The Eclectic

Time moves in one direction, memory in another. – William Gibson

Punishment Park: Why it still matters 35 years later

Posted by David Leslie on August 29, 2006

For years when I would read about the work of a director from the UK named Peter Watkins and his film “The War Game“. Thanks to DVD, Watkins work is now available.

See, “The War Game” was a 1962 BBC drama that Watkins shot in a documentary format. Meant to be an hour drama to encourage people to take seriously the idea of emergency preparedness in case of a nuclear war, Watkins instead used the documentary format of a hypothetical limited nuclear war to show how the government’s emergency preparedness was all but worthless.  Needless to say, it was 20 years before the BBC aired “The War Game” but a print made for film festivals earned Watkins the Academy Award for best documentary of 1966. It also inspired two films that made me interested in nuclear warfare and international relations at way too young an age, The Day After and Threads.

Honestly, The War Game was as I had expected. Brutal but outdated. If there is to be a nuclear exchange, it will be with most likely with a dirty bomb (the impact of which was documented in the BBC film, Dirty War)

But it was another Watkins film that hit me in the gut, 1971’s  Punishment Park.

Inspired by a hybrid of the Kent State shootings, the trial of the Chicago Eight and a little known law from 1950 Red scare that gave the President authorization to suspend the Constitution (McCarran Act), Punishment Park (on UK web site for the DVD) sadly holds up well. So well that parts of the movie appear to come out of today’s headlines.

The movie follows two groups of dissidents. The first has been sent to  Bear Mountain National Punishment Park for their trial. They have held without charges, their court appointed attorney has little time to talk to his clients let alone prepare a defense while the tribunal acts as both prosecution, judge and jury. The second group stands ready to participate as volunteers’ in the law enforcement training drill about to take place within Punishment Park.

The rules are simple, avoid capture for 3 days and 2 nights and reach the American flag at the end of the course. Touch the flag and you’re sentence (ranging from 7 year to life in prison) will be pardoned. If you are captured, your sentence starts at one. They are given a two hour head start with the promise of water at the half way mark since the dry lake bed in the park reaches the low 100’s.

Watkins used for many of the rolls non-professional actors who believed in the position of their character. Also the movie was build from outlines without a script and Watkins again used the documentary style. The arguments are real as was the anger. While the ending was a bit predicable (law enforcement 101, if you know where the person is going, get there before they do) it still has an emotional impact.

A question could be asked, is Gitmo our Punishment Park? I don’t know the answer but watching this movie from 35 years ago makes you wonder about it.


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