Wednesday 3 May 2023

The Arena (1974)

Director: Steve Carver
Writers: John & Joyce Corrington
Stars: Margaret Markov and Pam Grier, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller, Daniel Vargas, Marie Louise, Mary Count and Sara Bay

Index: The First Thirty.

It shouldn’t seem too surprising to find Pam Grier making a peplum flick apparently out of nowhere, given that it’s not far off the Filipino women in prison movies she was shooting.

To be fair, part of that is because New World had it re-edited, by Joe Dante, future director of The Howling, Gremlins and The ’Burbs, in order to market it as “Black Slave White Slave”, as a way to build on the chemistry of the two leads in an earlier film, Black Mama White Mama. The other star is Margaret Markov.

Originally, however, it was an Italian movie with a third lead, Lucretia Love. I’ve only seen the beginning of the movie in Italian, showing us the capture by Roman soldiers of not only Bodicia, a druid priestess from Brittany clad in the purest white (Markov), and a lively Nubian dancer called Mamawi (Grier) in a leopard skin leotard, but also Deirdre, some drunken Irish redhead played by a Texan who married a pair of Europeans and died in the Seychelles. So an Italian gladiator movie makes sense, even if her part was whittled down to comic relief.

In either version, the Romans are recruiting slaves and these three, along with Livia, some sort of Roman noblewoman sold into slavery, soon show up on the auction block in Brindisi, back when it was called Brundisium. They’re bought en masse by an effete noble who seems very keen to point out that he won’t be doing anything with them because he’s gay. It seems weird to even point that out but it’s important to him, so I guess I’ll faithfully report it here.

Initially, this is as gratuitous as we expect it to be, with the usual women in prison shower scene showing bush as well as boobs, because, hey it’s European. However, once that’s out of the way, this tones down surprisingly much.

They’re taken to the arena, not to fight in it but to clean the seating area and pleasure the gladiators. It’s traditional, we’re told, for any gladiator due to battle to the death tomorrow to have their choice of bed partner tonight.

However, Timarchus, who runs the arena, is finding that his audiences are becoming jaded with the same ol’ same ol’. Gruesome death is passé now, and his colleague lost big recently during Spartacus’s revolt. “I need something new,” he claims, “something really exciting.”

No prizes for guessing what that something turns out to be, but it takes a little while to get there. First we have build. The next scene for the girls is to work a debauched Roman party. They arrive inside a golden cage, carried by a quartet of slaves. Mamawi is tasked to dance, while Bodicia serves wine, but it only takes an angry slap on the latter’s part to get her raped for being disrespectful.

The girls are strong though, as we find one night when they’re chosen by gladiators for a last night of nookie. Quintus is clearly forward with Mamawi, but she stops him and slaps him before taking control and taking him. Marcus is too busy wallowing in pity to try anything, but Bodicia suggests escape and initiates.

And, eventually, inevitability takes over, as Timarchus and his cohorts try to conjure up a new idea in the sauna. “What about serpents?” “What about elephants?” It takes Livia digging at Mamawi to spark a fight that takes over the entire kitchen and someone to finally connect the dots and arrive at “Return of the Amazon!” and “Barbarian women mad for blood, pitted against each other!”

It’s taken half an hour, but we’ve got there in the end and now there are girls in the arena attempting to lift heavy swords. It’s probably fair to say that Markov and Grier immediately look as if they belong in combat, though they take some time to acquit themselves well in an actual fight. They get better as the movie runs on and, once we get to the inevitable escape, they’re fantastic. Dierdre, on the other hand, doesn’t have a clue and fights drunk instead.

Now, the audience do love that, because it’s the something new Timarchus was searching for, but it gets old quickly. It also gets serious. Bodicia vs. Deirdre becomes only a clown act, but Mamawi vs. Lucinia turns deadly.

The scriptwriters, a husband and wife team of John and Joyce Corrington, who had written The Omega Man, Boxcar Bertha and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, knew how to keep us on the hook, especially here. Mamawi is supposed to fight Livia, which we’ve ached for because the latter is an entitled bitch, but, as a Roman, she has the crowd on her side so is pulled from the bout. That’s tough, but the only girl available to substitute is Lucinia, girlfriend of Septimus, chief trainer of gladiators, so it’s emotional.

Mamawi wins, of course, because Grier is a star of the film and Mary Count isn’t, but she’s hesitant to deliver the killing blow, even after Timarchus turns his thumb down. She gets an arrow to the shoulder for her hesitation and it has to be death, if not for Lucinia then for her. So she does the business and we feel it.

The key theme is the old chestnut about the meaning of human. In this world, the Romans are humans and everyone else isn’t, hence the Livia saga. As a Roman sold into slavery, she’s still human but those taken from their lives to fight to the death as entertainment are not. Of course, the humanity we see is with gladiators, whether it’s based in relationships or a code of honour, and a centurion who understands and respects that.

Grier isn’t quite as fierce here as I expected as a gladiator but she’s strong and vibrant and the fierceness comes when the revolt comes, with her at its head calling the shots. Markov is strong here too, building on her charismatic shared lead in Black Mama White Mama. There’s not as much character growth for them in this one, but there are other compensating factors.

The Italians, who comprise most of the cast, tend to overact, as does Paul Muller, who was Swiss, but he’s very watchable doing it, which is not the case for many lower in the credits. I do like Deirdre and am eager to see watch the full version to see what she does in the eight minutes cut by Joe Dante.

So it’s a decent film for the leads, whether we count two or three of them, but otherwise it’s a surprise. There’s nowhere near as much nudity as I expected and not as much blood. It isn’t free of it, but it’s no gorefest and it could easily have been, especially with Joe D’Amato shooting the arena scenes. I enjoyed it, but it’s a curiosity rather than essential viewing, for everyone involved.

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