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The Arena
(1974)

Director: Steve Carver 
Cast:
Margaret Markov, Pam Grier, Lucretia Love


I've got a question to ask you, a question that will make you think back to a number of years ago. When you were growing up and in grade school, what parts of the learning curriculum were your favorites to induldge in? Most of you will probably answer with the physical education portion of your learning, since many of you considered these classes a break from tedium and a chance to indulge in fun. As for my case, being extremely unathletic, such classes were my least favorite part of school. And since I was such a non-comformist even back then, it turned out my favorite subjects in school seemed to be the subjects my fellow classmates hated the most. The first of those subjects was English. My classmates seemed to hate reading or writing, which I couldn't understand. To me, reading and making up my own stories seemed like a lot of fun. The other subject that I loved in school that my classmates seemed to hate was history. Why this was so is something that I was not sure of back then, and unsure of to this day. Maybe it was because history meant talking about "old fashioned" things, things that twentieth century youths could simply not relate to. But I loved history. I can't explain why, but I found the path that man had gone through up to the present day to be one of endless fascination. There were so many interesting true stories and characters to learn about. Also, these true stories and characters frequently made me realize I was fortunate to live in this present day. Yes, there was a lot of appeal in history class... at least when it came to foreign history. I learned that Canadian history came across as boring and uncolorful when compared to the rich history of other countries and cultures. It's no wonder when Canadian TV did their version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, they asked a lot of Canadian history lessons - obviously, the producers know there was so little interest on the subject, they knew their questions would stump players and prevent them from winning big bucks.

There are many aspects on world history that fascinate me even though it's years since I last attended school. My favorite is probably the period of the Second World War - it's the stuff of great adventure and deeds, which is probably why this war has been exploited by popular media so much. But there are other historical eras that perk my interest whenever I come across a mention of them in a book, television, or best of all, a movie. One of these eras I find interesting is the Roman Empire. It was an era that had people make great achievements with technology that was much simpler than the technology now, like the Roman Coliseum or Hadrian's Wall. It was one of the earliest eras to have a lot of its history written down at the time it happened, or not that long after it happened. As a result, we know much more about the culture than many others happening at the same time. Such things are great, but at the same time there is a darker side with the Roman Empire. As the TV show Spartacus showed us, there was a lot of depravity - sexual and otherwise - among Roman citizens of the time. Although there is the obvious reason why this pervert reviewer finds that interesting, it's also interesting that it shows these Romans were not as far off removed from modern us as one might think. Another dark side to the Roman Empire were that the Romans conquered a lot of foreign cultures and ruled over them for centuries. But I learned that it this aspect wasn't completely bad. I once read that a number of cultures conquered by Romans actually welcomed their rule, because before the Romans came, the territories were essentially ruled by chaos and violence. The Romans stabilized these territories, and also brought in conveniences that made life better for the people they ruled over.

Still, there was a dark side to the Romans traveling all over Europe, Africa, and Asia conquering foreign territories. There were imposed taxes, as well as the ugly reality of slavery, shipping slaves back home and forcing them in roles like servant or gladiator. TV shows like Spartacus have shown us that being a slave in the Roman Empire was often a brutal lifestyle. Some movies like Spartacus The Arenahave also shown this. But when I got the chance to watch the Roman slavery-themed movie The Arena, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be given an overall honest treatment of Roman slavery. It was a Roger Corman production, and as you probably know, Corman put few important messages in his movies. So I set my mind to judge it on delivering exploitation, especially since Pam Grier was in its cast. I was also interested to see how Corman would depict the Roman Empire on one of his typical chump change budgets. During the Roman Empire, the Roman poet Juvenal suggested that the Roman government pleased the people with bread and circuses. The events of the movie start out with the Romans in the city of Brundisium only being satisfied with one of those things. They seem to be getting plenty of bread, but when it comes to circuses, the citizens have become bored with the usual gladiator games. This concerns Timarchus (Daniele Vargas, Spirits Of The Dead), the person who runs the local arena, and he is desperate for any idea that would attract more paying customers. But then one day, Livia (Marie Louise), and Mamawi (Grier, Foxy Brown), two female slaves who are working behind the scenes at the local arena, get into a good old fashioned cat fight. It is eventually broken up by Septimus (Peter Cester, Scarface Killer), who is the arena's gladiator trainer, but Timarchus manages to get a good look at the fight before it's stopped. And in short notice, he and his men get an idea: Why not train the female slaves in gladiatorial combat, and have them fight in front of an audience? So Livia, Mamawi, as well as their fellow female slaves Bodicia (Markov, Black Mama White Mama) and Deirdre (Love) are promptly forced to be trained by Septimus in the art of gladiatorial combat. When the women are eventually placed in front of an audience and forced to fight, the novelty of women fighting becomes a hit, and crowds race to the arena. While the slave women were unhappy before, they are even more unhappy with the prospect of death, and soon they scheme for some kind of escape.

Before I sat down to watch The Arena, I hadn't ever come across female gladiators in movies, nor had I ever read in all those history books years ago about any real life female gladiators. After watching the movie, I did a little research, and I discovered that there is evidence proving that there were indeed female gladiators in Roman times. Most were recruited from slaves and prisoners of war, though surprisingly a few came from upper class Roman citizens. So the movie's theme has some basis in fact. Though you may be wondering just how convincing the rest of the movie is, considering it was a low budget Roger Corman production. Well, despite all my history reading as a child, I am not an expert on the Roman Empire, so I can't say how accurate the movie is. However, I can say how the movie looks compared to other movies concerning the Roman empire, and the movie often looks surprising good. The Arena was shot in Italy, being a co-production and an obvious attempt to cut costs, but also so Corman could take advantage of what he could get from Italy and the Italian film industry. The various Italian locations, from arenas to catacombs, are more often than not the real deal and add authenticity to the movie. The costumes, obvious leftovers from past Roman films from the Italians, look fairly decent and convincing. And with Corman able to get more for his dollar in Italy than in America, he was able to round up plenty of extras to display dozens of audience members at the arenas, as well as plenty of Roman soldiers on patrol in various parts of the movie. I'm not saying that the movie comes across as a big budget exercise, but it definitely looks more expensive than what one usually gets in a Roger Corman movie from the 1970s.

With The Arena being a co-production between the U.S. and Italy, obviously some Italian talent had to work behind the camera, and a lot of this talent is very professional. It's decently shot by cinematographer Aristide Massaccesi (a.k.a. Joe D'Amato), and the musical score by Francesco De Masi (Lone Wolf McQuade), though not extensive, does add a surprising and effective solemn feeling at times. So as you can see from all that, The Arena in many ways is a lot more professionally done than you might expect. But I know that fact is probably not a big concern to some potential viewers, since these viewers no doubt want to know how the movie delivers with its touches of exploitation - sex and violence. I'll start with sex and nudity. The movie starts promisingly, with a pleasing scene of the slave women completely stripped to be bathed. Later on, there is some sex, rape, and a couple of topless scenes. But almost all of this pleasing material is in the first third of the movie - the remaining two-thirds is almost completely free of nudity and sex. I think a number of viewers will feel that the movie isn't going all out with sexual material, and will feel a little let down here. Then there's violence. Well, the movie is jam-packed with a number of fight sequences, mostly in the arena, but the fights are kind of a mixed bag. When male gladiators are fighting other male gladiators, director Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama) manages to build a decent amount of energy. However, when the female gladiators fight each other, Carver can't seem to light any sparks. The women manipulate their weapons slowly, generating long pauses between attempted blows on their opponent. The choreography of these fights does not feel the least bit natural or energetic, and you have to wonder why the Romans in the audience are getting all excited about these lame bouts.

Oddly, towards the end of the movie when the female gladiators find themselves forced to fight male opponents, these male/female fight scenes actually aren't badly done. Why the women-on-women fights are so lamely done, I cannot say. I will say that while the female actresses in The Arena may not be going all out fighting their sisters, they do seem to be trying in the surrounding parts of the movie. But despite their best efforts, the movie doesn't quite make it to be essential viewing. I wasn't chiefly disappointed with the restrained sexual elements or the lame cat fights, but rather with the script. The biggest problem with the screenplay is that it does not flesh out the characters very well, whether they be male or female, slave or Roman citizen. Apart from learning where slaves Mamawi and Bodicia were captured from, that's pretty much all we learn about them. When the two of them later scheme to escape, their words come across as two strangers talking, not two people who have gotten to know and understand each other. Gladiator trainer Septimus is eventually revealed to have had a child (which we never see) with one of the slaves, and then this fact is all forgotten about. The arena boss, Timarchus, is given so little screen time and gets to say very little that the movie simply is unable to make him a bad guy that we hate and hope will meet a deadly end. An additional problem with the screenplay is that the movie's story is essentially at a standstill for much of the running time, padding out the running time with numerous fights and other scenes that don't advance the minimal plot that much. Had there been a subplot or two running behind all this gladiator activity - like for example an escape plan that was hatched much earlier on and put together piece by piece as the movie advanced - I think The Arena would really feel like it was constantly moving. There may be some viewers who might like the movie despite its shortcomings - namely those who like to leer at Grier - but as for me, while I didn't find the movie terrible, it was all the same a big disappointment.

(Posted November 20, 2016)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: Bloodfist 3, Legion Of Iron, Quest For The Mighty Sword

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