All you non-conformists, step this way.
The Vietnam War is intensifying. Nixon is ordering bombing missions on the Laos-Cambodian border and civic unrest is reaching new heights with violent demonstrations in the inner cities and on the university campuses. A pair of documentary crews, one from West Germany and one from Great Britain, follow two groups of detainees. One (group 637) is being processed through a tribunal, while the other, having already chosen the option of Punishment Park over significantly long prison sentences, is finding out just exactly what Punishment Park is.
Peter Watkins had already made his reputation as a provocateur with his Wednesday Play The War Game in 1965, which was banned by the BBC for 20 years. Punishment Park, released in 1971, is in many ways just as incendiary. The pseudo-documentary style is complemented by the improvisational techniques that Watkins employed. It allows Watkins to portray a topical moment of confrontation (Kent State Massacre was in 1970 and the Chicago 7 trial began in 1968), but it also seems part of the point that America is dangerously improvising with its own polity and identity. Throughout the film there is a radical sense of people making stuff up as they go along. This goes for the activists, who are a melange of counter-culture figures, from an obvious Bobby Seale stand-in, to a poet who looks like Allen Ginsberg and a Joan Baez-style protest singer. But it is also true for the kangaroo court that tries them and the police and National Guard, who are never quite sure of what their role is supposed to be. The media are also included in this free-for-all. The documentary filmmakers are complicit in giving the legal procedure legitimacy as well as producing a striking warning not to fuck with the government. Their protests are feeble â€” ‘you bloody bastards’ â€” and largely ignored by the trigger-happy police who, anticipating criticism of Watkins’s own origins, point out their outsider status: ‘why don’t you go back to Europe?’
Tension mounts in the film as it becomes increasingly clear that the Punishment Park experience is not about education or rehabilitation but is a cynical sadistic game, similar to something out of Pasolini’s SalÃ², or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), an experience the prisoners have little hope of surviving. To add to the tension, the soundtrack is dominated by the incessant sounds of gunfire and passing fighter jets in the background. This is America: constant bitter and angry argument with a clear and present threat of heavyweight and disproportionate military violence.
It would be a stretch to say that Watkins is in any way even-handed - his is a bitter and a furious film of denunciation. The court is composed of recognisable faces from the news, sociologists, a housewives-of-America spokeswoman for the Silent Majority, a big union man and politicians. They are easily hissable straw men and their depiction is the weakest element in the film. And yet the film does allow for some ambiguity. It is the prisoners who draw first blood, when some of them decide that they won’t follow the rules of their own punishment and ambush and kill a policeman. What we end up watching then is perhaps the tragedy of 60s radicalism, which saw street fighting pitching middle-class radicals against often working-class police and soldiers, to the great relief of the ruling class.