THE MOVIE In 1970 British filmmaker Peter Watkins was living in the U.S. and working on a project that would never be made. The 1966 Best Documentary Academy Award winner for The War Game finished a historically critical Civil War script that his producers would never fund, but before he returned to England he decided to approach America’s then cultural polarization. That movie, 1971’s Punishment Park, opened to hotly contentious reviews during its four-day New York and 10-day San Francisco theatrical runs, after which it was pulled and screened since only from Watkins’ personal 16-mm print. Now it is restored and released on DVD for the first time, a cinematic gut-punch that not only fits squarely in with its contemporaries of countercultural dissent—Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Robert Kramer’s Ice, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, John Avildsen’s Joe, James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue, etc.—but may be the era’s single greatest achievement.
What makes Punishment Park so arresting is how amazingly well it has aged, working a nightmarish narrative conceit that wouldn’t be tried again for almost 30 years—and then as Kinji Fukasaku’s cartoonish Battle Royale. Invoking the 1950 McCarran Act, law enforcement starts rounding up opposition—political organizers, black nationalists, draft dodgers, pacifists, and, in the first of many pitch-black deadpan jokes, a poet—and hauls them out to the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park in Southern California. There they are tried by a tribunal—consisting of union leaders, politicians, university professors, all also draft-board members—and sentenced to lengthy federal penitentiary stays. Instead of jail, however, they can choose Punishment Park.
Punishment Park is a training facility for law-enforcement officers and National Guardsmen in combating political dissidence. The prisoners are given a two-hour head start to trek some 50 desert miles over three days and two nights to an American flag; if they do not reach the flag or are captured by the trailing law-enforcement party, then they have to serve their penal sentence.
Shot in a faux documentary style from news crews from West German and British television, Punishment Park is an excoriating indictment of, well, just about everything—from the distanced moral righteousness invoked by the press to the unconstitutional trial and sentencing conducted by the tribunal to the naiveté of the pacifists for not recognizing a lethally loaded situation for what it is. Bouncing effortlessly between scenes of one tribunal, the agonizing journey through the park by a sentenced group, and training and tracking law enforcement, Watkins effortlessly and seamlessly moves from scathing satire to poignant political observation to gallows humor, sometimes within the same long take. At one point the Sheriff’s captain (Jim Bohan) is talking about an officer killed by a group on the course, explaining what they’re going to have to do now that they’ve taken his sidearm, shotgun, night stick, and 50 rounds of ammo, before informing the camera crew that they killed him with briars from a Joshua Tree. Watkins maintains this dizzying, absurdist outrage for the movie’s entire 88 minutes, and come its disturbingly logical close, it feels less like an artifact from the paranoid ’70s and more like a screaming warning for where we might be headed.
THE DISK This restored Punishment Park comes with a treasure trove of extras, including the original 1971 press kit, a fascinating 28-minute introduction from Watkins himself, extended liner notes from Joseph Gomez’s 1979 book on Watkins with a 2005 postscript, and, most interesting, an 18-minute, 1961 Watkins short called “The Forgotten Faces” that re-creates the 1956 Hungarian civil war in Canterbury.