The Arena/Naked Warriors (1973) **½
After cranking out four women’s prison movies set in the Philippines over the course of just a bit more than two years, it seems reasonable enough that Roger Corman and the New World Pictures gang would want to do something a little bit different with number five. Now you might expect a simple and obvious change like, say, moving the action to the United States, and while New World would indeed do it that way with Caged Heat the next year, they actually tried something much more dramatic first. For The Arena, one of the last New World films of 1973, Corman sent director Steve Carver and a few of the studio’s chicks-in-chains regulars to Italy, where they teamed up with Joe D’Amato to do a women’s prison flick Roman-style. Imagine Spartacus crossed with The Big Doll House, and you’ve got this movie’s number exactly.
Somewhere in Gaul, priestess Bodicia (Margaret Markov, from The Hot Box and Black Mama, White Mama) is performing what looks like some sort of coming-of-age ceremony upon a young boy in a forest clearing. Suddenly, Bodicia and her followers are surrounded by Roman soldiers on horseback, who break up the ceremony, kill most of the attendees, and take Bodicia captive. Meanwhile, in Nubia, a similar scene is played out, resulting in the capture of Mamawi (Pam Grier, of Coffy and The Big Bird Cage). Later, in Brundisium (an Italian city now known as Brindisi), Bodicia and Mamawi— together with two other girls named Livia (Marie Louise) and Deirdre (Lucretia Love, from Battle of the Amazons and The Eerie Midnight Horror Show)— are bought as slaves by Priscium (Sid Lawrence, of Hell’s Bloody Devils and The Rebel Rousers), an agent for Timarchus (Daniele Vargas, also in Eyeball and The Sensuous Nurse) and Lucilius (Paul Müller, of The Devil’s Commandment and Nightmare Castle), who run the city’s arena. Timarchus’s wife, Cornelia (Rosalba Neri, from The Devil’s Wedding Night and 99 Women), isn’t very pleased when Priscium shows up with four more girls, as the arena already has plenty of cooks and serving wenches. What she, her husband, and her husband’s partner need is more gladiators.
Then again, maybe Priscium made the smart purchase after all. The arena, you see, is rapidly becoming a money-losing venture, for the public seems to be finally growing bored with the spectacle of armed men hacking each other to pieces on a weekly basis, and Timarchus is at his wits’ end trying to dream up a way to stop the decline. His partner keeps suggesting contests between the gladiators and various wild animals, but Timarchus really doesn’t think that’s going to cut it. Then he and Lucilius happen to stop by the slaves’ mess hall just as an argument between Mamawi and Livia (the latter of whom openly considers herself to be on a plane above her fellow slaves on account of her Roman heritage) is escalating into a free-for-all catfight involving literally every woman in their employ. Watching the epic brawl gives Lucilius the idea that maybe female gladiators are exactly the new angle he and Timarchus have been looking for.
The theory is tested shortly thereafter when a match-up between Bodicia and Deirdre is squeezed into the program. Neither woman is much of a fighter, having spent only an hour or two with the arena’s head trainer, Septimus (Pietro Ceccarelli, from Atlas Against the Cyclops and Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon), and all concerned— crowd, management, and even the girls themselves— look on the contest mostly as a lark. The spectators happily give the thumbs-up when it’s all over, which is a good thing for Deirdre, whose attitude toward the match is so unserious that she goes into the arena shitfaced! (Unsurprisingly, the sober Bodicia comes out on top.) The debut of the gladiatrices is a resounding success all around, and Timarchus gets so excited over the prospect of actually turning a profit for once that he schedules another girl-on-girl bout for the very next day. He also orders Septimus to start training the women for real.
Life in the arena is not all fun and games, however, as longtime gladiators like Marcus (Vissali Karis, from Cosmos: War of the Planets and The Dirty Seven) and Quintus (Jho Jhenkins, of The Nude Princess and Shaft in Africa) could easily tell their new female counterparts. But the only one of the slave girls who seems to grasp the point fully is Septimus’s lover, Lucinia (Mary Count)— maybe it’s because she’s been around long enough to see a hundred times as much violent, gory death as new fish like Livia, Deirdre, Bodicia, and Mamawi. Then again, Livia may be a bit less clueless than she seems at first, because she at least has the good sense to use her Romanitas to weasel her way out of her scheduled fight against Mamawi. And wouldn’t you know it, Lucinia ends up being the one chosen to take her place. The crowd is in an ugly mood today, too, and there is no repeat of the previous afternoon’s audience-mandated reprieve for the loser when Mamawi bests her opponent. Mamawi balks at killing Lucinia, but the archers stationed along the arena ramparts quickly convince her that she hasn’t a lot of choice in the matter.
Now that everyone understands at last what the stakes really are, the gladiatrices— Bodicia especially— begin turning their minds to finding a way out of their fix. Bodicia and Mamawi are supposed to fight tomorrow, and neither one has any desire to kill anybody but their Roman captors. Bodicia goes to see Septimus (whose crushing grief at the death of Lucinia would seem to make him an obvious potential ally) that night, and tells him that she’s planning an escape attempt. The girls will all sneak down to the catacombs beneath Brundisium after everybody but a handful of guards will be safely in bed, at which point Septimus will meet them with as much armament as he can carry. Septimus fails to uphold his end of the rendezvous, though, for he simply can’t bring himself to leave the arena without first killing Timarchus in revenge for Lucinia. Unfortunately, Septimus is not as stealthy as he believes, and the guards catch him before he’s had a chance to lay a finger on his master; the veteran trainer is taken away for crucifixion in the morning. That leaves the gladiatrices solely to their own devices, but it just so happens that Bodicia and Mamawi between them have some formidable devices indeed.
Normally, a movie that takes such a flagrantly illiterate approach to historical topics within my areas of competence would be just begging for a smackdown. The Arena gets away with it, though, for the simple reason that it never asks to be taken terribly seriously. I could gripe about how economic considerations had long since led to the practical (if not formal) abolition of gladiation to the death by the era when this movie is set, or call attention to the fact that the Romans never made much use of cavalry except in the form of mercenary companies recruited from among the steppe tribes. I could complain that Livia’s ethnically-motivated bigotry against her fellow slaves is a gross anachronism, and point out that Roman citizenship in the Imperial period had little to do with ethnic origin and everything to do with land ownership and service to the state. But really, what would be the point? This is no pompous Hollywood costume epic, after all, but rather an ambitious attempt to find a new and untried framework for 70’s-style sleaze. The Arena is set in ancient Rome only to give it a unique and instantly recognizable flavor, and at that level if no other, it has to be considered a striking success.
The movie’s success on other levels is a bit less striking, however. Joe D’Amato is listed only as director of photography (under his real name, Aristide Massachessi) in The Arena’s credits, but it is widely reported that he helmed a fair percentage of the film all by himself. I’m pretty sure I could point out to you, scene by scene, which footage was D’Amato’s and which was Steve Carver’s. One of the most conspicuous features of The Arena is how wildly uneven it is in terms of the technical skills driving it. Some of the battles are exciting; others are limp and rapidly wear out their welcome. Some scenes pack an unexpected emotional punch, like the death of the last woman to fall before the gladiatrices make their final escape. Others, like the interminably drawn-out sequence in which Mamawi hesitates and hesitates and hesitates and hesitates to finish off Lucinia as per orders, spin helplessly off into utter ludicrousness. Some of the performers— Grier, Markov, and Love in particular— come on strong even in moments that really shouldn’t work. Others— by which I mean virtually all of the Italians in the cast— simply make fools of themselves. It ends up being a balancing act, and by my assessment, such good points as the three lead actresses, the unique premise, and the air of self-assured trashiness which one comes to expect from New World Pictures very slightly outweigh everything else that’s wrong with The Arena.