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Punishment Park

Distributed by Project X Distribution Limited, 223 Humberside Ave., Toronto, Ontario M6P 1K9, Canada; 416-604-2506
Produced by Susan Martin
Directed by Peter Watkins
DVD, color, 88 min.
American Studies, Film Studies, Political Science

Reviewed by Cliff Glaviano, Coordinator of Cataloging, Bowling Green State University Libraries, Bowling Green, OH

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 6/12/2006

Originally released in 1971 and shown for 4 nights, a very limited release, Punishment Park depicts the result of an embattled Nixon administration’s hypothetical declaration of an “Event of Insurrection” according to powers granted under title II of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act. In Watkins’ scenario, dissidents are subject to a hearing before a tribunal investigating the potential that the dissidents may commit sabotage, or conspire to commit acts insurrection against the United States. The members of the tribunal have been selected for both their position in life (Draft Board members, union steward, manufacturing executive, sociology professor, housewife with a political agenda, etc.) and their loyalty to the government. Defendants have been caught demonstrating against a war they feel is immoral and unjust, or organizing others to protest against government policy in conducting the war. They have been detained because they are seen as threats to national security. When the defendants are found guilty, they are given the choice between multiple year sentences in federal prison or Punishment Park, a 2 ˝ day, 60-mile desert footrace to the American flag while pursued by the military and the police.

It is strongly recommended that viewers watch the specially filmed 28 minute introduction by the director that is one of the extra features on the DVD. Some background regarding the McCarran Act, the anti-Vietnam protests, the shootings at Kent State, the Chicago Seven, and the general mood of many young Americans in 1970 is necessary to make sense of the hostile tribunal exchanges, the chaotic action in the desert, the hatred between the convicted defendants and their pursuers. Viewers will be absolutely astounded by the quality of the camerawork when they realize that the original source for the digitally re-mastered 35mm print that became the DVD was Joan Churchill’s 16 mm hand-held camera. Punishment Park is a film for adult citizens. It’s about the rights of citizens in a democracy, the role of government in protecting the citizenry, and the arrogance of authoritarian power. The conflicts in Punishment Park are timeless. In an update to a book chapter included in the 24 page booklet that accompanies the DVD, Dr. Joseph A. Gomez, Director of Film Studies at North Carolina State University notes that shortly after the film was released Watkins claimed that the film could “take place yesterday, today, tomorrow, or five years hence.” The quality of each action scene is extraordinary for a film from 1971. One scene eerily forecasts the Rodney King beating two decades later. Finally, Punishment Park is as much about America today as it is about America in 1970 and it’s as fresh as if it were filmed earlier this current year.

Punishment Park is one of two Peter Watkins titles reissued by New Yorker Video. Additional features of the DVD include a feature length commentary by Dr. Gomez, the text of an article by Scott MacDonald regarding audience reaction to Punishment Park, and an 18 minute Watkins amateur film on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. This is an excellent teaching package at a very competitive price for college film studies or political science programs.