it prudent to uncover a few things worth knowing about the film that may’ve passed all of us by.
The Finer Sex
Most assuredly, the studio intended to capitalize on Roberts’ sex appeal both in selecting her for the role as well as the marketing plans to woo potential audiences.
The one-time Charlie’s Angels turned heads in 1982 when she – ahem – came clean in what Playboy Magazine promised as “a knockout nude pictorial.” Interestingly enough, the whole point of her appearance in the periodical was originally to ramp up the promotional campaign for 1982’s The Beastmaster in which she appeared opposite Marc Singer. However, the interview and pictures didn’t appear until after that feature had been placed in theaters, so I’m inclined to think that the buzz she eventually created caught Hollywood’s eye and may’ve even led to her landing the job as ‘the female Tarzan.’
Roberts wasn’t the only sex symbol producers considered in their build-up to production. While an HBO Making-Of short available on YouTube.com boasts over 2,000 actresses were considered, what matters most in this case is who were they. Names bandied about include Raquel Welch, Bo Derek, Jodie Foster, Sandahl Bergman, Cheryl Ladd, Sybil Danning, Christie Brinkley, and Farrah Fawcett.
Indeed, that list proves one thing: sex sells.
A Historic Beginning
Those who remember the film typically refer to it almost entirely as “that Tanya Roberts” flick … but does anyone know the character’s actual legacy?
To be as precise as possible, Sheena was the original symbol of girl power for a generation of comic book readers. In fact, she was the very first female comic book character who was given her very own title – Sheena: Queen Of The Jungle – all the way back in 1938. (What this means, folks, is that Sheena is an intellectual property older than the much-revered Wonder Woman, who is often thought of as the first big comic book breakout.) The jungle lady is the creation of Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, and Eisner is on record as crediting H. Rider Haggard’s novel She (1886) as their inspiration.
In a 1984 interview with Starlog Magazine (June issue), Sheena producer Paul Aratow sounded off on the importance of honoring the character’s legacy with just the right story for her silver screen debut. Though he ended up being separated (to some degree) from the production due to studio pressures to craft something a bit more commercial, Aratow ends the piece by clarifying that he always saw Sheena as a role model for young girls to idolize.
I’m not sure the studio felt the same way.
A Real Movie Princess
As is often the case, a great deal of effort to craft legitimacy in the world of cinematic Fantasy gets lost in the production shuffle, but the movers and shakers intent on delivering Sheena up in the lights did go out of their way to bring as much authenticity to the feature as possible, including shooting for five months in Kenya and even hiring a real-live princess as part of the cast.
Elizabeth of Toro – or as she is known internationally as Princess Elizabeth of Toro – was born in 1936 to the royal family of Tooro Kingdom within Uganda. In her youth, she was the only black student at the Sherborne School For Girls in London. As the third African woman to be admitted to the University of Cambridge, she eventually graduated with a law degree and went on to become the first woman of East Africa admitted to the English Bar. Besides serving as a politician, a lawyer, and a model, she was cast to serve as a female Shaman who helps instruct Sheena herself in her magical and mystical ways of communicating with animals of the jungle.
In a 2011 interview with NewAfrican Magazine, Elizabeth admits that she was never impressed with the film’s script, but she admired what the producers had done with the central character. “Sheena expressed a certain truth, a certain reality, namely, that an indigenous culture, a way of life, had suffered an assault at the hands of an alien one,” she said.