Title: Punishment ParkDirector: Peter Watkins
Starring: Patrick Boland, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano, Luke Johnson, Katherine Quittner, Scott Turner, Stanford Armstead, Mary Ellen Kleinhall, Mark Keats, Gladys Golden, Sanford Golden, Normal Sinclair, Sigmund Rich, Paul Rosenstein
Plot: A pseudo-documentary set in an alternative 1970, with President Nixon declaring a state of emergency giving federal authorities the power to detain persons judged to be a “risk to internal security”. Now these detainees are faced with either serving their full conviction time in federal prison or three days in Punishment Park to win their freedom.
Review: You’d be forgiven for going into this expecting another “Turkey Shoot” or “Battle Royale” as this film is pretty much the opposite despite the setup. Here instead we get a commentary on the social and political tensions of the time, as British director Peter Watkins draws inspiration from events such as the Kent State shootings, the trial of the Chicago Seven aswell as political polarisation to craft his alternative history which unsurprisingly was released to much criticism at the time, especially with a British director making a film essentially designed to highlight the American political problems in a time of crisis, while it also managed to also spark claims of Communism.
Shot in a cinema verite style using hand held cameras, aswell as a shoe string budget of a mere $95,000 Watkins really sells the faux documentary style even if Watkins here also playing the role of the narrator does sound like Eric Idle’s documentary maker Nigel on “The Simpsons” which proved kind of distracting but perfectly suited the tone of the film he’s making while frequently providing the voice of the audience especially towards the end of the film when he starts becoming more vocal in highlighting the flaws in this openly corrupt system.
Despite existing on an alternative history timeline it is one which is still familiar, let alone one which still rings true even years after the film’s release. Splitting its attention between two separate groups with one being filmed as they face a civilian tribunal to decide their sentence , the other group being filmed at the start of their time in Punishment Park . This second group we soon learn are faced with playing what is essentially a game of capture the flag, as they have to get through 53 miles of the California desert in three days without food or water, while at the same time being used for field training for the Nation guard and police tasked to chase and stop reaching the target American flag at the end of the course. If any of the group is captured by either of these forces they will have to serve their sentence in federal prison.
These groups are mainly made up of what was considered to be the biggest threats at the time, so anti-establishment hippies and draft –dodgers none of which acts as any kind of mouthpiece with Charles Robbins character, one of the few who attempts to fight back against this corrupt tribunal system almost immediately is gagged and handcuffed by the military police in attendance. As such we get scattered bits and pieces, of the individuals beliefs and reasons for them being sent here, but nothing to really define any one person as being a hero or villain of the piece as Watkins maintains the audiences place as that of the onlooker.
The scenes in Punishment Park are gruelling to watch as the group are essentially sent on a death march across the desert with nothing in way of supplies, while only being further taunted by the system who promise water and supplies at the half way point only for the group to soon discover said water is nothing but a tap stuck into the ground and not actually connected to anything. It’s frustrating to watch especially when you remember that these people are only here because of the fact that they choose to believe different than what the government feels that they should conform to. At the same time none of these individuals are able to provide any kind of clear idea for creating the kind of Utopia that they seemingly stand for creating with their actions which landed them in this situation.
The only clear cut idea we do get here is that of force as the solution as the military police and soldiers taunt them with attack dogs, while using billy clubs and random executions to enforce their will. These individuals clearly viewing the world in a more black and white sense were those who oppose the governments will must either conform or face being re-educated via the use of violence and intimidation. Unsurprisingly its only a matter of time before these tactics create a division in the group, with half attempting to fight back with violence against their guards only to bleakly be quickly quashed, leaving the other group to continue to try and beat the game by following the rules being enforced only to essentially suffer the same fate by the ending which comes with a bleak sense of hopelessness which might not sit well with some, but one which perfectly suits the tone of the film.
The only real character we see (or should that be hear) evolve over the course of the film is the narrator, who starts off with a detached style as he makes bland observations about weather conditions, temperatures in the desert and names of characters as the camera singles them out, while at the same time providing just enough information on the situation happening around to keep the viewer as confused as they informed about what they are watching. However as the flaws in this system start to be uncovered he starts to become more objective about what he is seeing with the film being to him hysterically shouting at Sheriff Edwards (Bohan) whose men are ruthlessly beating down and killing the group members, only to find him viewing the situation with chilling disregard even when informed that their actions are being filmed by the documentary crew his response is only one of
“I’ve been on film before, that doesn’t make a bit of difference to me”
A scene which only further reinforces how true these enforcers believe their actions must like the government they represent to be.
Something of an obscurity the film makes for a interesting watch, even if it is far from the most action packed film, it handles its political theme a lot more coherently than many of the protest / political films of the period such as Jean-Luc Godard’s abysmal “Sympathy For The Devil” making it worth hunting down if only to further your film education.