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Punishment Park

3.1 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

"One of the finest films about dissent in America." —Rolling Stone

"Intense, outrageous and still relevant… a cult hit waiting to happen." —The Boston Phoenix

"Paralyzing. A devastating indictment and a chilling prognosis." —The San Francisco Chronicle

1970. The war in Vietnam is escalating. There is massive public protest in the United States and elsewhere. President Nixon declares a state of national emergency and the Federal authorities are given the power to detain persons judged to be "a risk to national security."

In a desert zone in southwest California, a civilian tribunal passes sentence on groups of dissidents and gives them the option of participating in law enforcement training exercises in the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park. In an atmosphere of aggression and intimidation and in soaring temperatures, the prisoners have to fight for their lives as they are hunted down by the forces of law and order.


Call it a pseudo-documentary, an outrageous piece of propaganda, perhaps even a paranoid fantasy, but one description that definitely does not apply to Punishment Park is "light entertainment." Brit director Peter Watkins offers a chilling scenario, set in the early '70s, in which, according to an edict called the McCarran Act (which did exist, albeit in different form), the U.S. government has the right to detain (without bail, evidence, or anything resembling a fair trial) anyone who "probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage." The detainees, most of them '60s radicals, are offered a choice between long prison sentences or three days in "Punishment Park," a scorching stretch of the Southern California desert; should they choose the latter, they will be released upon reaching an American flag planted many miles away, all the while avoiding capture (or, more likely, death) at the hands of a bunch of gung-ho cops, National Guardsmen, and other law enforcement types. The film alternates between the "tribunals" where the radicals' fates are decided (and where the shrill hectoring and sloganeering--on both sides--come fast and furious) and the grim scenes in the desert. And although Watkins clearly takes the side of the prisoners (as does the fictional film crew on hand to document the proceedings), no one emerges entirely unscathed: the politicians, "average" Americans, and others holding forth at the tribunals are all right-wing blockheads ("more spank and less Spock" would have taught those whippersnappers a lesson, says one), the cops and guardsmen are all trigger-happy jerks, and the young radicals are mostly callow, rhetoric-spouting stereotypes. Violent, provocative, and convincingly shot in cinema verite style, Punishment Park will leave many viewers muttering that it can't happen here. Opponents of the Patriot Act and its perceived attack on civil liberties, however, will likely take another view. --Sam Graham

Special Features

  • Specially-filmed 28 minute introduction by Director Peter Watkins.
  • Feature length audio commentary by Dr.Joseph A. Gomez author of the only book on Peter Watkins
  • "The Forgotten Faces" (1961) an 18 minute amateur film by Peter Watkins.
  • 24 page booklet with a chapter on Punishment Park from Joseph Gomez's 1979 book on Peter Watkins.
  • Text essay by media critic Scott McDonald on audience responses to "Punishment Park"
  • Peter Watkins filmography
  • Original 1971 press kit.

Product Details

  • Actors: Carmen Argenziano, Stan Armsted, Patrick Boland, Ross Briegleb, Sandy Cox
  • Directors: Peter Watkins
  • Format: Color, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
  • Subtitles: English, French
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: R (Restricted)
  • Studio: Project X
  • DVD Release Date: November 22, 2005
  • Run Time: 88 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0007UQ2BY
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #112,742 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Punishment Park" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD Verified Purchase
I first saw this film in 1976, my freshman year of college, played and replayed for free in the student union building of the University of New Mexico. Two points about that: one: this was not the usual "entertainment" one would expect to find played for students killing time between classes, and two: this film would not be played at all in any university or college open space today. There is no contemporary counterpart for Peter Watkins that I can think of today--he makes someone like Michael Moore look like a sixth grader with his first camcorder. Watkins is best known for his 1965 film The War Game, a rumination on what would happen if nuclear war struck the UK, shot in his trademark "you-are-there" psuedo documentary style. The film was immediatelty banned by the BBC who had originally commisioned it, for being too realistic and disturbing. (Duh--what were they expecting, The Day After?) Watkins other great film, not available in the US, and as far as I know, never shown in American since it first appeared on PBS, then NET, in 1964, is Culloden, about the battle between the British and Scottish rebels under Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden Moor in the mid-eighteenth century. I saw it when it was tv in 64 and images from it still remain with me, 40 years later. Punishment Park proposes a US, circa 1971, where those actively against the Vietnam war, instead of being imprisoned, are set loose in some southwestern desert, pursued by police and National Guard; if they manage to reach the destination set for them by their jailers, they are set free. If not...Implausible? Over the top? Paranoid? Perhaps. But I wonder what Watkins would say about The Patriot Act. About our treatment of Iraqi prisoners. The film shocked me thirty years ago, and I think it will shock me when I see it again. Watkins, as unknown as he is, still is one of the important filmmakers to come out of Britian in the 60s. Perhaps this will signal the availablity of his other rarely seen films.
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Format: DVD
It took me a few minutes into the film to realize it was shot in the early seventies and, in fact, was about the era of Nixon rather than the era of Bush. The similarities are creepy to say the least.

The film is about the state of national emergency proclaimed by the president of the United States, which gives permission to detain those who may be a threat to national security, who are then detained, often preemptively, judged by the tribunal that disregards constitutional rights of these "criminals," and given a choice between hard time in prison for years or hard time in punishment park for three days. Guess which one is worse? Still, everyone picks punishment park where they are forced to run through the desert in intolerable heat (or cold, at night), without water, toward a destination designated by the American flag. The purpose of the punishment park is to - well, punish - and train the law enforcement officers to deal with dissidents en masse.

The whole thing is so realistically done, including the lack of script for the tribunal scenes, where the actors on both sides of the fence spoke their own invented lines based on their own life experiences, that I had to take another few minutes to remind myself that we don't have punishment parks in America. According to the director's commentary, Danish media was convinced otherwise and protested punishment parks based on this movie, then was forced to retract their protest realizing belatedly the movie was fictional.

It's a visceral picture. There is more than one reason why it had been practically banned (or simply denied distribution) for decades: not only is it pointing fingers at just about every establishment, but it is also difficult d/t the violence and lack of humanity displayed on the screen.
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Format: Amazon Video
Made in 1970 by the exceptional British film maker Peter Watkins, this is a film with a punch that has lost none of its impact after more than forty years. It was set at a time when the Vietnam War was slowly going very badly wrong, America had seen the drafting of its young men, the Kent State shootings and political polarisation that moved a generation to take up politics as a force for real change.

Watkins used all of these elements and more as a vehicle for this work. He used the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 which allowed for emergency powers to be used by a President in a time of war without recourse to Congress. This meant that undesirables could be held in detention with scant regard to the rule of law if they posed `a risk to internal security'. In the film we see young people being shackled and taken to a tribunal - of sorts. What is to all intents and purposes a kangaroo court then passes indeterminate sentences like 10 to 15 years, on all of them for acts against America etc. They are then given the choice to serve the term in a Federal Prison or do 3 days at Punishment Park.

They all go for the Park. Here they have to travel through the desert to an American flag being `pursued' by National Guards and Police - if caught they go to prison if they make the flag they are `free'.

Well the film uses docudrama techniques and the film crew interview both hunter and hunted and depicts how attitudes change and harden over the course of the hunt. We also have the ongoing court case of the next batch and that is equally as powerful. This was all done using amateurs and a lot of improvisation as people felt so aligned to what they were doing that they felt well able to take the arguments on by themselves.
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