Eureka Entertainment // 1971 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // January 9th, 2012
"America is as psychotic as it is powerful, and violence is the only goddamn thing that will command your attention."
"War is immoral! Poverty is immoral! Racism is immoral! Police brutality is immoral! Oppression is immoral! Genocide is immoral! Imperialism is immoral! This country represents all those things!"
A British documentary crew captures the events inside Punishment Park, a detention camp in an alternative version of 1970s America where groups of dissidents are sent in exchange for serving lengthy prison sentences. During the three days and two nights in the park, the detainees must travel fifty miles to reach an American flag. Whilst they attempt to do so, an armed gang of police and National Guardsmen pursues them. Failure to reach the flag or avoid capture will result in an automatic jail sentence, while the rewards for success are never made explicitly clear.
I was first made aware of Peter Watkins' Punishment Park many years ago when I came across the film's poster. The image, of an armed police officer standing over a cowering individual -- all set against a vast desert-like landscape -- proved amazingly powerful, and has stuck with me ever since. In many ways, the extended period between first seeing that image and finally viewing the film have proved vital in shaping my reaction to it.
The America seen in Punishment Park is a frightening exaggeration of the United States of the late Sixties and early Seventies. It is a world where, with society apparently on the brink of a very real revolution, those in authority have stripped the rights of the individual to the bone. Those who speak out against the US government are classed as a threat to the country and sentenced to either lengthy jail sentences or a trip to Punishment Park, where they are to be re-educated. Once inside Punishment Park, the defendants are participants in a game. Each of them has three days and two nights to make the fifty-mile journey across the desert to a lone American flag. No supplies are provided; though they are assured water is available at the halfway point. Pursuing them is a group made up of police officers and the National Guard -- all of who are armed. From the very start we can see the game is rigged, and that winning is not an option for those who oppose authority. It is here that Punishment Park is most likely to resonate with audiences, who -- like myself -- are too young to remember the period depicted in the movie. Particularly since the start of the worldwide financial crises in 2008, and following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems that more and more people -- particularly young adults -- are finding themselves without a voice or suitable representation in government. Though the world is a very different place now, the depiction of authorities abusing their power -- and working only to maintain that power, rather than serve the people -- is as relevant today as it has ever been, and as such this Blu-ray release of Punishment Park is a timely one.
What is also notable about Punishment Park is that this view of America comes from an outsider. British Director Peter Watkins takes the bold step of vigorously critiquing the policies of the US government, during what was a turbulent time for the country, and arguably the world as a whole. However, Watkins' clearly is not anti-American. Rather, with Punishment Park, Watkins seems to be arguing that the U.S. government of the time was dangerously close to losing sight of the ideals upon which the country was founded. As such, Watkins' film is clearly biased in its depiction of those who represent authority, and those who fight what they see as oppression, and all credit to Watkins: it's a potent mix that is sure to provoke wildly differing reactions in those who take the time to experience his film.
Watkins utilizes his amateur cast magnificently. By insisting that only a basic outline of his script be followed, Watkins allows for a level of improvisation that really elevates the sense of realism in his film. No doubt in part to the searing heat out in the desert, the angry exchanges feel so authentic it is very easy to forget you are watching a work of fiction. This level of realism is enhanced further by the cinema verité style adopted by Watkins, which is perhaps best captured in an early exchange when a lawyer representing several defendants is repeatedly shot down when he argues the prosecution's case goes against the American constitution. Rather than argue a fair case, those who oversee these trials seem more interested in riling the young men and women put in front of them, looking for what they consider a violent response to prove their arguments. In many ways these moments also highlight an uneven approach in Watkins' film, whereby the liberals are seen as educated thinkers, while the conservative elite are seen to base their beliefs on their ideology, rather than relying on sound reasoning and facts.
Eureka's release of Punishment Park (Blu-ray) (Region 2) retains the film's original 1.37:1 aspect ratio presented in a new 1080p high definition transfer. The picture shows signs of its age, with damage evident in places. There is also a consistent layer of grain. However, the transfer exhibits a good level of sharpness, with strong colors and levels of detail. Though understandably on the flat side, the Dolby 2.0 mono audio still impresses with its clarity.
A commentary track, courtesy of Dr. Joseph A. Gomez headlines the special features included on the disc. Perhaps the more interesting feature is the inclusion of a 30-minute introduction from Peter Watkins himself, which really provides an excellent insight into the director's motivations and intent with Punishment Park. Also included is a forty-page booklet containing essays and production stills.
An extreme depiction of an alternative past that may offer a frightening foreshadowing of our future, Punishment Park is a powerful experience. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2012 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* Full Frame (1080p)
* 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated