Saturday 16 November 2013

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle

I had been working for three months on the Douglas-Hamilton farm at Naivasha when I was asked to play host to a party from a film company who were planning the epic "Sheena - Queen of the Jungle". While Iain and Oria lived in a modern house on the farm, I had been assigned to her father's house built in the late thirties on a size and scale that befitted an Italian Count (which he was). As well as black and white marble flooring, there was a spectacular upper 'deck' - a lovely thirty foot balcony with a thatched roof lined inside with polished wood fitted by a boat-builder. In the space between the wood and the thatch lived a couple of thousand bats. Every evening, just as dusk came down (always roughly 6pm, being nearly on the equator) they would almost silently launch out of the eaves, causing an amazing effect like an eclipse! The film crew were scouting for a location to be the king's house in the movie and they decided pretty much instantly that this was it! During lunch on the terrace (where the king is assassinated) the casting director asked me how much longer I planned to stay on the farm. I replied that I was ready to move on and asked him why he'd raised the issue. He asked if I had ever considered being a mercenary! I accepted his offer - but, having worked on 'Master of the Game' I knew how boring it could be as an extra and asked if I could bring my Landrover to the sets. The director was sitting next to us and he agreed. So I spent the next three months working with them. Although the other guys enjoyed air-conditioned coaches and planes to get the the locations I was massively happy to have my Landrover with me and often got extra jobs ferrying kit from the stores to the sets. I got friendly with the armourer and he was delighted to have someone to help who could strip and clean any of the guns used in the film.

The evil mercenaries - can you pick me out?

I already knew a few of these guys when we first met to get kitted out. We were in the mess tent and the assistant director came to tell us that the director himself (gasp!) would come and say a few words to us. He gave a little pep talk and then, as he was leaving, stopped next to me and said how much he had enjoyed the wine at lunch at 'my' house!

As you can see, we worked with lions. They were both tame and there was almost always one of them loose on the set. In the same way a domestic cat does, they liked to rub their cheeks against us and purr. If they came up behind you and started to rub, you almost always went over flat on your face because of the size and weight that had just been applied to you. I remember standing with a bunch of people watching a scene being set up and seeing someone down the line go over face-first. Without actually looking all the way round I caught the eye of the guy next to me. We both nodded at the same time and sighed, "pesky lion".

Lorenzo Ricciardi

This is Lorenzo dying. He has his fingers on the spear so that when the director says "Action" he will flick the spear so it will start vibrating. The camera starts on the Zambuli (actually Samburu) warrior -

Zambuli spear-thrower

who chucks the spear past Lorenzo's tree and the camera follows it and stops on the impaled mercenary. It works very well but the amazing thing we learned is that these guys can actually throw a spear so fast it makes a noise in the air!!

Lorenzo is Oria's brother-in-law. He married her lovely sister, Mirella, who was one of the photographers taking stills for publicity. Her work is stunning - if you want a bargain, click here! One of Lorenzo's party tricks was to wander around our tented camp after supper, stop outside an inhabited tent, put his head in a bucket and let out the most convincing lion-roar I had ever heard! This caused shrieks from the victims and howls of laughter from Lorenzo's followers. However, one night the was silence from inside the tent and then someone said "I say, did you hear a hyena?" I will never forget the look on Lorenzo's face.

On the topic of roaring lions, when we were in the Aberdares our camp was visited by local lions. These were bad lions who had attacked people and had been relocated to this fairly remote area. On the foothills of Mount Kenya it is often frosty at night and they grew huge manes! Our lions had an enclosure with an eight foot chainlink fence. Within this enclosure was the handler's tent and also two six by six by six foot cages for the lions to sleep in. Every night a couple of the local lions would leap effortlessly over the outer fence and sniff around the cages. Our lions would burrow under their straw until the handler emerged and threw a thunderflash into the air. At the exact moment that the local lions cleared the fence on the way out, our male lion would emerge from his straw and let out a mighty roar!!!

Tame African elephant

The cool dudes who supplied the non-human part of the cast were called 'Animal Actors of Hollywood'. The elephant was lovely and here I am hitching a ride back to the set. At huge expense they tranquilised the elephant and made a perfect replica of his head and front legs. This was mounted in front of a Landrover pickup and an operator in the back could move the head, trunk and legs with levers. This was all done for a very important shot where the elephant comes to break Sheena out of jail. He has to burst through an electrified barbed-wire fence. The fence was actually made out of solder so a small child could break it - but to give the illusion that it was electrified it was loaded with little firecrackers that exploded and sparked. No-one thought the elephant would do this more than once - hence the mock-up on the pickup! As it turned out the elephant didn't bat an eyelash and happily went through the routine several times. This left the film company with some costly, redundant kit . . . a bit of a white elephant! I worked on for a couple of weeks longer than the other guys, ferrying kit back to Nairobi from the locations. I drove the elephant pickup through Nairobi and had to laugh at the drivers in front of me who would casually flick a glance in the rear-view mirror - and then jump as if electrocuted as they saw the 'elephant'.

Our Vogue supermodel

This was our boss bad lady. Her name is France Zobda and she has incredible multi-coloured eyes! My role was gunner on top of the armoured car behind us.

France, catching some shade

A lovely Gerenuk - also seeking shade

A lion stunt

Here you can see a lion at work. She had been sitting on the bank on the right when her handler leaned over with a bit of steak on a frying pan on the end of a broomstick. As she jumps across to get it the cameraman with the steadicam films her jumping and the film is cut just as she is in line with the mercenary.

Burning fuel truck

Every day there was a sheet put up with the props and crew listed for the next day. We had a fuel bowser rented from the Kenyan Army and I had filled up from it that afternoon. I commented to the soldier manning it that there was a really strong smell of fuel. He showed me that the trigger on the nozzle was faulty and when he put it back in the holster under the belly of the tank it kept dripping. I jumped out and squelched over to it, took it out of the holster and hung it on a hook near the top of the tank. It stopped dripping. He thanked me and I drove off. Later on we heard this huge whoosh - it turned out that the director's chauffer had pulled up in his Range Rover to fill up and had dropped a cigarette out of the window. Luckily no-one was hurt - except  my pride! I wished I had told the guy to move his truck after he filled me up! On the sheet for the next day was "Burning fuel truck".

Burning fuel truck II

This is the burning fuel truck in the movie. Our hero makes a fire arrow with his Swiss army knife and sets fire to the villains' fuel supply. However, they whistle up their chopper and it hovers over the lorry and blows it out. It was a very dramatic scene and Tim, the helicopter pilot, came in incredibly low and fast from over the ridge you can see. The director and the cameras were under the fever tree to the right. As Tim shot up in the air and hovered again he came on the radio and asked if it was OK. The director asked him to do it again slightly lower and Tim did - coming in so tight his rotors took off the tips of the fever tree and showered the crew with splinters and thorns. He shot up in the air again and hovered and asked laconically "OK?"

Sheena on her morning commute

No, you can't ride a zebra so some very talented people painted a couple of horses!

Just before I die

We also had a five ton white rhino. They built a corral and one of the cool dudes from Hollywood, an ex-rodeo star, hazed it into a trot towards my armoured car. When that shot was in the can they brought up a replica of the rhino's head mounted on a two-wheeled luggage trolley. The horn went under the car and (with the help of all spare crew), rocked it back and forth until it flipped over into a ravine and exploded. While all this was going on my gun was supposed to have jammed and I had to go through the motions of clearing it over and over only to find it keeps jamming. Ironically I actually know how to clear this gun and have been drilled on it so many times it becomes routine - and the last step on the drill is to shoot! It was very, very hard not to shoot!!

The end

This was the end for us! The elephant had pushed over a tree in front of us and another behind us so we were trapped. Sheena brings the Zambulis to finish us off. It was very intimidating from my point of view, These guys wear little red skirts - and they are going commando! When we had seen the spears and arrows in the props tent they had latex rubber heads. When the action started our guys on top of the Landrovers and trucks (and me behind my steel shield) were all standing up Rambo-style and firing away merrily. Out of the corner of my eye I could see them one by one somersaulting backwards off their vantage points. I thought "I don't remember anyone telling them to do that". When the director shouted "Cut" the bodies on the ground started rolling over clutching various parts of their anatomy and groaning and cursing. Then one of them picked up a spear and shouted "Hey, look at this" As the assistant director came over the spear was waved under his nose. The head was all fibreglass with a tiny latex tip. "What the heck is this? The ones we saw weren't like this!" It turned out that when the Zambulis chucked the original models they went so fast the blades doubled over and the spear would fly in a wobbly curve! So the special effects department had 'fixed' them. After more muttering we got set for a second take and this time - probably much more like real life - the guys were sheltering behind the sides of the trucks showing only the tips of their weapons. As I mentioned above, it shows just how hard Samburu warriors can throw things that they could knock big blokes off their feet from 40 feet away - we were actually very lucky that no-one got hit in the face or throat! 


  1. Sheena is hot. I would have opted for the Land Rover also. Did you serve chowder, fish and chips for meals or roasted rhino?

  2. Good question Jerry. We actually had the Tamarind Restaurant (top restaurant in Nairobi & Mombasa - I used to look after the boss's dad's house - but that's another story!) doing the catering. In the middle of nowhere they would set up great big charcoal pits and produce the most amazing 5 star food. One day one of the assistant directors called the chef out - "My plate is not hot enough!" The chef didn't say a word, he bowed, took the thick china plate away, stuck one edge in the charcoal, counted to ten, wiped it and walked back into the eating area. He had a linen towel draped over his forearm but was still holding the plate in his other hand. He bowed again and presented the plate across his forearm. "Monsiour" The dude took the plate with a smug look which turned into panic as the heat hit his fingers! He screamed and jumped at least 3 feet in the air! We all applauded the chef!!

  3. Hi David, I enjoyed a lot your article about the movie Sheena. When I had been in Kenya (2011) I visited some locations of movie like: lake nakuru, Aberdare, lake Naivasha, Hell's Gate and Amboseli (I could not visit Shaba due safe reasons). Do you have more pictures of making of?
    I'd like to have read something about Tanya Roberts, is she nice? Arrogant? I read so many things about the movie (e.i the crew left the rhino in Kenya, giving up to take it back to US). Could you tell me your e-mail? I'd like to send to you some pictures of making of Sheena, I have a few.
    A question: Did The cast stay on tents or lodges inside jungle?
    It would be nice if you could write more about sheena.
    Best Regards

    1. Hi Andre, thanks for the comments! Tanya was kind of arrogant and egotistical! France Zobda - who played the villainess - was adorable! Tanya would only talk to people who she thought were more important than her but France talked to us minions too! My address is davidpaulpalmer at gmail dot com! Cheers!

    2. The cast stayed in very smart tented camp - but the director and the stars were helicoptered away to lodges each evening by our own helicopter pilot - who sadly died in a crash a few years later. Sorry to hear that the director died too - he was a decent guy!

  4. Oh, I forgot to say, the director of movie died this year, just like the little girl did sheena young ( a few years ago in an acident of car).