A diverse group of beautiful women are forced to fight to the death in 1974's Arena. They fight with swords, chains, and even lettuce in this clearly low budget exploitation film. The screenplay is silly and the editing by a young Joe Dante is laughable but there are points in the film's favour including some surprisingly decent cinematography by Joe D'Amato and terrific performances from Pam Grier and Margaret Markov.
Look at this pretty shot of Markov. This is how we first meet her character, a pagan priestess of some kind in Roman Britain. Her name is Bodicia, a name possibly inspired by Boudicca. Roman slavers round up her and some of her followers and then there's a cut to what is presumably Africa but looks like a few yards away, at most, and we see Grier being similarly captured.
They quickly become the clear leaders of the group of women brought as slaves to the arena. Also prominent is a ditzy alcoholic girl named Deirdre who is really funny sometimes. A rivalry emerges between Mamawi, Grier's character, and a Roman slave named Livia (Marie Louise). This leads to an incredibly silly food fight in the kitchen. My favourite thing about it is all the lettuce that's thrown in from offscreen. And of course everyone gets her faced shoved into pie or tomato sauce at some point. Did you know they didn't have tomatoes in Ancient Rome? It's just possible there are one or two other anachronisms in this film.
You can tell there was an attempt to cut before this woman's modern panties became visible but the editor just wasn't up to the task.
Some real tension builds as it seems like the women, who've become friends through their shared misery, will have to kill each other. This ends up getting deflated in an absolutely absurd climax, though. The movie's essentially softcore porn and most of the cast looks great naked. Grier's final gladiator costume is fabulously absurd and emphasises her large breasts appreciably but her performance is so good, especially in the tense moments where it seems like she might have to kill someone, she wouldn't have seemed out of place in a more sincere film on the topic. Arena is available on Amazon Prime.