This is a revised review of a Canadian release from April 26, 2005
Peter Watkins is a firebrand filmmaker from 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 news camera 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 infrequently at 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.
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 acclimate 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 to play 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 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 "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 when the theater is in flames and nobody listens to reason.
New Yorker's DVD of Punishment Park is the official U.S. release for this rarified curiosity. 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: