Punishment Park Blu-ray/DVD

Sunday, 22 January 2012 19:20

“Punishment Park” is a highly controversial and potentially very frightening film about the violent suppression of political and social activists in the United States. Groups consisting primarily of young adults are brought before a sentencing board to explain their beliefs and actions. They have already been deemed guilty of threatening national security, albeit without a proper trial. At the end of the process they are given the option to serve their lengthy penal sentence or to take part in the Punishment Park ‘course’.

This Herculean trial involves a trek through 53 miles of parched Californian desert and mountainous landscape; they are allowed no food or drink other than the possibility of a water stop if they reach the half-way point. In pursuit are vehicle-bound law enforcement teams who must give the defendants a two-hour head start. If the activists are caught or fail to reach their goal (an American flag) within three days, they must serve their jail sentence. If they resist, they are threatened with violent suppression by the heavily armed enforcers.

Punishment Park on Blu-ray and DVDShot in an immersive, documentary style as two film crews relay proceedings, the movie depicts fictional events set in an indeterminate point in time but which could quite easily be based on reality. The context of the film centres on the growing protest movements in America in reaction to the Vietnam War, poverty and racial prejudice. Students and ethnic groups were rising up against the state and the system. Meanwhile, the 1950 Internal Security Act and the fear-driven Cold War climate meant that those deemed a potential threat to national security could be seized and detained in prison camps without their standard legal rights.

The film regularly flips between those members of the officiously-named Corrective Group 637 who are undertaking the three-day trial, and the hearings of Group 638 who are next in line for the brutal Park challenge. Daytime temperatures soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit before plummeting at night, and crippling hunger and dehydration naturally take their toll on the participants. To make matters much worse, it quickly becomes evident that the pursuers are less concerned with their quarry’s welfare than the initial briefing suggested.

British director/writer/narrator Peter Watkins (Culloden, The War Game) deliberately set out to make the film as realistic and ‘non-Hollywood’ as he could. Steps he took to achieve this include casting mostly amateur actors as well as some actual cops, letting the cast build up their characters personalities and motivations on their own, and skipping rehearsals altogether. This means that the largely improvised scenes feel raw and bristle with energy and passionate debate, at least until the sentencing board and their enforcement team decide enough is enough and the ‘criminals’ should be silenced pending a decision.

The only actor I recognised was a thickly-bearded Carmen Argenziano, Samantha Carter’s father in Stargate SG-1. A glimpse at IMDb suggests that most of the cast have never acted again, though I could not say whether that is because this hard-hitting film left an indelible mark on them or because the desert shooting conditions were as harsh as they look.

I firmly recommend this film, not least because it can be watched quite passively as a quasi-realistic partner to “The Running Man”, or (as it was presumably intended) as a thought-provoking metaphor for and commentary on the contradiction between a supposedly free, democratic society and the simultaneous oppression and media misrepresentation that occurs every day in the name of national and international security.

Special features in this release include:

  • Newly restored high-definition transfer (shot on 16mm, Punishment Park has been remastered from a new 35mm print struck from the restored 35mm blow-up negative held in Paris)
  • 30-minute video introduction by Peter Watkins
  • Full-length audio commentary by Dr Joseph A Gomez (author of the 1979 book Peter Watkins)
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • 40-page booklet with two essays (one by Gomez, one by Watkins) and reprints

Watkins’ lengthy introduction is in effect an explanation and defence of his film. Although he delivers it by reading quite dryly from notes, he is evidently passionate about his work and what it represents. It also includes a few behind the scenes photos.

The 4:3 aspect Blu-ray restoration is fairly sharp but slightly grainy; in the context of the film this visual quality actually works in the movie’s favour and is quite in keeping with the gritty desert setting, and hand-held documentary style.

“Punishment Park" (1971) is out now on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD (both discs in one box), courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. The main feature has a running time of 88 minutes approx, carries a ‘15’ certificate and retails for £19.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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