Peter Watkins made this movie in 1971, when I was born, but it is startling to see Watkins’ prophecy of deprivations of freedom in today’s context — as our country’s civil liberties are flushed away under the Homeland Security and “Patriot” Acts.
The film starts with a reading from the The Internal Security Act (a.k.a the Subversive Activities Control Act, McCarran Act – after Pat McCarran – or ISA) of 1950, a United States federal law that required the registration of Communist organizations with the United States Attorney General and established the Subversive Activities Control Board to investigate persons suspected of engaging in “subversive activities” or “otherwise promoting the establishment of a ‘totalitarian dictatorship, fascist or communist.’” Members of these groups could not become citizens, and in some cases, were prevented from entering or leaving the country. Citizen-members could be denaturalized in five years. This abomination was passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, which actually overrode President Harry S. Truman’s veto to pass this bill. Truman called the bill “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798.”
Specifically the film narrator begins:
“Under the provision under Title II of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the president of the United States of America is still authorized without further approval by Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an internal security emergency. The resident is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe they probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage.”
The Act was activated by Nixon during the civil unrest as the controversy in Vietnam escalated. Luckily over the next 20 years, many of the Act’s provisions were declared unconstitutional and almost totally repealed by 1990, only to be replaced by the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts recently enacted into law. These facts make Punishment Park, in my opinion, just as relevant and powerful today as they were almost 40 years ago.
The film had a total budget of $66,000, with an additional $25,000 when the film was converted to 35 mm and is shot as a typical documentary. It was so believable that Dr. H and I had to assure a third party that this was in fact a mock-documentary and not historical footage.
The film is made from the perspective of a British news crew — the U.S. has created a network of detention centers called Punishment Parks to deal with prison overcrowding and help train law enforcement. At this particular Punishment Park in the California desert, arrested dissidents are tried by a truly kangaroo court and when they are all found guilty, they have a choice between lengthy imprisonment in the federal prison system or three days in the park. Once released into the park, the recently convicted are released in bunches as numbered ‘Corrective Groups’ – and given three days to make it 50 miles through a deadly desert to an American flag. But they must evade police capture; they have a two-hour head start. It’s left somewhat up in the air as to what will happen if they reach the flag. They are assured that they will not be killed if they surrender when caught.
As the dissidents (ranging from black power extremists to pacifists and draft dodgers) are brought into the kangaroo court, nothing more than an army tent set up in the desert, they are grilled by the multifarious group of conservative civilians. The defendants are rarely allowed to state their positions and law, due process and a fact finding jury are not even a pretense in the proceedings. Each defendant is bound and gagged at some point and forcibly removed from the kangaroo court.
While the film is of the vicious kind, it is skilled and wise enough to (initially) leave room for doubt here. Punishment Park is not just a horror film illustrating the potential for fascism in America; more importantly the mock-documentary shows us how opposing sides harden themselves against each other, how misunderstandings mixed with prejudice build to tragedy. The police and soldiers hunting the Corrective Group down are shown as a rough bunch, but even they are given the benefit of the doubt. After an unarmed prisoner is shot, the camera charges in on the Guardsman who did it, the filmmaker screaming bloody murder while the wide-eyed stammering 18-year-old kid in a too-big uniform looks not evil but just terrified and sick at what he’s done.
The ending is also tragic. Those who made it through the desert to the American flag are met by a squad of the authorities who execute them on site to prevent them from going free, refusing to live up to their part of the bargain.
Many of the reviews I read about this movie called the premises “thin” — perhaps, but why then do many people believe that Punishment Park is a real documentary not a mock-documentary?
An excellent film you should see particularly if you are concerned about the erosion of freedom and civil liberties in this or any other country.