Peter Watkins’ “Punishment Park” was made in 1971 but was barely released, due in large part to vituperative reviews following its New York Film Festival premiere. Unavailable for many years except as a bootleg video, the restored film is back on DVD.
Shot in a documentary-style, the film details the fate of a number of hippies and radicals, arrested under presidential orders citing “a risk to internal security.” They are tried by biased secret tribunals consisting mostly of ugly-looking right wingers with no patience for long-haired radicals. The prisoners have a choice of jail sentences: up to 20 years in a federal maximum security penitentiary or a three-day run through Bear Mountain Punishment Park in the California desert. The latter choice has the prisoners being chased through the scorched landscape by trigger-happy cops and national guardsmen who are trying to stop them from reaching an American flag hoisted high on a pole in the middle of the desert. This is clearly a life-and-death version of capture-the-flag.
But, honestly, what was the big fuss all about way-back-when? The film engages in crude stereotyping on both sides of the equation. The radicals are scruffy, pretentious, chronically angry and ready to spout dime store Marxism whenever the microphones are on. The cops and soldiers are ice-blooded fiends who show no remorse in taking lives. A somewhat clueless BBC camera crew follows the entire proceedings, never quite catching on to what is happening until the climax (and that ending should not come as a surprise).
Watkins use of non-professionals is wobbly – the hippies seem genuine, but the cops and soldiers are clearly making too much of an effort to behave as obnoxious authority figures. Joan Churchill’s 16mm cinematography is effectively in-your-face, although it is never clear how the alleged camera crew documenting the desert run is able to remain focused and alert when everyone they are filming is nearly dying of thirst and exhaustion.
Bush bashers may find some parallels between Watkins’ make-believe fantasy of three decades back and today’s world of enemy combatants and secret jails. But on the whole, “Punishment Park” is more than a wooly curio which reflected the turmoils of a distant era. The film may have been more effective as a short; at 88 minutes, its padding is too obvious (do you really want to see a bunch of hippies running in the desert for more than a few minutes?).