The movie starred Tanya Roberts, Ted Wass, and Trevor Thomas. It was directed by John Guillermin and written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who had previously collaborated on the 1976 remake of King Kong.
While investigating rumors of a mystical "healing earth" whose powers are said to flow forth from the sacred Gudjara Mountain, geologists Philip and Betsy Ames (Michael Shannon and Nancy Paul) are killed in a cave-in, leaving their young daughter Janet an orphan.
Janet is adopted by Shaman, a woman of the native Zambouli tribe (Princess Elizabeth of Toro), and because of a prophecy about the cave-in ("when the sacred mountain cries out") she is viewed as a child of the gods and renamed Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.
As she grows up, Sheena (Tanya Roberts) learns much from 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. Outsiders rarely disturb their territory, since that part of Tigora is under the special protection of King Jabalani (Clifton Jones).
But trouble is brewing in Tigora; the King's ex-football champion younger brother Prince Otwani (Trevor Thomas) is conspiring with his brother's fiancée, Countess Zanda (France Zobda), to have Jabalani assassinated so that they can exploit the titanium-rich Zambouli land. (This may or may not have something to do with the healing properties of the soil, but this is never explained).
Experiencing a vision foretelling the death of the King, the Shaman hastens to Tigora's capital of Azan to try to warn him, but is arrested by corrupt police officers working for Zanda.
Otwani's old "friend", reporter Vic Casey (Ted Wass), and his cameraman Fletch Agronsky (Donovan Scott) are in Tigora to do a story on the former football player. When King Jabalani 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.
Heading to a remote prison compound to interview the Shaman, they bear witness to her rescue by Sheena and her animal friends: "Chango", an elephant; "Marika", a zebra; and "Tiki", a chimpanzee. As they escape back into the jungle after destroying the prison, Vic and Fletch follow. Soon after however, Shaman dies of injuries.
Otwani obtains the services of Colonel Jorgensen (John Forgeham) and his small army of soldier mercenaries, the Black Berets. Their mission is to eradicate the Zambouli people so their territory will be open for strip-mining. Vic must join forces with Sheena to stop the evil Prince and his army, and along the way, Vic and Sheena fall in love.
The climax of the film takes place on the African serengetti, where Sheena leads her people against the mercenaries and Otwani. Vic gets wounded during a shootout in which he succeeds in killing Otwani. Vic is healed with the earth, and wants to stay with Sheena, but realizes if he tells his story to the outside world, then other corporations will destroy Sheena's home. Vic and his cameraman Fletch leave on an airplane back to New York. Before leaving, Sheena records a farewell message on his tape recorder, wishing him a safe journey. And at the end, Sheena takes a ride on Marika to celebrate her victory.Tanya Roberts as Sheena
Kirsty Lindsay as young Sheena
Kathryn Gant as child Sheena (Janet Ames)
Ted Wass as Vic Casey
Donovan Scott as Fletch Agronsky
Princess Elizabeth of Toro as Shaman
France Zobda as Countess Zanda
Trevor Thomas as Prince Otwani
Clifton Jones as King Jabalani
John Forgeham as Colonel Jorgensen
Errol John as Boto
Sylvester Williams as Juka
Bob Sherman as Grizzard
Michael Shannon as Phillip Ames (Sheena's father)
Nancy Paul as Betsy Ames (Sheena's mother)
Nick Brimble as Wadman
Paul Gee as Blau
Dave Cooper as Anders
Oliver Litondo as Chief Harombano
Joseph Olita as the First Policeman
The film was shot entirely on location in Kenya. According to the article "To Realize the Impossible Dream" in the Marvel Comics Super Special for the film (see below), producer Paul Aratow had been trying to get the movie made since ten years prior its completion and release in 1984.
Paul Aratow was a documentary filmmaker. He says a friend suggested to him in 1974 that Sheena would make a good movie. "Something went off in my head - I realised that it was a most commercial idea," said Aratow. "It had action and a sexy, mythic Earth goddess type who was actually one of the true comic-book heroines."
Aratow set up a production company with Alan Rinzler and succeeded in interesting Universal Pictures. Raquel Welch was attached to play the lead.
"At first it looked incredibly easy," Aratow says in the interview. "After only two months I had an office at the studio and Raquel Welch was going to play Sheena."
Robert and Laurie Dillon wrote a script that took a tongue in cheek approach to the material. Universal invested around $65,000 in the project. However the studio decided not to proceed with the movie.
The producers then took the project to Filmways, where head of production Ed Feldman wanted "to create an out and out adventure story, with humour of course, but basically an elaborate adventure." Feldman had a poster designed illustrating his idea and showed it to Mike Medavoy of United Artists who agreed to finance a new script. Michael Scheff and David Spector did a screenplay. Raquel Welch, who had been Universal's choice for the role, was still a possibility but Feldman said "at this point we have no actress in mind. I wouldn't say we wouldn't go to Raquel Welch. But I wouldn't want to rule out a worldwide search either."
When Mike Medavoy left United Artists, the project went into turnaround. Aratow now owed $65,000 to Universal and $85,000 to United Artists for the money they put in the project.
Aratow took Sheena to Avco-Embassy, who did a search for possible stars, then also passed. "I realised they just didn't have any money," said Aratow.
Eventually in 1980, Columbia's head of production Frank Price agreed to finance the movie with a budget from $7-10 million. Bo Derek was mentioned as a possible star although Aratow says "all reasonable casting suggestions are welcome".
"Girls today need superheroes," said Aratow. "I have a daughter, who is 6, who needs someone to look up to. And I want Sheena to be that superhero. I also want Sheena to be a character that parents will want to send their kids to see, and the type of picture that parents can go see with their children."
Columbia financed a script from David Newman. But when John Guillermin became the director, he felt like it needed "something more," so Newman ended up being replaced by Guillermin's old friend Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who had worked with him on King Kong.
Tanya Roberts was cast in the lead role after a search of only a few weeks.
Ted Was claims he originally turned down the male lead:
It's one of those pictures that everyone had a bit of a cackle about. Then I had a great meeting with Lorenzo Semple, one of the screenwriters, and I could see that a lot of guys were taking this picture very seriously. I went over to Africa and I met John Guillermin, the director, and he embraced all my ideas about strengthening and broadening the character. I thought if you were going to have a heroine, a fabulous figure like Sheena, she'd have to fall in love with someone who was as great from his own element - it wouldn't work if she fell in love with a schmuck. John agreed. He's a tough cookie and uncompromising in his vision. He either says, 'That's a pile of crap and it won't be in my picture,' or he goes for it. I think John, who also made King Kong, takes fantastic stories and then grounds them in a reality he finds a lot of time in the geographic locations.
Filming began 21 August 1983.
The film was shot over seven months and ran into all of the expected production problems involved with shooting on location. Ted Wass (Vic Casey) recalled, in the article "Man on the Spot" (an article about executive producer Yoram Ben-Ami, also found in the Super Special), "Making a movie is like going to war. You can be the greatest general in the world but if you don't have a good army, you're going to lose the battle."
The film's multitude of animals were managed by Hubert Wells, who recalled, "We flew over an elephant, a rhino, five lions, four leopards, four chimpanzees, five horses and sixteen birds. It was the largest shipment of animals back to Africa and just getting all the necessary permits to bring them in and out of the country was a superhuman task."
Wells had few problems with the trained animals, but the crew did have some with wild animals that would come onto the set, in particular wild lions who would try to start fights with the tamed ones. Guards had to be posted on the set at night to keep them away. Despite this, Wells was quoted as saying that he enjoyed working on the picture so much he hoped for a sequel, which of course never came.
Wass says Tanya Roberts "was always in great shape, but she made her body even more magnificent by working out... She brought an athleticism to the movie few actresses could match; physically, she was always on the money, and even though there was a lot of pressure on her, she came through."
On the television program At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, Sheena received two thumbs down. Ebert commented that "This movie is rated PG, not PG-13. It's probably the only PG-rated movie that will play continuously on the Playboy Channel—you see more of Tanya Roberts than you did of last month's playmate." They later listed Sheena as one of the "Stinkers of 1984." Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin seemed to agree, rating the film as a BOMB and stating: "Tanya definitely swings as W. Morgan Thomas's comic-book jungle-queen, but Mother Nature forgot to endow her with a script. Supposed to be campy, but it doesn't work even on that level; both the cinematography and the music belong in a much better picture."
The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael was among the very few critics who liked the film. Calling it a "lighthearted, slightly loony adventure film, there are some good silly gags, and the animals look relaxed even in their dizziest slapstick scenes. And the picture certainly never starves the eye; the cinematography is by the celebrated Pasqualino De Santis." Kael even had some (qualified) kind words for the star: "Tanya Roberts is too tense and earnest for her blond-goddess, queen-of-the-jungle role, but she has the face of a ballerina, and a prodigious slim, muscular form, and she gazes into space with exquisitely blank pale-blue eyes. She's pretty funny when she presses her fingers on the center of her forehead and summons legions of waterbucks or swarms of tall birds."
A soundtrack album of music composed and conducted by Richard Hartley for the film was released in 1984. It was reissued on CD by Varèse Sarabande in 2004, separating the first track into two parts ("Theme" and "Interlude").
- Sheena's Theme (Main Title) (2:52)
- Interlude (0:40)
- Introduction / One Way Ticket (6:15)
- Climb! / Young Sheena (5:58)
- Marika and the Water Deer (2:14)
- African Ballet (1:53)
- The Encounter (3:36)
- Shaman Taught Me (1:58)
- The Circle (1:13)
- Come on Vic Casey (2:20)
- May I (1:43)
- End Title (2:59)
Sheena has been released on Region 1 DVD twice. A dual-sided DVD with anamorphic widescreen and "full screen" presentations in 2001, and a single-sided DVD with only the full screen presentation in 2004. Both release have the same ISBN 0-7678-6822-6 and the same SKU 0-43396-06535-2, and can only be distinguished from each other by the discs themselves, or by the date and "Special Features" list on the back cover. The packaging does not indicate if the full screen presentation is pan and scan or open matte.
The single-sided full-screen DVD was also included in a 2008 "Triple Feature" release, along with You Light Up My Life and Princess Caraboo. A high-definition video presentation of Sheena is available through Amazon Video, but the listing does not indicate the aspect ratio or the HD video mode.
Around the time the film came out, Marvel Comics published an adaptation of the film as Marvel Super Special #34, written by Cary Burkett and illustrated by Gray Morrow. It followed the story of the film very closely, and developed the character of Fletch the cameraman quite a bit more than in the film, in particular revealing his surname to be "Agronsky". The comic also had several pages in the back about the making of the film. One noteworthy difference between the film and the comic concerns the ethnicity of Otwani's troops. In the film, they are all white. In the comic, the only white soldiers are Colonel Jorgenson and the helicopter pilot (identified as "Joe"), while all of the others are of African descent, including the featured soldiers.
New editions of the comic books were first published by Devil's Due, then the comic book publication was licensed to Moonstone by Galaxy Publishing, Inc. This latest version of the comic book is now (2012) being published.