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.