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The Arena (1973)
Dir: Steve Carver
Stars: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller
The tagline for this was "Black slave, white slave", a less than subtle nod to the fact that it reunited Grier and Markov, the star of Corman's jailbreak movie from the previous year, Black Mama, White Mama. The similarities of this film to it are obvious: two women from opposing backgrounds forced, through adversity, to unite, respect eventually growing between...etc, etc. Hell, there's even a shower-scene - although since this dates back to pre-shower days, it should strictly be called a bucket-of-cold-water scene.
Here, Grier and Markov play Mamawi and Bodicia respectively, slaves captured and put to work in a provincial gladiatorial arena - at first working the concessions (or Roman equivalent thereof), but when the owner discovers the appeal of women fighting, he sends them into the arena. They eventually rebel against the authorities, and help each other in an escape attempt that puts their lives at risk.
Not quite as ludicrously anachronous as it sounds - there actually were female gladiators - the small budget is helped immeasurably by shooting in Cinecitta, Italy's main studio, which no doubt provided sets, costumes and props. There is a good feel for the callous barbarity of the time, which contrasts well with a touching love story between the trainer and one of the slaves. Once you get beyond the shower scene, it's surprisingly restrained - while there's no shortage of nudity, it is less gratuitous that you might expect.
The leading actresses are both good in their roles, but their fighting skills leave too much to be desired. It's difficult to see how they could have won over the crowd to their side, as is required by the plot. Once they escape the arena, things do perk up a little on this front, but it remains not a movie to recommend for action. This is not least because, while it was shot in 'Scope, even the DVD is pan-and-scanned. It's thus rare that you get to see both participants on the screen at the same time.
Despite this, it's rarely boring and never unwatchable, with decent production values and everyone putting in sufficient effort to make it worthwhile. Can't help wondering if Sid Lawrence's fey Roman Priscium, had some kind of influence on Joaquim Phoenix's performance in Gladiator. Certainly, this film was among the final twitches of the sword-and-sandal genre, which would go into hibernation, to await rejuvenation courtesy of Ridley Scott.
Reports suggest director Carver was largely helped out by Joe D'Amato, who'd go on to make both video-nasties and porno films. Perhaps the most famous name involved, however, is editor Joe (Gremlins) Dante, another one of Roger Corman's alumni. Pam Grier, of course, would become a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, but let's not hold that against her. Markov, on the other hand, would make only one more movie, the barely known There Is No 13.
The Arena (2001)
Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: Karen McDougal, Lisa Dergan, Viktor Verzbitsky, Anatoly Mambetov
So how does the remake stack up? It's a case of "good news, bad news"; some of the changes are improvements, while others are perhaps not as well thought-out. Firstly, McDougal and Dergan fall some way short of Grier and Markov - while I may have criticised their fighting abilities, at least they both had more than adequate screen presence. McDougal and Dergan are, first and foremost, Playboy playmates, and were clearly employed for this reason, rather than any acting ability. Though, as in the original, the quantity of skin on view is actually pretty limited - this is even more surprising, given our heroines' background.
Bekmambetov's directorial style is very stylish and flashy, probably too much so; you'll frequently find yourself wishing he would keep the camera still and pointing in one direction, as well as laying off on the whizzy optical effects. There are moments when it does work, but particularly in the arena battles, it looks as if they are trying to distract the viewer from inadequacies that would otherwise be painfully obvious.
On the plus side, tweaks to the story-line have probably been for the better. The setting is moved to a far outpost of the Empire, which renders the final revolt much more plausible. The focus of the film is also shifted, with more emphasis being given to the doomed romance between slave-trainer Septimus and one of his gladiatorettes. This did exist in the 70's version, but was really more of a sideplot; here, it gets boosted and is actually quite effective, not least because the actor playing Septimus (Mambetov) has an amazing face, full of character. The climax now sees local governor Timarchus pitted against his own gladiators, obviously inspired by Russell Crowe and Joaquim Phoenix's duel.
The Russian locations, mainly near St. Petersburg, work well for the most part; the central arena is dropped in the middle of a blasted forest, leaving it looking like a crashed spaceship. Actually, that's perhaps the point, in that the Romans were, to the locals, an alien race with gladiatorial combat and other bizarre customs. But by most accounts, conditions on the shoot were pretty basic - Karen Macdougal's comments on the DVD are especially revealing here, not least where she says she never wants to go back to the country! Apart from the two heroines, the rest of the cast (including the wonderfully-named Severina Kamugisha Kemirimbe) are local, and consequently their performances are dubbed, not badly, but one suspects towards mediocrity.
Overall, this remake isn't a disaster, and stands on its own without too much difficulty. The problem is, that if you've seen the original, the new one doesn't bring all that much to the party, save for some hyperactive camerawork. We can't really blame Macdougal and Durgan - they received precisely four hours training for their swordfighting - but you can only wonder how much of the film's obvious potential might have been realised, if Corman had hired actresses with actual combat skills.
[Particularly useless photo captions courtesy of New Concorde!]
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