Genre: Thriller? Drama? Actually it’s pretty difficult to categorize this film into a particular genre.
Director: Peter Watkins
Yes there will be SPOILERS in this review because Punishment Park is a movie that would be difficult to discuss fairly without discussing it’s conclusion.
First off, I would like to give thanks to Mike White who hosts a weekly podcast called The Projection Booth. It was from listening to this show that I first learned of this movie. I’d never heard of the movie before and even if I’d heard the title I would have assumed it to be just another Running Man-esque dystopian film. Listening to this show, however, I learned a lot about Punishment Park, it’s director Peter Watkins as well as a lot of different info on what this movie means to different people. It is a great show that has introduced me to a lot of great films I would never have seen otherwise and I highly recommend it to anyone. Incidentally, it is also syndicated on Jackalope Radio and airs the same night of the week as Geek Juice.
Punishment Park is a pseudo-documentary about what would have (or could have) happened during the height of anti-war protests and the counter-culture movement of Nixon’s presidency. A voice over from the film’s director gives us the following information to establish the scene:
“Under the provision of Title 2 of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the President of the United States of America is still authorized, without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an “internal security emergency”. The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing, without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and shall then be confined to places of detention.”
The McCarran Act was an actual law passed by Congress in 1950 in the anti-Communist era of McCarthyism. Then President Harry Truman had attempted to veto the bill calling it “a mockery of the Bill of Rights” as well as “a long step towards totalitarianism.” He was outvoted by the Democratic-controlled congress. Thankfully the provisions this bill affords were never really put into effect and it was eventually repealed (well, most parts of it anyway) in 1993 as the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment. The Dystopian world created in Punishment Park takes this bill and applies a speculative “what if” by having the government abuse its powers during the Vietnam War.
In this film any kind of person the right-wing leadership forcibly arrests anyone they deem to be an insurgent (war protesters, feminists, civil rights activists, and even draft dodgers). These “criminals” are driven to a place in the desert where they are given a mock trial – their rights to bail and fair representation do not apply. Each is given the choice of either a lengthy prison term or to win their freedom back by facing three days in the titular Punishment Park. Each chooses to test their luck in the park. The “game” in Punishment Park is rather similar to a game of capture the flag. The convicts have to walk, unaided and with no sort of supplies, over 50 miles to an American flag. Once they reach the flag they obtain their freedom. Along the way, however, police and national guardsmen will capture them and take them out of the game. Seems simple enough – however none of these insurgents are supposed to live. Each of them is murdered with some sort of “well, they attacked us first” lying rationale.
The film tells two stories simultaneously. We see the journey of the current batch of doomed prisoners in Punishment Park along the way learning their stories, what “horrible crime” they were arrested for and, eventually, their demise at the hands of the national guardsmen. Meanwhile we see the tribunal and the mock trial of the next group of insurgents who will inevitably press their luck in Punishment Park. The trials are rather interesting as there is no middle ground between the tribunal members and the accused. The tribunal is a group of ultra-right wing conservatives – even with a woman listed as a “housewife and member of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’.” The group of pacifists and “rebels” are an absolutely leftist bunch. Their arguments are unsettling to watch as neither side is able to understand the others rationale. A lot of great points are brought up during the trial, mostly by the non-conformists, and the other side refuses to acknowledge these points as it doesn’t conform to their view of the world. For example, when asked about why one particular non-conformist believes that violent protest is necessary, he says:
“America is as psychotic as it is powerful and violence is the only goddamn thing that will command your attention”
A pacifist and draft dodger defends his actions by saying:
“My responsibilities as a citizen in this country do not include killing for it. “
There is another moment where a woman explains why she’s chosen to write protests songs by explaining that she was a carefree college student until the Kent State Massacre. This event shaped her view of the world, opened her eyes to the reality that she could never truly be safe in this “home of the free” and felt she had to do something to affect change. Most of the tribunal’s actions can be summed up with the Defense Attorney’s closing statements:
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the tribunal, I would like to read you something: ‘The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might and the republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order or our nation cannot survive.’ We might all be forgiven for supposing those to be the words of our President. But they are not. Those words were uttered in 1932 by Adolf Hitler.”
There is no real “villain” throughout these hearings. As in real life everybody has a rationale for their actions even if it’s something that only they understand. Nobody sets out to be evil – they set out to do what they feel is the right thing to do in this situation. As such it is very hard to pick a side in these debates. Naturally one does feel sympathy for the ones on trial, fully understanding the fate ahead of them despite their pleadings – but it’s not quite fair to hate the tribunal either because we do see things through their point-of-view and get an understanding of their blind patriotism and misinterpretation of the situation. Likewise the police officers and national guardsmen killing the participants in Punishment Park believe they are doing the right thing as well – they are convinced that these insurgents pose a real threat to the country they love. None of them are sadists killing people for the sport of it – they believe they are doing what’s best for the United States. Like a documentary should present it’s subject, there is very little objectivity to be had, each person in this film is realistic and shown with as little bias as possible. Though I found it easier to sympathize with the hippie liberals whom I felt were the victims in this story – that isn’t the case for everyone. I showed the film to my VERY conservative ex-wife who sided with this tribune every chance she had – in fact she would be a very apropos choice for a member on this panel. She constantly felt that these draft-dodging and un-American hippies deserved what they got and proceeded to lecture me on what she believed it really meant to be an American. Punishment Park is a film that is excellent at starting conversation and causing to people to think in ways they are not accustomed to which is the mark of a VERY good movie.
Director Peter Watkins provides the narration for this pseudo-documentary. From the opening narration until about halfway through the movie, the tone of his narration is that of any documentary: impartial and matter-of-factly. He presents, in a straight tenor, the facts of the tribunal, what the accused are on trial for as well as the details of Punishment Park. As the convicts make their way through the desert without water Watkins simply comments on the weather, giving the temperature and the time with no opinion. It isn’t until later, when an innocent and unarmed person is shot down by a young national guardsman that Watkins “character” begins to get a little passionate about the lies behind Punishment Park. Later, as more people are killed, Watkins becomes convinced that what is going on here is WRONG! He calls the guardsmen “fucking bastards” for what they did and lets them know that he will expose them on television. The guards are annoyed at the presence of the documentary crew but do very little to stop them. It’s acknowledged that these proceedings will continue as such for however long as these elements remain a part of society. At the film’s closing, as a sort of postscript, Watkins tells us that certain members of this documentary crew were arrested and tried before this same tribunal. There is one very subtle difference in the sentencing of the film crew but I’m not sure if it was intentional or not. Every person participating in Punishment Park is given the choice of a lengthy prison sentence – some as short as 3 years, some for life – or three days in Punishment Park – each one chooses the Park, acknowledging that it is most likely a death sentence. I wonder why nobody chose the prison sentence as the safer option where they would actually have a greater chance of coming out alive in the end. When Watkins informs the audience of the fate of his film crew he only says they were sentenced to prison and I have to wonder – were they offered the chance at “freedom” in Punishment Park and passed it up as they knew full well what it held in store?
Though this was made in 1971 and deals with issues related to the Vietnam War, the film is not as dated as one would imagine. The message Punishment Park imparts is rather timeless and relevant to any era. Peter Watkins has said of this film that it is about the past, the present and the future. While the Vietnam War and the paranoia of Communism is long gone, new problems have arisen in its absence. There is the constant fear of encountering a terrorist around every corner, the government passing into effect controversial bills like the Patriot Act to help root out the terrorists hiding in our borders. Like any great piece of speculative, Dystopian fiction it serves as a wake-up call, a warning to pay attention to what your leaders are doing before you could find yourself having to decide between decades in prison or trying your luck out in Punishment Park.