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Punishment Park

Punishment Park (1971)


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Critic Reviews: 1
Fresh: 1 | Rotten: 0



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Movie Info

While Peter Watkins' films of the 1960s reflected the political turmoil and tumult of that decade, 1971's Punishment Park offered a disturbing look at the backlash against leftist activism which emerged in the wake of such events as the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the shootings at Kent State University. Set at some unspecified point in the near future, Punishment Park was inspired by a provision of the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act, which gives the President of the United


Documentary, Drama, Mystery & Suspense, Classics

Nov 22, 2005

Chartwell Films

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All Critics (15) | Top Critics (3) | Fresh (9) | Rotten (0) | DVD (13)

Shot during the post-Kent State "law and order" election of 1970, Punishment Park can seem so outrageous as to verge on camp, but few other movies capture so painfully the rhetoric and desperation of the times.

May 11, 2010 Full Review Source: Village Voice
Village Voice
Top Critic IconTop Critic

an extraordinary film - provocative, incendiary and deeply depressing. Go out of your way to see it and spread the word, while you still can without being arrested.

August 3, 2007 Full Review Source: Eye for Film
Eye for Film

A wooly curio.

December 30, 2005 Full Review Source: Film Threat
Film Threat

a troubling document from a time when the country seemed about to tip into chaos

November 22, 2005 Full Review Source:

Punishment Park is told in the pseudo-documentary style that defines most of the obscure body of work by British filmmaker Peter Watkins.

November 14, 2005 Full Review Source: Slant Magazine
Slant Magazine

The film is as widely applicable to our own factious state of the union as it was to that of America in the 1970s.

June 21, 2005 Full Review Source: Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Watkins' convincing cinema-verite style contradicts what we know is an historical untruth

April 22, 2003 Full Review Source:

It is a polemic exercise between the Left and the Right, with no room for the middle point of view.

April 22, 2003 Full Review Source: Ozus' World Movie Reviews
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

Audience Reviews for Punishment Park

one of the best political films from the turbulent period of leftist activism of the late 60s and still just as relevant today, what with guantanamo bay still open
March 15, 2013
Stella Dallas

Super Reviewer

The premise of this Peter Watkins mockumentary is an instant grabber. We're dropped into an alternate Vietnam-era America. The government is abusing an existing law (the McCarran Internal Security Act) to detain hippies who may pose a threat to the country. Groups of shaggy subversives are taken to a tent somewhere, quickly convicted in a kangaroo court and given a choice of either multiple years in prison or a risky trip to Punishment Park. Typically, they choose the latter.

"Punishment Park" is the code name for a sadistic test where offenders are released in the California desert (without water) and told they'll be freed if, within three days, they can hike to an American flag planted 53 miles away. As if that assignment isn't tough enough, armed soldiers aggressively stalk them, giving them a mere two-hour start. Allegedly, the soldiers are there just to ensure the offenders follow the rules, but they're itching for any excuse to open fire. It's a rigged game.

Fantastic, so far. But "Punishment Park" can turn painfully shrill and strident. The plot jumps between two separate arcs: a group of people enduring the desert trek, and a second group facing the court panel. The latter is where most of the problems lie. Though the improvised dialogue has a convincing realism, the accused's screechy, ham-fisted testimonies are a serious chore to endure. Interesting that "Punishment Park" was released the same year as "Billy Jack," because the films are gratingly unsubtle and sanctimonious in a similar way.

While the stereotypical defendants rage about the war, man, and the government telling them to do stuff, the dozen or so Punishment Park youths split into three factions (separated in the credits as "militants," "semi-militants" and "pacifists"). Some mount a preemptive attack on the soldiers. Some try to slog through the full trip. And some just give up. None of these strategies are likely to pay off.

The outdoor struggles are stark and dramatic, but there's one bit of poetic license that's not quite forgivable. An unseen cameraman (voiced by Watkins himself) follows the weary travelers, and even becomes a plot point when he eventually protests the soldiers' unfair tactics. But while the prisoners grow more and more dehydrated and exhausted, there is no sense of the cameraman deteriorating -- even though he's carrying all that technical gear! The film could have been more interesting if the footage quality wobbled as its maker also neared water-deprived delirium.

The amateur cast has no familiar faces beyond character actor Carmen Argenziano, but veteran jazz drummer Paul Motian composed the soundtrack. "Punishment Park" never found a distributor in the States, due to its controversial story.

The closing credits add an ironic note that an actor who played one of the courtroom rebels soon drew a real-life prison sentence for assaulting a police officer.
December 16, 2011
Eric Broome

Super Reviewer

"Punishment Park" is a chilling pseudo-documentary about political prisoners being sentenced before a judge and tribunal in violation of the Constitution. They are then given the choice between a lengthy jail sentence or Punishment Park. At such a place, they are given 3 days to run 53 miles in boiling heat with a two hour head start.

Even though the movie was made in 1971 and references the Chicago 7 trial(with more gender balance here) and the Kent State shooting, "Punishment Park" still has relevance for the modern day, especially considering events after 9/11 including Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and the Patriot Act. While police brutality is nowhere near as bad as it once was, if I see a policeman or a soldier patrolling Penn Station, I am not reassured because I am just reminded why they are there in the first place.

All of which is just a starting point for director Peter Watkins to explore the idea of pacifism in a larger context. While some might view pacifists as extremists in their own right, their role is actually much more important as they seek to explore a better way than violence. So, admit it guys. Intervention in Libya has less to do with protecting civilians than a chance to oust Qaddafi while somebody else does the heavy lifting.
March 26, 2011
Walter M.

Super Reviewer

A furious faux documentary made in 1971, that really encapsulates the social unrest and animosties from both sides of the fence of that era. The deal is political prisoners are given a choice between prison terms of various length or three days in punishment park, where they are to play a sort of capture the flag game. This game is also to serve as a training ground for police, national guard and military personel. The results are very violent, the performances impassioned and the overall effect unsettling. Unlike anything I've ever seen, and put simply probably the angriest film I've ever seen. Strongly Recommended.
December 12, 2010
Ed Fucking Harris

Super Reviewer

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