Friday, February 10, 2012

THE ARENA (1974)

It's a stroke of exploitation genius. The women-in-prison movie was a big money-making genre in the sleazy Seventies, but how do you keep it fresh? You can change the locale from Central America to the Philippines or beyond, but after a while the camp in the jungle motif looks the same no matter where you shoot it. Why not take the idea back in time? And what more natural destination for the Roger Corman wayback machine than mythically decadent and exploitative Rome? It was a perfect opportunity for Corman to do something new with Pam Grier and Margaret Markov, the stars of his Philippine production Black Mama, White Mama. I didn't care much for that film when I finally saw it but the original audiences ate it up, so Corman wanted to reunite the glamazonian actresses in a similar tale of sporadic adversarity and uneasy alliance. He sent them to Italy with novice director Steve Carver to work for local producer Mark Damon, a long established expatriate American actor. The Arena had a happy ending after it wrapped when Markov and Damon married; they remain a couple today. As for the film itself, it fulfills the potential Black Mama, White Mama really only hinted at for Grier and Markov as a formidable female action team.

In the first century B.C., with memories of Spartacus's uprising still fresh, Romans are scouring the world for plunder and slaves. In "the Brittany," a raiding party attacks worshippers leaving some sort of druidic ceremony, slaughtering most of the natives but taking Boadicea (Markov) alive. In Nubia, Roman raiders interrupt the celebratory dance of leopard-skinned Mamawi (Grier) with a rain of arrows, seizing the woman after killing the men. You'd think they'd take more slaves to make the raids worthwhile, but maybe they just enjoy killing, or maybe they're trying to solve the Riddle of Steel. In any event, our hapless heroines end up practically shackled together in Brundusium, in the house of the lanista Timarchus (Daniele Vargas), his consort Cornelia (Rosalba Neri), his effete servant Priscium and a school of gladiators. The women are meant to be kitchen workers, servants of refreshments during the games, entertainment for Timarchus's cronies and comfort for the gladiators. But after the prideful Mamawi attacks a citizen-turned slave (Marie Louise) who'd insulted her race, and Boadicea intervenes to keep the Nubian from killing the woman, Timarchus gets a brainstorm. He'll liven up his games by matching his slave women against each other in the arena.
There's some training involved, but soon enough the women are fighting before crowds who aren't sure what to make of it all. Boadicea is matched against the film's comedy-relief gladiatrix, Dierdre of the Erse (Lucretia Love), a stereotypical carrot-topped dipso who quickly proves incompetent in the arena. But the audience is so amused by her pratfalls that they convince Timarchus to spare the clown. The next bout pits Mamawi against Livia, the onetime Roman citizen, who appeals to the crowd to be spared such shame. She wins them over, compelling Timarchus to replace her with Lucinia (Mary Count), the girlfriend of top gladiator Septimus (Pietro Ceccarelli). We'd seen him earlier breaking up the fight between Mamawi and Boadicea, so we're expecting one or both of them to get back at him later in the picture. For now, we see him watch in horror as Mamawi gets the upper hand over Lucinia and Timarchus orders the Nubian to kill her foe. She can't do it until Timarchus's archers make it clear that she has no choice if she wants to live. No Woody Strode style self-sacrificing heroics -- for the moment.
Lucretia Love (above right) was actually top-billed in Italian advertising for this picture. Maybe they gave her credit for genre experience for starring in Alfonso Bresica's Battle of the Amazons a year earlier.
Two thumbs down.
Finish her!
Inevitably, Mamawi and Boadicea are matched against each other. Like their male counterparts, they're invited to seek comfort with a bedmate the night before -- in what proves, shockingly, the film's only nod toward lesbianism, they're told they can choose a male or a female. Boadicea chooses the desolate Septimus, not to screw with him, except maybe with his head. But it doesn't take much convincing to get him to seek vengeance on Timarchus. Unfortunately, he's ratted out, captured, and sentenced to crucifixion -- but a sympathetic soldier allows him an honorable suicide. Now the question becomes whether Boadicea and Mamawi will kill each other or make a stand. This shouldn't be too hard to figure out....

Because the lesbian content is minimized to almost nothing, you might miss that Arena is basically a women-in-prison film, complete with an antique equivalent of a shower scene. The absence of lesbianism makes sense when you remember that same-sex desire was usually vilified in these movies, accentuating the unnatural power women wardens seemed to have in prison settings. In The Arena there's no illusion of female power; while Cornelia comes closest to a wicked-warden figure it's always clear that Timarchus is the master. In a way, that makes the gladiatrix uprising (oops, I spoiled it) even more of a titillating nightmare of female empowerment than the jailbreaks and riots are in the conventional WIP movie. This time it's unambiguously a war of women against men -- though the male gladiators join in as well. The WIP movie has a subtext of fascinated fear of the sexually liberated women, pandering to a male notion that these women need to be kept down and controlled before jolting them with the arousing terror of a female breakout. The Arena arguably makes this point more plainly by emphasizing the training mandated by men that turns the women into unstoppable killing machines. Movies have sent us mixed messages about the outcome of a gladiator-vs-soldier showdown, Spartacus of course favoring the gladiators while Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire noted their indiscipline and likely cowardice under battle conditions. The Arena is all the way with gladiatrices. Once the rebellion breaks out, Mamawi and Boadicea make mincemeat of the soldiery, and even the ridiculous Dierdre manages to kill a few. Think of it as sublimated sexual blowback. Men may want sexual superwomen but the revolution won't necessarily stop there.

Look into your hearts! I can't die here, like some gladiator!

Steve Carver is best known to me as the director of that cheese epic and guilty pleasure of the Eighties, Lone Wolf McQuade, and The Arena shows that he hit the ground running. Aided by cinematographer Aristide (Joe D'Amato) Massaccesi, Carver gives the action a dynamic budget-epic vibe. The arena scenes may be underpopulated but otherwise the production values are perfectly adequate and even superior during the climactic escape and chase through the catacombs. A few cheesy moments are worth noting, however, like the way a man slashed across the throat clutches his head and the way a gladiator can manage to rape Dierdre while keeping his black trunks on. A little of that is probably inevitable, but it's not typical of the film. Francesco de Masi, who did a stupendous score for Lone Wolf McQuade, punches things up nicely here in his first work for Carver. Most importantly for the success of the picture, Grier and Markov are on their game, the latter for the first and only time in a marriage-shortened career. Doing their own fighting and stunts, the two rangy females are still occasionally gawky but mostly as convincingly forceful as they need to be and often more than that. To an extent, it's just a matter of Carver being a better action director than Black Mama, White Mama's Eddie Romero. But he also makes judicious use of huge, spaghetti-western scale close-ups that showcase the actresses emotions, Grier's especially, as well as their physical prowess. Let's not mistake The Arena for anything profound -- the previous paragraph notwithstanding -- but let's give credit where it's due some serious high-functioning kick-ass schlock like they hardly make anymore.

Listen to the hard sell on this trailer, uploaded by Keshizzz.


Alex Jowski said...

Hey, I LOVE this movie. But then again, I also adore Margaret Markov. Great review!

R.S. Sterling said...

I'm sold!

Samuel Wilson said...

Alex Jowski tells the truth. Check out his review of The Arena right here. If mine didn't sell you, Hellbilly, his would.