Lost Classic: Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971)

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The Boston Phoenix may have predicted Peter Watkins’ potent philippic on the frightening consequences of unchecked power was a “cult hit waiting to happen – but 40 years after its controversial release, it’s still twiddling its thumbs waiting for the world to catch on.

Watkins’ pioneering brand of radical pseudo-documentary filmmaking was always going to leave him shouting at the world from the sidelines.

His 1965 BBC nuclear war docudrama, The War Game, was judged “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” by Auntie and shelved for 20 years. Set in a dystopian America that Watkins could see on the horizon, Punishment Park never recovered from the hostile critical reaction it mostly received and sank without trace.

At the time it was dismissed as nothing more than hyperbolic paranoia on the part of the director (The New York Times described it as “the wish-fulfilling dream of a masochist”). Seen today, it’s striking just how resonant the issues of the film remain.

With the Vietnam War escalating, Nixon invokes legislation authorising a police state wherein those deemed “a risk to internal security” can be arrested and tried by a civilian tribunal. Presumed guilty, the hippies, draft dodgers and seditious types arrested for “hindering the war effort” are offered long jail time or three gruelling days in Punishment Park (or the option of signing a Hitler oath-style pledge of loyalty).

Promised liberty if they evade the police and National Guard and make it across scorching hot desert to capture the US flag 53 miles away, the ‘subversives’ who choose this option little realise their bloody-thirsty pursuers have no intention of allowing them to regain their freedom (or, in some cases, to let them live).

The screw is turned as the film, comprised of faux BBC news footage narrated by an increasingly splenetic Watkins, cuts between the one-sided kangaroo court (its chairman, a politician, gags a prisoner for getting on his nerves bringing to mind Bobby Seale); the terrified rebels in Punishment Park; and law enforcement officers hungry for action. In a cruel irony one runner tells the camera crew “I don’t think they’re trying to kill us”, before Watkins cuts to a sheriff, who describes how best to shoot someone.

Interestingly, the non-professional actors were cast based on their own political beliefs and were told by Watkins to let rip against each other as if the situation were real. As a result, the scenes within the tribunal tent crackle with tension as the prisoners and tribunal members have what might be called “a failure to communicate” and soon end up screaming at each other.

Echoes of Punishment Park (and Watkins’ previous diatribe The Gladiators) can be seen in such variable fare as The Running Man, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.

Filmed in the aftermath of and coloured by the Kent State massacre when the US was ripping itself apart over Vietnam, Watkins’ hellish vision of an America consumed by war and whose citizens are judged by their loyalty to the state may have been branded paranoia – but 40 years on looks pretty prescient. Recent events including the War on Terror, Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay lend credence to the old proverb that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

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