Sunday, 1 November 2020

Sheena by Stevens, Newman and Semple

My friend Matt West and I have just launched a podcast where we talk about cult films. (Matt hates the term "cult film" but he doesn't read this blog, so I think we're safe...)

The podcast's concept — if we can dignify it with that term — is that Matt chooses the movies and then he and I, his helpless victim, watch them and discuss them.

This method has already brought a slew of odd and intriguing film my way. But this is my absolute favourite so far.

You wouldn't know it from the credits on the movie, but Sheena, or Sheena the Queen of the Jungle, began life as a comic book. 

Sheena was created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger in 1937, first appearing in a story written by William Thomas and drawn by Mort Meskin in 1938.

I'm getting these facts — as I say, conspicuously absent from the movie  — from The World Encyclopedia of Comics edited by Maurice Horn.

Which goes on to say that it was "the only worthy comic book competition" to Tarzan and describes it as featuring "healthy doses of sex, sadism and items surely aimed at arousing 'prurient interests'."

Those prurient interests are also likely to be aroused by the movie, too, which is a large part of its charm. (That and the animals.)

The film was directed by John Guillermin, who also made The Towering Inferno and is beginning to arouse my interest as an oddball and intriguing figure in the history of the movies.

Sheena is in no way a sophisticated masterpiece of cinema. It has all the flaws you might expect — including some dodgy special effects and shaky acting. 

And it is certainly open to criticism over issues of sex, race and animal exploitation.

Nevertheless, it is terrific hoky fun and also a really well crafted piece of entertainment, thanks largely to a surprisingly smart script.

These kind of comic book movies are really easy to screw up, and screw-ups were even more common back in the 1980s when today's template of cheeky and slick Marvel adaptations didn't yet exist.

But the screenplay of Sheena makes a lot of smart decisions. Sheena has a cool origin story, and psychic powers which allow her to summon the aid of animals — neither of which, I believe, were in the comics.

The writers also made the smart decision of fashioning virtually the entire film as a chase and fight.

Sheena (Tanya Roberts) and American journalist Vic Casey (Ted Wass) are on the run from an evil African monarch Prince Otwani (Trevor Thomas) who has just murdered his benign brother and stolen his throne. 

Sheena and Vic have got the goods on him so the Prince is pursuing them with a small army of white mercenaries.

Our heroine and Vic eventually prevail with the assistance of some wonderful African wildlife. (As I mention in the podcast, Sheena features what is no doubt the finest flamingo attack in the history of cinema.)

The animals and the location photography by Pasqualino De Santis are two of the films greatest assets. Richard Hartley also provides a rousing synth based score — there's a notable theme for Sheena riding on her zebra past a lake full of the aforementioned flamingos.

But it is the script which is the standout feature of Sheena. As I say, it's surprisingly difficult to fashion a silly comic book into an effective film.

The writers who succeeded here are a distinguished group. The first draft was by Leslie Stevens who took the story in a science fiction fantasy direction (not surprising from the creator of The Outer Limits). 

The next draft was by David Newman, a distinguished writer who co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde and, more to the point, Superman. 

There was then an uncredited rewrite by Dean Reisner, a prolific and proficient writer who was involved in Dirty Harry among many other credits.

The final credited writer was the terrific Lorenzo Semple Jr who had a flair for this sort of material — he created the 1960s Batman TV series and worked on King Kong and Flash Gordon.

But since this is a movie called Sheena I need to say something about Tanya Roberts. 

A former Charlie's Angel and Bond girl, Roberts does a hell of a job of swinging on vines and riding wild animals (that zebra was a painted horse, by the way, you can't domesticate zebras).

She is commendably effective in a difficult and physically demanding part, including a very amusing nude scene where — innocent child of nature that she is — Sheena doesn't understand Vic Casey's discomfort in her unclothed presence.

If her performance isn't always entirely convincing well, hell, it isn't easy playing the Queen of the Jungle...

(Image credits: IMDB. I particularly like the strapline "She'll fight like a tigress." There are no tigers in Africa, as Edgar Rice Burroughs found out to his cost after including one in his first Tarzan story...)

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