PUNISHMENT PARK (1971) written and directed by Peter Watkins. Cinematography by Joan Churchill. Starring Carmen Argenziano, Harold Beaulieu, Jim Bohan, Stan Armsted and Paul Alelyanes, distributed by Project X Distribution.
There’s been a long tradition of Most Dangerous Game inspired novels and movies. The concept of hunting humans for sport, or placing humans in an arena for public consumption and/or political means has been a mainstay from THE RUNNING MAN to THE HUNGER GAMES and goes all the way back to Richard O’Donnell’s classic short story. Peter Watkin’s PUNISHMENT PARK is not only a variation on the form, it is also one of the earlier examples of “found footage” or “mockumentary” film making. And a fascinating look into the American psyche effected by the Vietnam War. Made in 1971, PUNISHMENT PARK was only two years away from the end of a conflict that would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers and well over a million South and North Vietnamese.
It is difficult for those of us in the 21st century to comprehend the zeitgeist at the time. The United States (and the rest of the Western World) was experiencing social upheaval motivated by an increasing rift separating one generation from another. The promise of a free love society had eroded into disillusionment and unrest. Race riots were the norm. A growing awareness of the haves and have-nots beget protests and violent demonstrations. We no longer trusted the authority. Politicians were now a joke. The police were now pigs. And our military were the puppets of a fascist government. That was the take at least from one side of the fence. The more conservative old guard responded with confusion and resentment. In their eyes, the younger generation had no idea how privileged they actually were and therefore viewed those others as being ungrateful and unpatriotic. Within this storm, you had members from both sides attempting to reconcile these extremes by forming bridges of communication… but sometimes to no avail.
And to compound the issue, we found ourselves suddenly immersed in a war that was not actually a war but a conflict. A conflict that wasn’t ours to begin with.
PUNISHMENT PARK posits an alternate reality where we are at war with Vietnam, Richard Nixon is president, yet there is an attempt to clamp down on radical thought by making it a federal crime. By invoking the McCarran Internal Security Act, which allows the government to detain citizens who are deemed a risk to National Security, Nixon has declared a State Of Emergency. Thus any person aligned with the anti-war, feminist, conscientious objector and civil rights movements are arrested and forced to face a tribunal. If sentenced, you have the option to spend that time in prison (which could last decades) or take your chances surviving “Punishment Park:” a three day, 50 mile hike through a very hot and extremely arid desert. You are given no water. You are being tracked down by a collection of civic authority figures (policemen, state troopers and National Guardsmen). And should you make it to the end without being caught, you are free to go. For the authorities, this “game” amounts to nothing more than a field training exercise. For the rest, it is literally a life saving opportunity.
On the surface PUNISHMENT PARK could be viewed as a one sided argument admonishing the policies of pre Watergate USA. But the film does require closer scrutiny. The tribunal is made up of various (potentially Conservative) community leaders who respond flabbergasted at the attitudes of the “radicals” presented before them. It is clear, however, that the “other side” is contributing to the problem. No one addresses the key elephant in the room with regard to Vietnam and why we are there in the first place. Instead everyone wants to voice their pet political belief in as antagonistic a way as possible. What we actually witness is a microcosm of what must have been going on at the time: different factions with separate, extreme beliefs doing a lot of shouting but no one is listening. At least there is some unity depicted among the conservative set whereas everyone else has conflicting opinions as to how to resolve their issues and what those issues actually are. Although the police and National Guardsmen are set up to be the “villains” of the film, how they treat you depends on how peaceful or violent you are willing to be. Indeed, some of the acts that happen to the victims onscreen are brought onto themselves: paranoid factions decide that offensive violence is the only answer whereas some feel the best way out is to play the game legally and by the rules.
When the story takes its dark turn and thus amps up the tension surrounding the remaining survivors it is due to an act perpetrated by one of the hunted that forces the authorities to go on the offensive. Thus, one (or two) bad apples ruin it for everyone else.
What makes the film so fascinating to me is how Watkins presents a “chicken or the egg” scenario. Ostensibly the victims are the oppressed radicals experiencing the violation of their Fifth Amendment rights (in fact, there is some prescient stuff here. I was reminded an awful lot of our recent Homeland Security tribunals and the whole Guantanamo Bay fiasco). And their anger has been provoked by legitimate circumstances plaguing the country at the time. But that anger creates paranoia and a refusal to communicate differences in understandable ways, even in ways that may contradict the intended message. That in turn instills fear and paranoia among the authorities: the very people being protested against who are to some degree entitled to protect themselves from that anger. The breakdown between the two sides can always be blamed on communication (or the lack thereof). No one seems to speak the same language. Everyone is talking at each other. And this enforces the “us against them” mentality plaguing both sides. It is further symbolized in a scene involving an officer’s attempt to peaceably arrest a group of participants, only to have his cries to stand still go unheard as he is at the top of a hill and the others beneath it. As they get closer (and still cannot hear his cries), he panics and begins to shoot. All the while the group approaches him with their hands on their heads, fully intending to turn themselves in.
(a particularly tense moment, by the way. The “director” of the documentary can be heard yelling near the camera “THEY CAN’T HEAR YOU!!” and screams in terror as the officer fires off his rifle and the participants attack him in self-defense. Apparently this was a totally unrehearsed moment resulting in some authentic on screen reactions)
As for the technical conceit of the film, this is explained by the permission given to a British documentary unit to film both the hearings and the race. And the result is an effectively realistic representation of cinéma vérité. Using a mixture of amateur and professional actors, not one performance feels “false,” nor a moment overly staged. Watkins was a master at this kind of approach. He had already made CULLODEN and THE WAR GAME. Both are fake documentaries detailing the 1746 battle between the Scottish and English and the aftermath of a nuclear war respectively. And they are very good and incredibly realistic. But something about PUNISHMENT PARK hit a nerve with both the critics and the general public at the time of its release. The seemingly anti American message not only angered initial viewers, but it probably didn’t help being an “anti American” movie directed by a British filmmaker. Thus no Hollywood studio agreed to distribute Watkin’s film.
The fact that PUNISHMENT PARK was made unavailable up until very recently may or may not be indicative of the still incendiary messages contained within the film. However, it does offer a depressing, parting shot. At the end of the day the legal system, even the opportunity “Punishment Park” is supposed to afford, turns out to be rigged. You cannot “win” Punishment Park. This becomes apparent once the remaining participants reach the end of the race. And to add to that tragedy, the film concludes with another group we’ve been following while on trial. Upon receiving their sentencing, they decide to make the same fateful decision to risk Punishment Park rather than spend time in jail. The conclusion sits heavy in the viewer’s heart. Because we now know that either way, the final outcome will end none too well.