I could die tomorrow – shot down, burned alive, dragged from my car and knifed between the ribs – and curiously, I would have no regrets. My life, such as it is, has brought me to this point. I’ve seen a lot in my days; from the sting of battle, to the mean streets of the nation’s toughest cities (all on the silver screen, but so what), but until tonight, a historic night in more ways than one, I had never seen Tanya Roberts in Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. I’d heard rumors of its existence, even read a small blurb or two, but had never really considered that it might warrant further attention. Call it serendipity, the winds of fate, or even divine intervention, but its 112 minutes have now spooled through my eyes and ears and very soul, at last lodging in my brain, where it will remain, tumor-like, until it eventually sends me into the loving arms of Jesus. Because, at bottom, while my tastes have run the gamut – from Welles to Wyler, Ford to Kurosawa – I had yet to see a chimpanzee grab a grenade, pull its pin, and throw it with Peyton Manning precision into the bed of a waiting truck.
How the chimp arrives at that moment of glory is a tale not at all worth telling, but one I will tell nonetheless, because Sheena – the shittiest, nastiest, most appalling waste of celluloid, union crews, and pyrotechnics in the history of a thousand Hollywoods – is also a lasting, marbled monument to acting at its unparalleled worst. Hell, to call it “acting” is to so debase the word, so insult the noble craft it stands for, now and forever, that were Stella Adler, Lee Strasburg, and a thousand Greeks now lost to history to be resurrected and brought before its ineptitude, they would all, unfailingly and without hesitation, ask to be blinded and lobotomized so as to never have to consider it again. Tanya Roberts, as Sheena, has to be seen to be believed, but such a recommendation might be considered an act of war. I knew Roberts held all the substance and humanity of a dismantled mannequin – boxed, taped up, and shoved under a musty staircase — from her single sickening season on Charlie’s Angels, a season so unmemorable as to be the lone instance of anyone in the known universe feeling nostalgic about Shelley Hack. Still, who knew she’d devolve so dramatically in the course of just a few years?
While I could spend the next sixteen paragraphs waxing poetic about Miss Roberts and her singular interpretation of Sheena, I’ll conclude this round by saying that while she gives the worst performance of all time, her atrocity is salvaged by its sad earnestness. Lacking all ironic detachment, as well as an understanding of what that might mean, Roberts stands before the camera like a woman possessed, albeit a woman possessed by an evil spirit that spends most of its time in a near-coma. Her face contorts, twists, and expresses what passes for emotion on a face in full surrender to autism, but at no point do we believe she’s versed in the English language. Marks are hit – clumsily, and with all the care a stinking drunk might give a roadside sobriety test – but the lines rarely spring to life with anything above a dull flame. To be sure, the screenplay is a hackneyed, amateur effort that would have been rejected by the most profit-driven, artistically tone deaf B-movie mogul of your choosing throughout cinema’s golden age, but even bad dialogue can be given a perverse grandeur if spoken with some semblance of competence. It’s as if Roberts thought that with each word spoken, a bomb might very well go off in her wind-swept prairie of a mind.
So what of the movie itself? Above all, Sheena is an African story, which, for the white world, means strange magic, exposed breasts, and unending corruption culminating in fratricide. But first, our lead must become one with the Africans, so as a wee girl, her parents die horribly in a cave collapse. Named Janet, she is reborn as Sheena, lifted high to the heavens by the village Shaman. Then, in a sequence that flirts with child porn once Sheena is a pre-teen and still topless, she rides her zebra through every last corner of Zambouli, which is not only her homeland, but her spiritual guide. Blessed with the gift of telepathy, she is able to summon the jungle creatures for her purposes. That “call,” such as it is, involves Sheena placing her fist to her forehead and squinting as if laboring to relieve her colon. It also doubles as a handy cover for Miss Roberts, allowing her to search in vain for her lines without having to stop production. As years pass and Sheena becomes a woman – a healthy, toned, fantastically half-naked woman – the opening credits roll, and we’re off into the most unjustly protracted picture in a dozen generations.
Back in what passes for the city, Prince Otwani, an ex-American football player for the Super Bowl winning “Cougars”, is conspiring with a nerdy scientist to locate and extract valuable titanium from his country’s landscape. Unfortunately for, and unbeknownst to, our sweet Sheena, the heaviest concentration of the stuff is smack dab in the center of Zambouli land. Before the mining can begin, however, King Jabalani must be murdered. The scientist is skeptical. “I’m the man who kicked a 68-yard field goal against the Denvers,” Otwani reasons, “Who can stop me?” It’s the first of many memorable lines, but perhaps the most singularly ridiculous. With the plot set in motion, the film cuts to a naked Sheena under her favorite waterfall. It’s an important transition, for without the possibility of breast exposure, we just wouldn’t stand for the film’s dull slog through dry non-adventure. The second we want to shut it all down, we sit up and wait for the next flesh feast. But alas, the next story piece interrupts the show. Vic Casey, an American sports reporter in town to interview the Prince, exchanges witless banter with Fletch, his cameraman, as their shaky plane descends into the jungle.
Suddenly, the movie explodes with incident and intrigue. Otwani poisons the scientist, the Shaman has visions of destruction, and the King’s girlfriend, someone out of an American soap opera, meets with Otwani to finalize the conspiracy: “I am,” she roars, “the most wicked woman in Tigora!” That evening, at a dinner party for the American guests, the King is assassinated. It seems a makeshift bow has been planted in the trees, allowing for an arrow to be released at just the right time. It’s a Zambouli arrow! The Shaman is arrested, even though she just rode up in a car driven by the King’s bodyguards. Vic is shocked, but Fletch has grainy footage of the whole thing. We’re in Blow-Up! But right before her arrest, the Shaman mind-raped Sheena. “Trouble, grab the zebra!” Off she goes, with other animals in tow. Vic and Fletch follow along. Next up, the scene of the year, perhaps the century. An elephant bursts through an electric fence at the prison. A chimp disarms a guard with cunning and guile. A second chimp grabs a set of keys, and the prison is reduced to rubble. All set to the music of Vangelis! But the Shaman is free, free at last.
Vic and Fletch, smelling an Emmy, even though the bow they caught on film could have been set by anyone, vow to follow Sheena into the jungle before sending the film back to America. They encounter lions and snakes, but also Sheena. Jumping on the hood of their car, Tanya becomes the Tawny of the Whitesnake years. “Do you want to die?”, she asks, though with all the conviction of a Baskin-Robbins worker securing your choice of ice cream. Vic is instantly in love, but it’s possible he’s responding to the acres of glistening, rock-hard flesh. Sheena nurses the dying Shaman, Otwani meets with his military forces, and somewhere, the late King’s mistress demands that Sheena be shot on sight. The Shaman rambles on about tears and embers, and soon dies. Sheena is heartbroken, but she has her orders. As long as she lives, she will protect her people. Vic implores her to sit down for an interview. “I will send your words back to America!” Sheena is baffled. “Words are like the wind. They cannot be carried home.” Vic flashes a tape recorder. Sheena acts as if she’s been shown a bucket of detached penises.
Otwani and his pet Colonel stage an attack. Fletch takes the car, while Vic leaves with Sheena. Then, despite the roar of helicopters and ever-present gunfire, Sheena decides to take a dip at her favorite waterfall. “Why don’t you come in and wash,” she asks Vic. “You’re as dirty as a warthog.” And so he is. “Remove those strange skins you wear,” she implores, but clearly Vic is embarrassed by his massive erection. Soon atop a zebra, the pair ride with the wind, and he leans in for a kiss. She has no idea what this is. After all, mouths are for eating, are they not? No matter, as Sheena is a quick learner, and after a single peck, she becomes a make-out artist, inhaling Vic’s lower jaw as if possessed by the spirit of a rabid dog. Here, though, is where I ask a very key question. She has no idea about kissing, binoculars, blue jeans, or even chest hair. She acts puzzled at every third word that comes from Vic’s mouth. “Say what you mean,” she insists. Hell, she’s never even heard of gasoline. And yet, she offers the following while on the zebra: “The chief’s fermented buffalo milk will be your fermented buffalo milk.” Fermented? This, she knows? From the woman who damn near dropped from a stroke after encountering a zipper? Sheena complicated.
Vic and Sheena run and run and run, but soon want to surrender. Something about Otwani threatening to gun down the region’s wildebeests. Sheena is taken by the King’s duplicitous lover to be dropped into a waterfall. It makes no sense, as it ties up the group’s lone helicopter, but she will have her vengeance! Soon, Vic is offering a deal to the ex-placekicker he once loved. Vic will hand over the damning assassination footage in exchange for a signed treaty that grants Zambouli independence. Otwani agrees. Vic seems pleased, knowing the word of a Third World dictator is like money in the bank. Golden and unbreakable, no? But will Sheena die in the process? High above the falls, she’s about to be pushed out when she slams her fist to her forehead and contacts the birds. The birds! Within seconds, every last flamingo in a ten-mile radius swoops into the copter’s path. The pilot is pecked into unconsciousness. The evil Princess, now Queen, tumbles from the aircraft and onto the rocks below. Sheena leaps out, clutching a vine. The pilot, pecked and bloody, hits the ground and explodes in a fireball. And so ends the only know case of flamingos stopping a criminal conspiracy.
And yet, the attack on Zambouli continues. The Colonel is especially upset, and he’s determined to kill Sheena himself. But first, the Zambouli tribesmen attack the military convoy. Arrows are shot, and dozens die. Elephants and chimpanzees once again help out, rolling boulders from a hill to stop the trucks cold. That aforementioned chimp uses a grenade. Soon, the Colonel is cornered by an African and stabbed in the throat. A post-mortem one-liner is offered, but it’s not in English. And it’s garbled. It could have been epic. Otwani gets away, though, driving a truck 150 mph through a savannah. Sheena rides her zebra and gives chase but is shot in the arm and falls to the ground, but not before lodging an arrow in the bastard’s chest. Suddenly, Vic appears, and he slams his truck head-on into Otwani’s vehicle. Vic is thrown, wonderfully on fire at the time. Still alive, he’s comforted by a grieving Sheena. Can he survive? In a ritual hinted at in the film’s opening scene, Vic is buried up the neck in Zambouli soil, fires are lit, and breasts are bared. The dances get crazier, and soon a naked Vic is pulled from the ground completely healed. No burns, welts, or scars! Now healthy, will he leave Sheena or stay on as an honorary tribesman? There’s no television, running water, indoor toilets, or football, but a soil that cures all disease may clinch the deal.
So, my friends, Sheena can’t come to America, because she’d be corrupted. Vic can’t tell the world about the soil, because Zambouli would be invaded by the medical community. And Vic can’t stay, well, because he’d eventually realize that while the sex would be good, the conversation would be slightly less stimulating than having tea with the elephants. He never considers kidnapping these military-grade chimps for an army of conquest, but as we’ve learned, Vic is a sentimental fellow. And, like Casablanca, he must selflessly abandon love for the greater good. What else have we learned? Never play poker with an African. You will be safe inside the circle. Fire burns very hot. Never fuck with a zebra named Marika. And Tom Dempsey, Jason Elam, David Akers, and Sebastian Janikowski do not hold the NFL record for longest field goal. Not even close.