‘Punishment Park’ at 50: A Disturbingly Relevant Social Thriller

Image courtesy of popoptiq.com

It can be a strangely comforting feeling when you relate to an old film. It’s as if you find a real connection to people who have gone before, in a way that suggests human nature hasn’t changed and we’re not alone in our feelings. In the case of Punishment Park, which this year saw its 50th anniversary, human nature very much hasn’t changed—and it’s terrifying. Peter Watkins’ 1971 pseudo-documentary feels devastatingly current in its examination of police brutality against peaceful protestors and the totalitarian course that the West appears to be charting. Rewatching it today, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the violence on screen and the violence in our streets. 

In the film, the titular “Park” is presented as a disturbing alternative to prison. Criminals are given the choice between spending up to 20 years behind bars for what effectively amount to ‘thought crimes’ (such as sympathy towards the civil rights movement, or allegiance with the burgeoning feminist wave) or avoiding prison altogether—but only if they can survive three days in Punishment Park, a vast expanse of arid desert in California. Pursuing them is a mix of National Guard members and trainee police officers, who hunt them with a combined sense of duty and glee. If the prisoners reach the American flag at the end, they’re free. If they’re caught, they serve their time in prison. It’s obvious what that really means when the guards arrive armed to the teeth, not with pepper spray but with pump-action shotguns—“not to disperse, not to wound, to kill.” 

The narrative cuts back and forth between the prisoners on the run across Punishment Park, and the next wave of defendants standing before an emergency tribunal. Posing as a fictional documentary-maker, Watkins interviews both the guards and prisoners as they navigate the hell of the desert. Scenes weren’t rehearsed and the characters’ perspectives were often just the spontaneous thoughts of the cast themselves, most of whom were non-actors. Years later, Watkins remarked that some of the guards were played by role-players who embellished their characters, and others by actual police officers. As they justify murder and brutality to the camera, it’s scarily unclear who’s who. 

Watching Punishment Park now, in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests last June—and, more recently, the harrowing scenes from the #KillTheBill protests in Bristol—makes for tough viewing. The film’s most iconic scene, of a cop aiming a gun at a cowering prisoner, once worked as a gut-punch visual metaphor. Today, it feels snatched from the headlines. One of the prisoners refers to the police in a poetic turn of phrase as the “street-cleaners of public conscience,” but what gives the film its power is that Watkins never dehumanises either side. The most haunting image is of a fresh-faced, barely eighteen-year-old guard trying to both reckon with and defend his potential involvement in the shooting of a prisoner. It’s a comment on the Vietnam War’s corruption of America’s youth, but in the young man’s face is the most painfully etched expression of innocence lost. It is instantly recognisable—the sight of two young lives ruined in a single moment. 

During its festival run, the New York Times hastily dismissed the film as flimsy wish-fulfilment—the “dream of a masochist”. Yet while the prisoners may make chimerical calls for change, Punishment Park is not sensationalist or exploitative. If anything, it feels quite grounded. Watkins presents state violence as a symptom of a much larger problem, building the film not around high-flying sci-fi concepts but around U.S. federal legislation, taking major inspiration from the frighteningly real 1950 McCarran Act. Draconian in nature, this law (which was, ironically, first partially repealed in 1971) permitted the construction of makeshift concentration camps to detain those accused of subversion or—scariest of all—of even considering subversion. In Britain today, Home Secretary Priti Patel is pushing to outlaw protests and the act of “causing a serious annoyance” in an effort to curb recent anti-government demonstrations. The comparisons are all too clear, like we’ve been here before. Interestingly, Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw wrote in 2005 that Punishment Park evoked the horrific images coming out of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and that he couldn’t separate the film from reality. Perhaps today it feels more urgent, yet our culture of violence hasn’t changed. Introducing the film that year, Watkins himself debated his controversial allusions to real events. He believed that you can control the narrative in the news as easily as you can in a film, so what’s more true: half-truths told on the news or a fictional metaphor for something very real? 

“Violence is the only thing that’ll command your attention,” one of the defendants yells into the camera. It’s aimed at the despicable crew of assorted bureaucrats running the tribunal, but it feels just as strong an accusation against the viewer and our relationship with violent movies. There is no gloss to Punishment Park, nothing lost in the formal artifice of drama. The film viscerally mirrors real-life images of police beating protestors at the 1968 Washington riots, and the shooting at Kent State University in 1970. But for some, it was seeing these things acted out on screen that finally made them real. There was tremendous outrage when the film opened, and it ironically survived only a four-day run in cinemas. It was seen as a condemnation of America, and the worst part of all? The fact that it was directed by an Englishman, from Surrey. It undermined America’s social stability, after all, for an outsider to release such an incendiary film during a time of such great crisis. For many, it struck a harsher chord than when, a few months later, 12,000 people were illegally arrested during the May Day protests. Scenes from this event were broadcast on television. Punishment Park never aired. 

Punishment Park is an essential film. It’s brutal and confrontational, and may very well be too much for some viewers, but it offers a vital and truly unique perspective on sadly relevant issues. It understands violence as a cog in the machine, both socially and cinematically, and it burns with real, frontline intensity. If this is indeed a masochist’s dream, then there seems to be no way to wake up. 

Words by Sebastian Mann

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