One of the great things about pro­duc­er Roger Corman was that he was will­ing to let wom­en tack­le the kind of cin­e­mat­ic fare that was usu­al­ly left to men.  Part of it was com­mer­cial cal­cu­la­tion: he knew that wom­en were under­rep­re­sent­ed in gen­re fare and that both wom­en and men would get a charge from see­ing wom­en per­form tra­di­tion­al mas­cu­line roles in enter­tain­ment.  Like any good com­mer­cial-mind­ed mogul, he had it both ways by adding sex and nudi­ty to the­se con­coc­tion to please the men in the audi­ence — but he was also will­ing to let film­mak­ers build their sto­ries around strong female char­ac­ters whose take-charge style reflect­ed the fem­i­nist atti­tudes of the 1970’s.

The Arena is a note­wor­thy exam­ple of Corman’s dri­ve-in fem­i­nism in action.  Essentially, the script by John & Joyce Corrington of The Omega Man fame takes the sword & san­dal gen­re that the Italians did so well and adds the “fight for free­dom” angle from Spartacus but tweaks it in a pro-female direc­tion.  The main hero­ines are Bodicia (Margaret Markov), a proud priestess, and Mamawi (Pam Grier), a peace­ful Nubian.  Both are sold into slav­ery after Roman sol­diers wipe out their tribes — and they quick­ly find them­selves at the mer­cy of child­ish emper­or Timarchus (Daniele Vargas), who uses them for his amuse­ment with the help of cru­el slave-dri­ver Cornelia (Sara Bay, a.k.a. Italian schlock star­let Rosalba Neri).

At first, Bodicia and Malawi are used as con­cu­bi­nes to provide enter­tain­ment dur­ing orgies, ser­vants dur­ing the glad­i­a­tor fights and to provide pre-fight “com­pan­ion­ship” for the glad­i­a­tors.  However, once stan­dard mano-a-mano com­bat ceas­es to be enough for spec­ta­cle-hun­gry vil­lagers, Timarchus uses the wom­an to be his glad­i­a­tors.  At first it is a diver­sion and the wom­en avoid hurt­ing each oth­er — but soon the crowd wants more and Timarchus is will­ing to kill the wom­en if they won’t com­ply with the crowd’s whims.  However, the emper­or has under­rat­ed their desire for free­dom — and they will soon to prove to all com­ers what they’ll do to earn it.

Simply put, The Arena is clas­sic 1970’s dri­ve-in fem­i­nist fun.  On the basic exploita­tion front, it deliv­ers all the flesh­ly and bru­tal charms one would expect from this premise: the palace sce­nes offer the expect­ed debauch­ery, the are­na sce­nes have plen­ti­ful blood­shed and the female stars aren’t bash­ful about nudi­ty.  The real sur­prise here is how seri­ous The Arena fre­quent­ly is.  The script has a gen­uine core of dra­ma to it, with a real feel­ing for its glad­i­a­tor char­ac­ters male and female, and direc­tor Steve Carver plays this up to add some unex­pect­ed heft to the film’s cheap thrills.

The seri­ous angle of the film is aid­ed by the art­ful qual­i­ty of Carver’s direc­tion.  He goes for an expres­sive visu­al style that mix­es hand­held cam­er­a­work with some unex­pect­ed­ly love­ly com­bi­na­tion dolly/zoom shots.  His ace in the hole here is the cam­er­a­work by Aristide Massaccesi, bet­ter known to sex­ploita­tion fans as Joe D’Amato.  Say what you will about his schlocky self-direct­ed erot­i­ca but Massaccesi was a fine cam­era­man and his work here gives the film an art­sy, gen­uine­ly Italian “peplum” flair.  It’s worth not­ing that the film was shot at Cinecitta in Italy so it has an unex­pect­ed­ly high lev­el of pro­duc­tion val­ue that aids the visu­al ele­gance.  Finally, the edit­ing — done most­ly by an unnamed Italian edi­tor but cred­it­ed to Joe Dante — gives the film the punchy pace a New World Pictures clas­sic needs and a suit­ably grand score from Francesco DeMasi fits the film’s brood­ing tone nice­ly.

Finally, the act­ing cements the film’s pro-female tone.  Markov and Grier had teamed up before on the blax­ploita­tion-themed Defiant Ones knock­off Black Mama, White Mama and the pair­ing works again here.  Markov has the noble pres­ence to fit her Amazonian looks.  Grier ini­tial­ly adds a lighter touch to off­set Markov’s somber qual­i­ty but as the film’s tone dark­ens Grier han­dles a few intense dra­mat­ic sce­nes with con­fi­dence.  It’s also worth not­ing that both excel in the action depart­ment — and when they’re slash­ing up Roman sol­diers side by side dur­ing the finale, it’s a thing of exploita­tion-flick beau­ty.

On the act­ing tip, it’s worth not­ing some fun per­for­mances in the sup­port­ing cast.  Lucretia Love steals a few sce­nes as a wine-lov­ing female glad­i­a­tor while the vil­lain­ous ranks of the palace offer amus­ing­ly car­toon­ish turns from Vargas as the emper­or and also Silvio Laurenzi as Priscium, an out­ra­geous­ly campy slave-buy­er.  The lat­ter two ham it up in a way that wouldn’t been seen again in this sort of film until Caligula. However, the best sup­port­ing per­for­mance comes from Neri as the slave-train­er: she’s a grand, cru­el-yet-sexy vil­lain­ess who makes a per­fect omega to the Markov and Grier’s alpha.

All in all, The Arena deserves its sta­tus as one of the New World Pictures clas­sics and also shows the ear­ly skills that Carver would bring to fruition in lat­er films like Big Bad Mama and Lone Wolf McQuade.  If you dig Corman’s par­tic­u­lar fla­vor of dri­ve-in fem­i­nism then this film offers a ver­i­ta­ble buf­fet of that sort of thrill.