The Arena is a mashup of two genres: the swords and sandals genre and the chicks in chains movies. Instead of escaping from a prison located in some remote country, this movie has sexy ladies being enslaved by Romans and eventually trained as gladiators so that they can compete in fights to the death. As is usual in this genre the third act of the movie revolves around an escape. Shot cheaply, this small movie has two redeeming factors keeping it from venturing in the realm of the forgotten, two names that will appeal to most genre fans: Roger Corman and Pam Grier.
The movie starts off with Roman soldiers taking women with different backgrounds and cultures captive and selling them as slaves. Because the Roman Empire is so big and the Romans apparently also have invented some really fast way to transport the slaves that are captured, they are a varied bunch, most notably the Viking Bodicia (Margaret Markov) and the African tribes girl Mamawi (Pam Grier). Then again historical accuracy isn’t this movie’s strongest point which features women with make-up. In fact, I probably should be glad this movie doesn’t have modern day technology visible in the background like Hercules in New York had.
Because the people of Rome are bored with Gladiator fights by men, someone suggests these fights to be done with women, beautiful women in skimpy clothes that only have house holding skills. But that is nothing a few hours of training can’t change. And so these slaves learn how to fight each other and, surprise, surprise, eventually join forces and take on an entire army together and free themselves.
This is an exploitation movie pure and simple. Every ten minutes or so there’s gratuitous nudity; breasts bouncing around, butt-shots for no other reason than to titillate and instead of the usual shower scene in the prison movies The Arena features a scene after 10 minutes already where all these oh so dirty slaves must take off their clothes and are being washed reminding this viewer that shaving wasn’t a trend yet in the 70’s.
Pam Grier and Margaret Markov both already had their share of exploitation movies on their resume, but especially Grier shows more in this movie than in other movies. It’s one of the few things that makes this silly little movie watchable, because it’s made by the numbers and despite a change of scenery there’s nothing here that’s worth mentioning. This was her last true exploitation movie before venturing into the genre that truly made her an icon: Blaxploitation.
The Arena also features some bad dubbing, which is kind of annoying and therefor makes it hard to judge performances, but to be honest, aside from maybe Sid Lawrence who plays a flamboyant gay in a period when there probably was no such thing as flamboyant behavior, most performances are flat, uninspired and dull. Even Pam Grier hardly shows any of the spunk she’s so well known for, not even in the fights in the arena. Her co-star Markov gives an even blander performance.
With a runtime of a mere 80 minutes this little piece of curiosity is manageable to watch, but it’s far from a great or even memorable movie. The only reason it’s even released on DVD is because of Corman and Grier’s names attached to it and they don’t even bring their best to the screen.