SHEENA (1984)
Page 5: The Location

The Tanya Roberts Sheena film does present a vast array of impressive landscapes that are a feast for the eye - flamingo-covered soda lakes of the Rift Valley; a spectacular waterfall that plunges over jungle-covered cliffs; jumbled and jagged lava fields; vast, arid clay pans as flat as a tabletop; and a majestic tropical jungle with towering, vine-covered forest giants that is the awesome setting for the climactic battle.  I know of no Tarzan film that offers such a wonderful array of exotic scenery, and those who have visited my Tarzan Films pages know that I have seen them all.  A handful of Tarzan films were either filmed partially or completely in Africa - Tarzan's Peril (1951), Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957), Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959), Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), Greystoke (1984), and Tarzan and the Lost City (1998) - but none of the colourful scenery presented in those films can compare to the sheer quantity of different locales and the spectacular array of jaw-dropping scenery that the Tanya Roberts film presents.  Sadly, this impressive presentation was completely wasted on a film with a lame script and a lead actress of limited dramatic abilities.

Initially the company had plans to complete much of the filming in the more-accessible, conducive environs of Mexico.  In the 1950s Irish McCalla's Sheena Queen of the Jungle television series was filmed in Mexico, as was Ron Ely's Tarzan series in the Sixties.  However, it was soon decided that the cinematic benefits of filming in "The Dark Continent" outweighed the additional logistical headaches that this involved. Director John Guillerman scouted several different African locations before settling on Kenya as the final shooting site (see Page 2: The Director).  Two months before principal photography was scheduled to commence he organised a cinematic safari to
prepare for shooting in the oppressive tropical heat.  He was accompanied by an international, 150-person crew composed of Americans, Italian wardrobe design, cameras and construction specialists, and English special effects, sound, production, secretarial and set decoration units.  The Italians had come directly from working with Tanya Roberts on Hearts and Armour, a mediaeval swashbuckling epic.
Because of a shortage of available living quarters almost 100 crew members were forced to camp on the set in tents for the entire shoot.  Inaccessible jungle locations also necessitated the use of 40-minute flights to and from Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport to reach filming sites.  Members of the crew who were unable to locate aircraft had to make the trip by road in trucks for two hours each way, every day, on perilous jungle roads.  Tanya Roberts, who sometimes stayed in lodges, but frequently made the flight each day, said that getting from the landing strip to the filming site was sometimes a very hazardous journey.  "We had to climb and fall down hills, or walk through mud and rain to find the locations," she admitted.  "It was like searching for a lost city!" (Preview)
The company encountered problems almost as soon as they started shooting.  Two weeks of unseasonal rains in the lowlands forced them to retreat to a location 13,000 feet (400 m) high in the Aberdare Mountains in order to continue working.  The trip took 16 hours to travel 22 miles, a journey complicated by the need to transport many of the animals that had been imported from the US to work on the film.  Animal Actors of Hollywood, a company headed by veteran animal trainer Hubert Wells, organised passage to Africa for an elephant, a rhino, five lions, four leopards, four chimpanzees, five horses and sixteen birds.  Wells commented that the just getting all of the necessary permits to bring in the animals was a superhuman task.  One of the early scenes filmed in the highlands was the scene in which Sheena and her animal friends execute the release of the Zambuli shaman from a prison.  A trained elephant was used to demolish the main prison gate, knock down several walls of the cell holding the shaman, and to topple a water tower for good measure as they are leaving (Marvel).  
Executive Producer, Paul Aratow, who had struggled for almost a decade to realise his dream of bringing Sheena to the screen (see Page 1: The Concept), decided not to accompany the crew to Africa.  His relationship with the director of the film, John Guillerman, had deteriorated when Columbia Pictures supported Guillerman in his differences with Aratow about how the project should proceed.  "It's only normal that the studio should pay more attention to John - who has been around for so long and has made so many movies - than to me, a first-time producer." Aratow observed.  Consequently, Aratow delegated all of the day to day "line production" responsibilities on location to Yoram Ben-Ami (right) (Starlog 83).  Israel-born Ben Ami, who is credited as Executive Producer on the film, had produced films and television in Europe and Israel before immigrating to the US in 1980.  Prior to Sheena, he had worked as assistant director on Swamp Thing (1982), a tounge-in-cheek horror spoof.  Ben Ami, who said that filming Sheena was "like a military operation", had the job of making sure that the production ran smoothly.  He was in charge of the day-to-day production routine and made decisions about what was shot, where it was shot, who was to be used and how much was to be spent.  He said that one of the biggest difficulties was the fact that they did not have access to "dailies" on a regular basis, the way a film production company normally would.  Dailies are the raw unedited footage that has been shot the previous day that are hurriedly prepared for viewing by the director to aid in artistic decisions.  Ben-Ami said that it would sometimes take two weeks for the dailies to get back to them from London, so that it became virtually impossible to re-shoot anything.  "You just had to move ahead and hope that everything will work out fine."  Three film units were utilised; one crew for action scenes, another worked specifically with animals, and a third dealt with the actors.  Ben-Ami was required to flit between all three units in small planes in order to monitor the progress of each team in their isolated locations (Marvel).

The November/December 1984 issue of Prevue magazine, which featured a lengthy interview with Tanya Roberts, mentioned five different film locations that were used on this film: Masai-Amboseli Game Reserve; Aberdare National Park; Lake Naivasha; Crescent Island; and Nairobi.  These sites are located across a large swathe of southern Kenya and some of them are many hours away from each other

Masai-Amboseli Game Reserve is situated in far southern Kenya and it's southern boundary is the Tanzanian border.  The park, which is 1,259 sq miles (3,810 sq km), is contiguous with Kilimanjaro National Park on the Tanzanian side of the border.  Obviously, Kilimanjaro also dominates the landscape of Masai-Amboseli.  I suspect that the climactic chase across the arid clay pans with Sheena riding Marika, her "zebra", was filmed at this location because one of the main features of the park is a generally dry lake bed (see top photo above left).  

Aberdare National Park is located in central southern Kenya, just south-west of Mt Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa, after Kilimanjaro, and the highest in Kenya.  The park is 228 sq miles (590 sq km) and is part of the central highlands of Kenya.  It consists of deep ravines with numerous waterfalls and includes part of the forest of the Aberdare Mountains.  It is highly likely that the locations identified in the film as the Zambuli Falls (see bottom photo top left) and the Great Forest, the site of the climactic battle against Prince Otwani's mercenaries, are located within this park.

Lake Naivasha, only 50 miles (80 kms) from Nairobi, is the most beautiful of the numerous Rift Valley Lakes.  It is a fresh water lake and attracts abundant bird life.  Being a freshwater lake it only attracts flamingos spasmodically, because they prefer the shellfish and algae rich waters of the mineral-rich soda lakes like Lakes Nakuru and Bagoria.  It does, however, attract flamingos in abundant numbers at times and it appears that the Sheena crew were extremely lucky when they filmed the scene of Sheena and Vic Casey observing the large flocks of flamingos on the edge of the Zambuli lands (see middle photo top left).

Crescent Island is located on the eastern edge of Lake Naivasha (see above) and is a sub-basin within the lake formed by the submerged rim of an emerging volcanic crater. The island is populated by giraffe, wildebeest and zebra, all of which were introduced to the island during the filming of Out of Africa in 1985.  However, the Tanya Roberts Sheena film was made one year prior to this event.  I have been unable to identify with any certainty the scenes of this film that may have been shot there.

Nairobi, the bustling capitol of Kenya, doubled for Azan, the capital of Tigora.  The few brief scenes shot on the streets of Nairobi were specifically selected to give Azan a sleepy, "old world" flavour.  To me, the place has more of a 1960's ambience, rather than the glitzy glass and steel of 1980s high-rise Nairobi (see photos right).

To view a full set of lobby cards for this film click on the image below:

Prevue magazine Vol 2 No 17, Nov/Dec 84
Starlog magazine Number 83, Jun 84
Sheena - Marvel Super Special No. 34, comic adaptation of the film, Marvel Comics Group 1984
• All colour images of this film on this page are video captures from the Sheena DVD, Sony Pictures Corporation
• The photo of Yoram Ben-Ami is from Sheena - Marvel Super Special No. 34, comic adaptation of the film, Marvel Comics Group 1984
• The set of Sheena lobby cards is from my private collection

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006-2008 Paul Wickham