Retro Movie Review: ‘Punishment Park’ (1971)

Director: Peter Watkins

Cast: Mark Keats, Gladys Golden, Sanford Golden, Sigmund Rich, George Gregory, Katherine Quittner, Carmen Argenziano

Plot: Under the Nixon presidency, a tribunal is establish to deal with anti-government activists. They can accept their long jail sentences, or participate in a three-day law enforcement training exercise at ‘Punishment Park’.

Review: Sometime you pick up a random old film from a streaming service and have to check the date of release because it feels weirdly relevant to modern societal and political issues. Not only is police violence and political corruption are the fore of the narrative, but the concept of a group being hunted for the entertainment of others has been more popularised in recent years.

Don’t get the idea that this is going to be a low budget The Hunger Games, Battle Royale or The Hunt. It is very low budget, but features a limited setting and the low-tech set-up is emphasised by the documentary style. The point of view of the movie is also unorthodox for the set-up, as we cut back and forth between the tribunal hearings of our victims and their attempt to complete the challenge at Punishment Park, intercut with direct-to-camera interviews with ‘criminals’, police and members of the tribunal. The reasoning behind the documentary is that European film crews were capturing the process to provide evidence to the world of what’s going on.

The most startling moment watching Punishment Park was the realisation that this wasn’t a modern film affecting a 1970s style, but was a 50 year old movie addressing issues in the USA that have not gone away. The detainees have to complete a 3 day trek across the Californian desert without food or water whilst being pursued by fully equipped law enforcement. Not only do the police have strength in numbers and resources, but they stack the odds in their favour and often force the detainees into a corner where they’re likely to fight back.

When we cut to the detainees in front of the tribunal we see that there’s a common thread connecting them. They’re Civil Rights protestors, anti-war activists, feminists, pacifists and communists. Each has been dubbed anti-government and seditious in nature. Many have not been informed of their crime, rather they’re often being judged on a moral level and the tribunal members are hypocrites on some level.

There’s never much in the way of character development, but rather each introduced character adds to the cross-section of a cultural movement that grew as a response to both the Nixon Presidency and the US’s continued involvement in the Vietnam Civil War. The documentary style adds a great deal of realism to the low-budget affair, and the grainy footage means we don’t get a clear look at the state of the detainees as the brutal conditions of the desert wear them down.

It’s a simple but effective film that raises difficult questions about government and law enforcement tactics both fifty years ago and today. A pleasant surprise, this one.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN