(director/writer/editor: Peter Watkins; cinematographer: Joan Churchill; editor: Terry Hodel; Carmen Argenziano (Jay Kaufman, Radical), Stan Armsted (Charles Robbins, Radical), Luke Johnson (Luke Valerio), Jim Bohan (Police Captain), Frederick Franklyn (Defense Attorney), Gladys Golden (Tribunal Juror), Sanford Golden (Tribunal Juror), Katherine Quittner (Nancy Smith), Tom Kemp (Tribunal Marshal), Gary Johnson (Jim Reedman), Peter Watkins (TV Documentary Filmmaker); Runtime: 89; 1971)
“It is a polemic exercise between the Left and the Right, with no room for the middle point of view.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It is chilling to look back at this 1971 pseudo-documentary and see how divisive things looked at a time when emotions were running high in America between the older and younger generations. The Britisher, noted for making pseudo-documentaries, Peter Watkins (“Culloden”/“The War Game”), made this political film at a time of the Vietnam War protests and deep civil unrest in the country, and in the aftermath of the debacle with the 1968 Democratic Convention and of the Kent State murders by the National Guard. It stridently shows in its futuristic prediction what the United States might become like if the reactionary right-wing had their way. It is a polemic exercise between the Left and the Right, with no room for the middle point of view.

The film opens on the fictional note that an Insurrection Act was passed in 1950, which gives the government the right to suspend certain rights in an emergency; such as, eliminating the Fifth Amendment, holding suspects without charges indefinitely, revoking bail, having detention camps, and holding a tribunal. The reason for these laws being enforced now, are that things are getting chaotic because of all the civil unrest. There is a call for “law and order” to take back the streets from the protesters.

War protesters and the civil rights activists are placed on trial and charged with conspiring to overthrow the government. They face long prison terms if convicted, some for life and the short sentences being for seven years, or they can choose to undergo a three-day ordeal in the 100 degree Southern California desert where they must reach a designated destination marked by an American flag if they are to go free. The catch is that they have no chance of reaching that destination since they are permitted to only go in a certain restricted route and they have no food or water, and there are National Guardsman and local police there ready to fire on them at will. The place is appropriately called Punishment Park, as it seems to be devised as a means of killing off the protesters quickly, much like Hitler’s gas chambers.

The film intercuts between the ongoing trial of a number of radicals with those in Punishment Park trying to win their freedom. Though the director tries to present some of the Establishments arguments against these young dissenters to show that he is impartial, the weight of what is going down is so heavy that even when the tribunal members make a plausible response it still sounds vacuous given the current situation. They mostly say things like the protesters don’t care about this country, that the Vietnam War is a “just” war because it is aimed to stop the spread of communism, and that the protesters are trying to make a mockery of the American way of life. While the protesters under arrest are broken down into basically two camps — the pacifists and those willing to use arms against the government. A Black Panther member says this is a violent and racist country, and it does not deserve the support of the people. That the politician is nothing but a debater. While the pacifists say that war is only just when it is entered into without any hatred in one’s heart. The honorable thing to do at a crisis time like this is be a criminal — that at another time it might be to become a politician.

The film had a gritty look and should bring back some of the worst confrontational memories of a time the country was hopelessly divided.

Punishment Park Poster