Today: February 22, 2024

Punishment Park

Back in the mid-1960s, Peter Watkins’ work at the BBC had earned him a reputation as a documentarian who was not afraid of innovation

Back in the mid-1960s, Peter Watkins’ work at the BBC had earned him a
reputation as a documentarian who was not afraid of innovation.
example, his 1965 film Culloden won
a BAFTA for its portrayal the 1746 Jacobite uprising in the style of a piece of
Vietnam War reporting. In 1966, Watkins’ follow-up project The War Game won an Academy Award for its documentary-style account
of the events surrounding a fictional nuclear war. Based on these critical
triumphs, Watkins left the BBC and travelled to America in order to make a
trilogy of films on America’s foundational wars. However, while this project
never came to fruition, Watkins’ observations on the political climate of
mid-1960s America eventually took the form of Punishment Park, a fictionalised documentary set at the heart of
the American establishment’s dystopian attempts to restore order to their
fragmenting society.

The ‘Big Bear Punishment Park’ was
set up in order to help America address its rising tide of subversion without
having to incur the expense of building more prisons and running more courts.
Radicals and dissidents are arrested on the slimmest of pretences and shipped
to a desert compound where they are summarily tried by an extra-legal body
staffed by members of the establishment. After arguing with the defendants,
these pillars of the community sentence them to lengthy prison sentences but
offer them the opportunity to escape punishment by taking part in a training
exercise where they are hunted across a desert by heavily armed law enforcement
officers. Needless to say, these hunts are both utterly one-sided and
unrelentingly brutal.

On one level, Punishment Park functions as a near-future work of dystopian
science fiction. If looked at in these terms, the exaggeration of the
establishment’s reaction to political dissent is only a matter of degree and
the exaggeration serves to highlight real problems in American political
culture. Similarly, the dissidents’ futile march through a desert towards an
American flag stands as a poignant metaphorical commentary on Humanity’s quest
for freedom and how the value of freedom can be all too easily undermined by
the very people entrusted with securing our attempts to achieve it.

On another level, Punishment Park is a furious attack not
only upon the politically intransigent elites that run America but also upon
the biased nature of so-called reporting and the intellectually incoherent and
simple-minded nature of responses to those elites. Indeed, one of the reasons
why Punishment Park is such an
under-appreciated film is because, unlike Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) or Lumet’s Network
(1976), there are no romantic figures to root for. Watkins reportedly shot the
courtroom scenes by briefing his actors and allowing them to present their own
arguments and what emerges from that process is the fact that neither side of
this polarised debate is really all that interested in what the other side has
to say. When the dissidents score a hit, the establishment has them
gagged. When the establishment
points out hypocrisy or inconsistency, the dissidents respond by screaming
insults. What emerges is an astonishingly bleak and sour account of the
absolute hopelessness of existence and the absolute futility of political
engagement. As one dissident pointedly remarks, the pigs are coming for you
anyway so the only choice available to you is whether or not you resort to
violence once they start shooting at you.

Even after forty years, Punishment Park remains a difficult
film to watch. The bleakness of Watkins’ vision is very nearly over-powering
and his laudable attempts to hint at the humanity behind the visors and
mirrored shades of the law-enforcement officers only serves to drive home the
message that we, as a society, are completely and utterly doomed.

Included on this Blu-ray edition of
the film is a terrifyingly intense essay delivered by Watkins straight to
camera. In this essay, Watkins explains how critics at the time described Punishment Park as
a kind the masochistic fantasy of a wannabe martyr. Given that Watkins made
this film at a time when radical politics still offered a reasonable alternative
to the status quo, this accusation seems fair comment. However, forty years
down the line, we can now see that Watkins was absolutely right to predict both
an assault on civil liberties and an increasing balkanisation of the political
sphere. Look at the way that potential terrorists are treated and you will know
that Watkins was right. Look at the way that left-wing and right-wing media
seldom engage with each other and you will know that Watkins was right. Look at
the left’s complete lack of response to the credit crunch and you will know
that Watkins was right. Punishment Park
is a beautifully made and endlessly intelligent film but it is not an enjoyable
watch, sometimes the truth really is no fun at all.

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