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Radical youths, arrested for their political activities, are given a choice between incarceration and participation in a potentially deadly game which finds them racing across a punishing desert landscape with armed law enforcement officers in pursuit. The scenario presented is intended to reflect the profound tensions and frustrations fracturing American society in the late 1960s.
For more about Punishment Park and the Punishment Park Blu-ray release, see Punishment Park Blu-ray Review published by Dr. Svet Atanasov on January 9, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Peter Watkins
Writer: Peter Watkins
Starring: Patrick Boland, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano, Luke Johnson, Katherine Quittner, Scott Turner
» See full cast & crew
Punishment Park Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Dr. Svet Atanasov, January 9, 2012
Screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Peter Watkins' "Punishment Park" (1971) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Eureka Entertainment. The supplemental features on the disc include a lengthy introduction to the film by director Peter Watkins and an audio commentary by Dr. Joseph A. Gomez, founding Director of Film Studies at North Carolina State University. The Blu-ray disc also arrives with a 40-page illustrated booklet featuring an extract from a 1971 press kit for "Punishment Park", an extract from Dr. Gomez's book "Peter Watkins", and Peter Watkins' essay "The Creative and Political Meaning of Punishment Park, a Self-Interrogatory Dialogue". In English, with optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature. Region-Free.
A British film crew follows two groups of young students, feminists, draft dodgers, pacifists, and anti-war activists to Bear Mountain Punishment Park. There, the members of the first group are brought one by one before a civil court and quickly found 'guilty'. The chief judge then announces that they could choose between prison time and Punishment Park.
Everyone in Group 637 chooses Punishment Park. This means that they agree to cross through the desert, without water and food, and get to an American flag placed in a remote location guarded by troopers and snipers. Two hours after Group 637 enters the desert, various hunters – more specially trained troopers and snipers – will go after them. The hunters will kill those who do not surrender. The ones that reach the American flag will earn their freedom again. According to the chief judge, the journey will last three days.
The members of Group 637 enter the desert convinced that if they stick together they could reach the American flag. The 90-100 degree heat, however, quickly forces some of them to collapse. A few members begin speculating that it would be best if they surrendered.
Soon after, the hunters begin tracking down Group 637. Deep into the desert, they spot a black activist, a hippie, a musician, and a couple of other dissidents who have fallen behind. Some of them could barely walk. A slightly bigger group of stronger dissidents is ahead of them.
Meanwhile, the members of Group 638 are also brought before the civil court. One by one they are told why they have been arrested. A few of them attempt to protest the charges but armed troopers immediately subdue them (an angry black man gets a handkerchief stuffed into his mouth). Eventually, they are also asked to choose between prison time and Punishment Park.
Peter Watkins' pseudo-documentary Punishment Park is set in an alternative future where 'patriots' have started hunting down various 'radicals', but it actually targets the past, and specifically the culture of violence that changed the socio-political climate in America during the '60s and '70s. (Some of the trial sessions, for example, mimic known events from the trial of the Chicago Seven). It is broken into small episodes that are commented on by the filmmaker/Watkins filming the proceedings.
The film is easy to criticize if one sides with one of the two groups that clash in it. However, if one avoids the political overtones in their discussions, it is impossible not to admire the accurate description of the issues that divide them. The majority of these issues still divide America today.
The second half of the film does get a bit preachy, especially in its constant insistence that no government is immune to corruption. The passionate statements the troopers deliver to defend the use of force when dealing with the dissidents are also way over the top.
Unfortunately, post-September 11 events have proven that at least some of the hysteria in Watkins' film was justified. Think about the footage that was leaked from Guantanamo Bay. Think about the 'some Americans are more American than others' speeches that we have heard in recent years. Think about the corruption that continues to erode America.
The film was shot primarily with non-professional actors. Practically all of the dissidents, for instance, were real political activists. Watkins had also written a script, but as shooting began he decided to let the actors improvise in front of the camera.
Note: Punishment Park was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, where it seriously polarized audiences and distributors. Unsurprisingly, it was not picked up for theatrical distribution in America.
Punishment Park Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.34:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, Peter Watkins' Punishment Park arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Eureka Entertainment.
The newly restored high-definition transfer for Punishment Park - which was shot on 16mm and recently remastered from a new 35mm print struck from the restored 35mm blow-up negative held in Paris - is impressive. When compared to the R2 DVD release, detail is substantially better and clarity more pleasing. Many of the close-ups (see screencapture #16), for instance, convey wonderful depth, while the darker interrogation sequences (see scneecapture #2) have the lost the blockiness and light noise from the DVD release. There is also a wider range of nuanced colors, and in particular, yellows, blues, and browns. Edge stability is also improved. This being said, some small specks, scratches, and even a few damage marks remain. Overall, however, the film has a terrific organic look that is enormously satisfying. (Note: This is a Region-Free Blu-ray disc. Therefore, you will be able to play it on your PS3 or SA regardless of your geographical location. For the record, there is no problematic PAL or 1080/50i content preceding the disc's main menu).
Punishment Park Blu-ray, Audio Quality
There is only one audio track on this Blu-ray disc: English LPCM 2.0. For the record, Eureka Entertainment have provided optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature.
The appears to have been optimized as best as possible. I tested a few scenes with my DVD and the sound has marginally improved clarity and crispness that are most obvious during the shootouts. The dialog has also been slightly elevated, with clarity and stability also improved. Overall, however, the dynamic amplitude of the English LPCM 2.0 track is fairly limited. Lastly, there are no sync issues or audio dropouts to report in this review.
Punishment Park Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Punishment Park Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
In 1971, Peter Watkins' Punishment Park could have been dismissed as a hysteric political film - but not anymore. Unfortunately, a lot of the film's speculations have been proven right, and a few have even become a fact of life. The film's first appearance on Blu-ray is impressive. Let's hope that some of the British director's other controversial films will make it to Blu-ray as well. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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Punishment Park Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Two-Lane Blacktop and Punishment Park Detailed - November 29, 2011
Independent British distributors Eureka Entertainment (Masters of Cinema) have detailed their upcoming Blu-ray releases of Monte Hellman's cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Peter Watkins' Punishment Park (1971). The two releases will hit retail shelves on ...
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Eureka Entertainment have revealed that they are getting ready to release a number of classic and cult films on Blu-ray: Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Silence de la Mer (1949), Pier Paolo Pasolini's Accattone (1961) and The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Shohei ...
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