Set in a detention camp in an America of the near-future, Punishment Park's pseudo-documentary style (continuing Watkins' subversive innovations with Culloden and The War Game) places a British film crew amongst a group of young students and minor dissidents who have opted to spend three days in 'Bear Mountain Punishment Park'. The detainees, rather than accept lengthy jail sentences for their 'crimes', gamble their freedom on an attempt to reach an American flag— on foot and without water—through the searing heat of the desert. What follows is a lethal, one-sided game of cat-and-mouse with a squad of heavily armed police and National Guardsmen.
- Punishment Park review by Jawbreaker
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You rated this film: 4
Many years ahead of it's time and still strangely relevant today. The director takes his own experiences of living in the States during this troublesome period and those of his crew and cast, to create his vision of what could happen if the US government decided to invoke special powers, that do exist.
His documentary-drama style is effective, letting those onscreen carry the explosive nature of events to a dramatic conclusion. These are not actors as such, rather students and workers who experienced the pressures and brutal force of the law during these times. This brings an edge to their performances, with the bleak desert providing a suitable hostile environment. Punishment Park is a perfect starting point to experience the work of Peter Watkins.
Sun, Sand & Suffering
- Punishment Park review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 2
It's passionately sincere, it pulls absolutely no punches, it's way ahead of its time (this is very nearly a found footage movie made in 1971), and it's got a political message so right-on that you can't disagree without sounding like a Nazi, so inevitably it has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100%. But is it really all that good?
The short answer is no. Since it's obvious from the start that the odds are so stacked against the hapless protagonists that, since this is a realistic kind of movie in which the good guys don't automatically win, it can't possibly end well for them, the story is partly non-linear, switching back and forth between the protagonists' hellish trek across the desert towards the freedom we suspect all along won't be attainable, and the farcical "trial" they undergo beforehand. The courtroom scenes take up most of the running time, and consist of people, some of them much more sympathetic and articulate than others, spouting politics and/or swearing a lot while handcuffed to a chair in a tent. Apparently the amateur actors weren't really acting, and at least one of them ended up in jail because of his real-life ultra-radical activities, which adds authenticity to these scenes, but you could get similar results by pointing a camera at any group of angry young people. It's Blair Witch Syndrome 28 years early, with exactly the same shortcomings.
Politically it's manipulative in ways that aren't always honest. For instance, having one side of the argument put across by people sincerely expressing their genuine views about things like racial inequality and the war in Vietnam, and the other by cardboard stereotypes whose idiotic arguments are carefully scripted to sound like hypocritical rubbish. Or by having one side showing how noble they are by being concerned about social issues that actually exist, and their adversaries revealing their wickedness by subjecting the good guys to monstrously cruel treatment in a situation which is entirely fictional. Whether you think the views of the makers of this film are right or wrong, tactics like this cheapen their argument, and don't make for particularly good drama either.
As for the extremely contrived endurance test at the heart of the movie, why would such an absurd procedure exist? A get-out-of-jail-free lottery for anti-government activists that favors the most fit and determined is obviously counter-productive! If, on the other hand, it's always rigged so that nobody wins and most of them die, why are there so many volunteers? I'm not surprised that when this film inspired Stephen King to write his novella "The Running Man", he ditched almost all of the social realism, and by the time it came back round to the screen again as a second-rate Big Arnie vehicle, it was completely unrecognizable as a sort-of remake.
This is a scrappy, depressing, unsubtly didactic, and greatly overrated movie. If you want to watch a film about a group of innocent people facing inescapable doom due to grossly unfair legal proceedings which has a lot to say about the horror and futility of war and the abuse of power by selfish hypocrites, but also has a proper story, interesting characters, and isn't entirely nihilistic, you'd be better off with Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory", unless you have a peculiar obsession with hearing hippies use very strong language.