Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Peter Watkins was a firebrand of the 1960s. He made history with British television
documentaries that challenged what the staid BBC would broadcast. Culloden was an
account of a famous historical battle from the point of view of the common soldiers, imagining
what they would have said if a modern newscamera were trained on them - a tactic used by an
award-winning American history program on CBS called You Are There that put docu cameras
at famous events like The Alamo.
His next show was The War Game, a chillingly authentic looking pseudo-doc about the
effect of a nuclear attack on England (Kent?) that showed the futility of civil defense
measures and the idiocy of rhetoric about manageable atomic conflict. It had wrenching, taboo-defying
images: Buckets of wedding rings from radiation victims, English policeman arming themselves
and executing looters. The BBC refused to show the film because it was "too disturbing."
Watkins went on to the influential but now little-seen mainstream film Privilege, about a
rock star whose popularity turns him into a religious figure. Then came a curious military fantasy
called The Gladiators in which the United Nations solves national disputes by fielding
'war games' where select elite soldiers from each side fight to the death in a restricted combat
zone, with TV cameras turning the 'competition' into a television show.
But Punishment Park is, to say the least, a radical leap forward. Reacting directly to the
repressive swing in America in response to the brutal police attacks on protesters in Chicago,
the murders of Black Panther leaders and the shooting of Kent State students by the National
Guard, Watkins wanted a project that would express the political mess in confrontational terms.
The War Game remained banned in England for a long time and was eventually shown on
American public television. But after being yanked from theaters after only a few days,
Punishment Park has been screened only at a few film festivals and film studies
classes. I caught one showing of The Gladiators at UCLA in 1970, when its makers presumably
self-distributed it; I never recall Punishment Park being shown anywhere. Now it is on DVD.
1970. With growing activist resistance to the Vietnam War, President Nixon
activates provisions in the 1950 McCarran act and sets up detention centers for undesirables
deemed a threat to national security. In California's Mojave Desert, groups of dissidents are
summarily convicted and given the choice of long prison terms or a 3-day ordeal in Punishment
Park. While the tribunal starts to process a second group of belligerent, sullen detainees,
the first group is sent on their 53-mile marathon across a desert where daytime temperatures
soar over 100 degrees. They have three days to reach a flag and avoid capture by law
officers and National Guardsmen in training. Even before they begin, most of the detainees -
draft evaders, political activists, protesters and a couple who attended a poetry reading -
believe that the police will simply murder them under one pretext or another.
Punishment Park is an angry scream of a movie that makes the 'reasonable' stance of most
modern activist films seem like soft soap. An old Cold War law basically legitimizes the formation
of political concentration camps, and Watkins' bitter film simply imagines what
a political death camp, California-style, might be like.
Staffed by right-wing appointees, the Punishment Park tribunal
holds court as a legal cover for what is essentially a murder camp. We see the young policemen and
National Guardsmen being over-prepared for the use of deadly force against people they are told
are the scum of the earth and the enemies of their country.
Already paranoid, the harrassed prisoners are given a two-hour head start for their goal, but
are not told what the police will do to apprehend them beyond a vague statement that forceful
resistance will be met with force. Since what they see is a platoon of armed men with their
fingers on the triggers of their guns, most of the detainees assume that the
game rules are a lie, that none of them will be allowed to finish the course and that the whole
exercise is a cruel variation on The Most Dangerous Game - target practice to 'blood'
inexperienced cops the way one might acclimatize a hunting dog.
Watkins retains his preferred pseudo-docu format by having the camera represent the filmed
record of a foreign television crew. Watkins is English and therefore fits the bill perfectly;
we hear his voice from time to time making comments, and eventually screaming out threats at
the uniformed policemen, who neither care what he films or what he says. The handheld camera
was more of a novelty in 1971 and surely added to the "reality" of the events in the desert chase.
Things go wrong almost immediately. Several of the more cynical and rebellious dissenters refuse
the game, hang back and murder the first pursuing officer, taking his pistol and rifle. Outraged,
the police immediately decide that all of their prey have violated the game rules and that deadly
force will be used. We never find out if this is an atypical 'run' or if other groups of detainees are
treated more fairly. But since the cops lie to their prey - telling them that there will be water
at the halfway point when there is none - we tend to think that in every case, a pretext is found
to kill them all.
There are some brutal scenes, but strangely enough, the strongest violence is back in the trial
tent where the next group is being
'arraigned' without benefit of trial by jury. Watkins apparently first thought of doing a movie
about the trial of the Chicago Seven, and the same kind of confrontational rhetoric is used here. The
judges accuse and condemn each defendant of basically being what they are, unhappy malcontents.
Those defendants that are genuine dissenters openly defy the tribunal with obscenities and
counterthreats, and are beaten and gagged. Women defendants are judged as anti-American for being
foul mouthed. A bitter female tribunal panelist is all too eager to see them all sent to "the Park.
The way it is mentioned, Punishment Park begins to seem like a Guantanamo Disneyland, a
Gulag Magic Mountain.
The judgments all seem pre-ordained. On their refreshment break, the judges voice their pride in
saving the country from these destructive elements. They insist that their own children are
"under control," and have nothing in common with the radicals.
Is Punishment Park credible? That's a tough call. Nixon could have invoked the power of
the McCarren act, but would probably have been checked by congress and the Supreme Court, and
perhaps even by the military. One is limited by one's own opinions, but I still don't think the
country was anywhere near a leftist revolution, or to a right-wing power grab, as postulated in
Seven Days in May. Watkins pushes his metaphor just far enough to raise hackles and
expose raw nerves. His film is not a fair look at anything - it's meant to agitate.
Watkins claims that his cast of non-professionals included some people (not all) playing that
fully supported the rhetoric of their characters, judges, detainees and police as well. Much of
the the "script" was unwritten and improvised. One police commander seems all too authentic
when he proudly demonstrates the lethal utility of pistols and shotguns and voices his eagerness
to deal out justice to the enemies of his country.
Punishment Park is an exaggeration and a purposely confected
worst-case scenario, but the most frightening thing about it is that nothing we see looks forced
or unbelievable, especially now. Those advocating its suppression would probably liken its
effect to the act of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, and call it an irresponsible film
likely to incite trouble. Watkins would doubtlessly argue that yelling "Fire!" is the only
responsible thing to do, if the theater is on fire and nobody listens to reason.
Project X's DVD of Punishment Park is at this point available only in Canada, through the
Canadian Amazon. A company representative says it will soon be able to be ordered from
diabolikDVD.com . I have yet to hear direct claims that the film was ever banned or suppressed in
the United States - plenty of pictures have disappeared after just a few days of empty theaters,
without outside help. The government has barred many foreign pictures as propaganda but supposedly
has no right to ban a domestic film - unless the Patriot Act now trumps the First Amendment. In
the case of Punishment Park, the producers ran up against a stone wall in 1971 when trying
to book the show into established theater chains. The assumption is that corporate chains wouldn't
touch the subject matter with a ten-foot pole, but there's no actual proof of a no-show conspiracy.
The image quality is excellent, bright and colorful. Cinematographer Joan Churchill's handholding the
entire show in the desert filming conditions must have been a grueling test of endurance. The
sound is also clear, making the removable English subs a necessity only for the hearing impaired.
The extras on the disc range from a scholarly commentary to text essays and the original,
unorthodox 1971 Press Kit. Filmmaker Watkins is present on camera for a half-hour 'introduction' that
is the star extra attraction. He uses prepared papers, as if he were a radical filmmaker reading
a blunt statement written for his own arraignment at Punishment Park. He's convinced that
civil liberties are far more threatened now than they were
in 1970, and he impresses as a very serious, idealistic man.
After thirty-five years of Vietnam rhetoric, I no longer believe that people listen to
conflicting political opinions long enough to have their "consciousness raised," as we once
believed was possible. Punishment Park is an artistic attempt to throw down a gauntlet,
but it must be stressed that even now, 34 years later, not very many people have seen it. I
suppose that conservatives would fear and loathe the film as pro-revolutionary propaganda,
although only a couple of the detainees express sentiments of that kind. Most are just insolent,
or silent pacifists looking for a way to personally get clear of the %$#% war. I can also see
anybody with a connection to the police or the military
being bitterly offended by this portrayal of law enforcement officers. Today, Punishment Park
still plays like an open flame in a fireworks factory.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Punishment Park rates:
Movie: Very Good but a rough ride, politically
Supplements: 28 minute introduction by Peter Watkins; Feature length
commentary by Dr Joseph A. Gomez; The Forgotten Faces (1961) - 18 minute
amateur film by Peter Watkins; Text essay by media critic Scott MacDonald on
audience responses to Punishment Park; Original 1971 Press Kit;
Peter Watkins filmography; Cast & Crew Information
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 2, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson