The Sunday Cult Film Corner: “Punishment Park (1970)”

13 Nov

We’re living in what can be called “interesting” times. A worldwide recession that should have been completely avoidable is exerting its vice-like grip on society. All over the world, governments are powerless to stop the rapacious demands of powerful, moneyed interests collectively buttfucking civilisation into the next dimension. In the middle east, nations are falling into chaos and even war as oppressive regimes find their power starting to crumble, while elsewhere, people are trying to fight back and protest, whether it’s student fees in the UK, the occupy movement in USA and elsewhere, and anti globalisation demos in places such as Toronto. Meanwhile they are being met with crackdowns from state and private mechanisms in the form of police, the judiciary and corporate backed media outlets.

It’s with this uncertain backdrop that i merrily drop this weeks fun action packed edition of the SUNDAY MOTHERFUCKING CULT FILM CORNER!!! This week, a truly realistic nightmarish vision of an American society at war with itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, ice give to you PUNISHMENT PARK.

Punishment Park is directed by Peter Watkins, a director who honed his talents with the BBC in the ’60s and is best known for his use of Docudrama techniques. Before Punishment Park, he was most infamous for his film “The War Game” (which describes in detail the effects of a nuclear attack on London), which to this day has never been shown in full on British TV.

Told in a faux documentary style, Punishment Park tells of a USA in the near future where escalation of the Vietnam war and increasing political unrest and violence at home has resulted in the enacting of the (completely real) McCarran Act, which authorizes Federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons judged to be “a risk to internal security”. Anti war protestors, conscientious objectors civil rights, feminist and various counterculture and left-wing activists are arrested en masse and given the  simple choice. Either spend 15 years in a federal prison, or run the gauntlet of “Punishment Park”, a 50 mile stretch of desert where they must reach a flag within 3 days, all the while hunted and chased by law enforcement officers and national guardsmen as part of their “Training”. The film has a British & German documentary film crew following two groups of people. One undergoing their summary court “tribunals”, while the other group undertakes the “game” of punishment park.

Part social commentary, part dystopian Sci-Fi, Punishment Park pulls no punches. Despite having an initial script, the film mostly consists of improvised dialogue and interaction, adding a sense of realism and urgency to the proceedings. According to the legend, some people identified so closely with their roles, at one point an actual fight broke out when actors hurled rocks at their pursuers only for them to open fire in return.

Despite the liberal leanings of Watkins and his complete denunciation of the state machine and the people who operate within it, nobody comes out of Punishment Park well. Even the “good guys” in the form of the activists are shrill, argumentative and somewhat naive in their expectations as they are manipulated by the people running the game.

What Watkins does manage to capture brilliantly is the increased polarisation that became evident in the Nixon ´nam years (he managed to get re-elected in 1972 on the back of creating an “Us Vs Them” divisiveness amongst the electorate). In the film, there is no real dialogue between the opposing sides, just shouting and general mistrust and often outright hatred of each other.

Punishment Park only received a tiny limited release in the USA. When it was shown, there was often a polarizing reaction within the audience, similar to the film, between those who thought it was hysterical and heavy-handed announcing that such things couldn’t happen in the USA, and those who felt it accurately chimed with the reality of US state oppression, pointing out that interment camps were a reality in the US during the second world war for the Japanese Americans.

Even though it was released 40 years ago and was about the Vietnam and Nixon years, the central messages of Punishment park are ironically more important today than ever. The last decade has seen a frightening increase in violent paranoia amongst many groups, both right and left-wing. The McCarran Act was eventually repealed, but in its place we now have the Patriot Act, which in some ways goes even further. The court scenes in Punishment Park wouldn’t look out-of-place in an interview on FOX news or MSNBC. In many countries in the western world, we’ve seen a gradual but real erosion of our ability to exercise our freedoms and rights to protest, all the while going hand in hand with an increase in the militarization of our Law Enforcement agencies and their willingness to exercise said force in ever more blatant abuses of power. Finding yourself detained while protesting in a legal black hole where you are no rights or access to lawyers has become a reality. And for people who still think that internment camps can’t happen in places such as the USA, I’ll leave this article about the fallout of Hurricane Katrina, where militia men rampaged with impunity, and a a detention facility called “Camp Greyhound” sprang up from nowhere and was used to detail all manner of citizens, with no legal recourse or oversight, subjecting detainees to brutal levels of abuse similar to Abu Ghraib.

So get that cup of tea and prepare to feel some righteous anger at the brutality of western state suppression. then go out and protest as if your life depended upon it.


Posted by on November 13, 2011 in Film


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3 responses to “The Sunday Cult Film Corner: “Punishment Park (1970)”

  1. Joachim Boaz

    November 14, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Great film! The War Game is wonderful as well… His “documentary” The Battle of Culloden (1964) is downright weird — you should check it out if you haven’t yet….

    • bobcluness

      November 14, 2011 at 8:53 am

      I´m a massive fan of his work. Have seen Culloden. It’s very much ahead of it’s time as these days you often have “Dramatic reconstructions” on many history shows. The way he uses documentary techniques to make it look as if he was reporting it like he was actually there.

      I also recommend “Privilege”. It has aged a bit with the notion that the Church would control popular culture. But replace organised religion with corporate interests and he’s pretty bang on the money.

  2. Joachim Boaz

    November 16, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    I watched a portion of Privilege a while back but wasn’t in the mood and moved to something else… I’ll definitely have to return to it — have you seen Edvard Munch (1974) or Gladiatorerna (1969)?


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