Punishment Park (1971)

The seventies continues to astonish me with its amazing films. You’d be hard pressed to find a more viscerally angry film than Peter Watkin’s Punishment Park. It’s almost frightening in the palpable rage roaring off the screen and you will come away seething with the injustice you’ve just seen take place. Filmed in an utterly basic, documentary style, this is a piece performed entirely by amateurs in the best possible way. You can tell they’re ad-libbing but there’s a sense of danger in the room … will real violence break out at any minute? I won’t bother trying to name the actors as there’s no lead character to speak of, and they’re all wonderful. Raging, eloquent, sad … the characters arguing their various cases are truly a sight to behold.

Set in a sort of alternative universe - of the seventies - Punishment Park takes place in an America that appears to be on the verge, if not tipped over, of being a full fascist state. President Nixon, on the heel of escalating the Vietnam War, has declared a state of emergency based on the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950. This allows the government to arrest any dissidents or basically anyone with an opinion that runs counter to the “gummint” in power to be arrested and put on “trial” by a bunch of reactionary conservatives in the California desert. The various activists, conscientious objectors and hippies are given a show trial with “community members” prosecuting them, a harassed defence laywer and the choice of serving their sentences in prison or running the gamut of “Punishment Park” – a gauntlet of fleeing through the scorching desert for 53 miles to reach an American flag without food or water, over three days . All the while they’re being chased by National Guardsmen who, if they catch them, cause their jail sentence to be reinstated.

So our hapless prisoners, ranging from young women and men of all races, persuasions and creeds, rage and argue against their persecutors to no avail. It’s down to a choice – prison or Punishment Park? They all choose to flee ‘The Man’ in the desert and make a bid for freedom. Meanwhile European filmmakers follow two of the groups and film them as the chase commences. As the young folk suffer under the extreme conditions, they are promised water at a certain checkpoint. Will this pan out? Time will tell. One of the groups turn violent and gives up on the game, deciding to hide and fight. We see that one of the guardsmen is murdered, which of course, turns his colleagues against the prisoners on the run. However, it’s not made clear who killed him, and his murder is never seen. Could it be he was murdered by his own team to enable the pursuers to kill the young folk?

Eventually, the authorities catch up to the ‘violent’ group and end up massacring the lot of them after some bungled panicking and misunderstandings. The pacifist group in the meantime, find the promise of water is just a trick, but struggle on in an attempt to continue. Eventually, after much suffering through intense heat in the day and bitter cold at night, they reach the finish line only to find more guardsmen waiting for them. There was never any hope to win the game and freedom. After more argument with inept and inexperienced guardsmen recruits, even the pacifists are gunned down. The European filmmakers scream at the injustice of what they’ve seen with both teams, and vow to make it public around the world. The authorities let them know in no uncertain terms that they couldn’t give a damn.

It’s hard to watch an intense film such as this, and not feel some of the emotion coming off the screen. I have a gut reaction against conservatives anyway, and watching these young sensitive people get buried by a bunch of small-minded fascist bureaucrats got my blood pumping. That’s probably a good sign for the actors and filmmakers. It would be hard to find a group of more articulate actors arguing their cases against the forces of the unlistening right wing than this lot. Peter Watkin’s visual style is simple and unobtrusive, which is appropriate for the subject matter. There’s probably examples of this type of treatment going on around the world even as I type. It’s a sobering thought. It’s a pity films like this can’t change the world, just by being out there in the public gaze. Still, as a statement by an artist they’re mighty effective.

Is Punishment Park my favourite film of all time? Probably not. However, as an example of cinema railing against injustice, I’d bring it out and show my friends anytime. The director’s vision is clearly all up on the screen. As I often say, it’s a type of film that’s rarely made anymore outside of the seventies, more’s the pity. We could probably do with a few less tentpole films and more angry rants against the system in 2016. I may be bald and middle aged, but I like to think I still have a long-haired hippy lurking in my heart, sticking it to the man wherever possible.

If you get the chance, I’d recommend you track down Punishment Park just to see what can be done with virtually no sets, amateur actors and a desert location. I’ve watched it a few times now, and found myself engrossed and enraged at the hapless prisoners’ fates each viewing. Long live the cinema of the seventies!

© Boris Lugosi, 2016.

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Review written: 23/04/2016 04:31:39