Punishment Park

Punishment Park

1970. THE WAR in Vietnam is escalating. President Nixon has decided on a secret bombing campaign of Cambodia. There is massive public protest in the United States and elsewhere. Nixon declares a state of national emergency, and - we presuppose in the film - activates the 1950 Internal Security Act (the McCarran Act), which authorizes Federal authorities, without reference to Congress, to detain persons judged to be “a risk to internal security”.

In a desert zone in southwestern California, not far from the tents where a civilian tribunal are passing sentence on Group 638, Group 637 (mostly university students) find themselves in the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, and discover the rules of the ‘game’ they are forced to undergo as part of the alternative they have chosen in lieu of confinement in a penitentiary. Group 637 have been promised liberty if they evade pursuing law enforcement officers and reach the American flag posted 53 miles away across the mountains, within three days. Meanwhile, in the tribunal tent, Group 638 - assumed guilty before tried - endeavour in vain to argue their case for resisting the war in Vietnam. While they argue, amidst harassment by the members of the tribunal, the exhausted Group 637 - dehydrated by exposure to temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit - have voted to split into three subgroups: those for a forced escape out of the Park, those who have given up, and those who are determined to reach the flag...



“Despite the obvious power and effectiveness of Punishment Park, nearly every audience I have been in has felt extremely uncomfortable during and after the film, and many individuals have expressed considerable hostility. When questioned about their objections, those who are hostile to the film generally contend that Watkins' characters are ‘shallow,’ his plot ‘simplistic,’ and his reading of the American political situation ‘hysterical’ and ‘paranoid.’ In part these charges result from the film’s obvious failure to conform to what most audiences expect of a film-viewing experience. Not only is Punishment Park a political film - a genre generally unpopular with Americans - but unlike more popular political films such as All the President’s Men and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Punishment Park fails to provide handsome heroes and heroines with whom members of the audience can comfortably identify. Further, Watkins refuses to resolve the painful events taking place so as to restore order before the audience leaves the theater. Nothing is solved by the characters’ stay in Punishment Park or by the trial. When a few trusting souls actually do get across the desert to the hill with the American flag, they are brutally beaten by national guardsmen; and all those found guilty at the tribunal choose to go to Punishment Park where the same events seem sure to occur all over again. The film, in other words, almost inevitably leaves the audience dissatisfied. The most fundamental contributor to the widespread audience dissatisfaction with Punishment Park, however, is the fact that, like so many of Watkins’ films, Punishment Park loses a great deal of its effectiveness when it is presented in a standard theater situation where the audience arrives for the screening and leaves as soon as it is over. As far as Watkins is concerned, Punishment Park is first and foremost an attempt to create an on-going discussion of the issues raised in the film. It is only when viewed in this context that Punishment Park can be recognized as the fine film it is, for when a screening is followed by a discussion, a fascinating thing frequently happens. Certain specific questions are usually asked, and a certain kind of interaction begins to take place as a result of the questions. Probably the most frequent question is, ‘Are there really such places as punishment parks?’. Generally, the questioner is fairly sure there are not, but needs to be reassured. Almost inevitably, someone else will say something like, ‘No, of course, there aren’t’, a third person - sometimes a member of a minority group - will jump in to say, ‘What the hell do you mean by “of course”?’, and a heated argument about whether America is or is not a good place to live, and why, will be underway. In other words, when the film is followed by a discussion, the audience tends to break down into exactly the polarized divisions presented in the film; if the discussion is allowed to continue, one begins to hear the arguments enacted in Punishment Park all over again. It doesn’t take long to recognize that if the people in Watkins’ film are shallow, that’s because Americans are, in fact, rather shallow in their political thinking.”

Scott Macdonald1


“What’s curious is how a 1970s allegorical fable about authority and dissent that plays against the backdrop of the Nixon administration’s escalation of the Vietnam War still feels strong, provocative, and necessary. The federal authorities in Punishment Park have detained certain individuals deemed to be a threat to internal security. These anti-establishment hippies and draft-dodgers are put before a tribunal that passes out their lengthy prison sentences, with the option of a full pardon if they participate in a law enforcement training exercise called Punishment Park.

Punishment Park is told in the pseudo-documentary style that defines most of the British Watkins’s obscure body of work. This particular film is told as if a spare BBC crew was following the action of the corrective group enduring Punishment Park, the tribunal evaluation of a separate corrective group, and the police and National Guard that follow the pacifists and militants and occasionally swoop down on them with violence. It is shot using handheld 16mm cameras, with a narrator (Watkins himself) at first relaying just the facts: the weather conditions, the names of various individuals the camera focuses on, and a rudimentary, bare-bones backstory.

But as tension increases and the action becomes more and more hostile, leading to beatings and eventually senseless killing, the off-screen narrator drops any pretense of journalistic objectivity. ‘We’ve seen this! We’ve seen this!’ he screams hysterically after witnessing a killing and getting it all on tape. What’s more chilling is the indifferent reaction of Sheriff Edwards (Jim Bohan), the main figure of police authority during the film. ‘I’ve been on film before, that doesn't make a bit of difference to me,’ he drawls. One might think this is a stretch for the movie, but as journalist Joseph Gomez points out in his Punishment Park essay from his 1979 book on Watkins, the crowd chanted, ‘The whole world is watching!’ during the brutality at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The police didn'’t seem to care that the cameras were filming their ‘clubbing of young and old alike’ then either.”

Jeremiah Kipp2


“Watkin’s manipulation of the documentary format intentionally calls into question, [...] whether such a form can ever bring truth to the screen. That is why the Punishment Park, a narrative construct, is used to comment on reality rather than pretend to objectivity. The medium of film contains inherently conservative elements (not least of which is its spectacular one way communication): ‘[r]evolution is not showing life to people, but making them live’ (Situationist International Anthology, 312). It is to the film’s credit, that it was so roundly rejected by the film industry, public broadcasting, critics, and academics upon its initialrelease. Whether or not the film has an inherent revolutionary value, it hit a nerve by elucidating the limits of reform.”

David Carr3

UPDATED ON 31.03.2023