Punishment Park—A “Mock-Documentary” that Easily Passes for a Real Documentary.

25 Jan

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  Luckily over the next 20 years, many of the Act’s provisions were declared unconstitutional and almost totally repealed by 1990, only to be replaced by the Patriot and Homeland Security Acts recently enacted into law.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.


Posted by on January 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews


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9 responses to “Punishment Park—A “Mock-Documentary” that Easily Passes for a Real Documentary.

  1. dr H

    January 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Its a haunting, harrowing tale of state terror run amok– and although politically tilted towards the left,it is relevant to everyone regardless of affiliation. The kind of movie that dawns on you the morning after you watched it. Truly remarkable.


    • jpfmovies

      January 29, 2011 at 10:06 pm

      Actually Jude it was suggested by the co-founder (we’ll call her DT) of this site who has since gone underground. She urged me to watch for several years and when I recently spoke to her she suggested it again. How could I refuse?


  2. Person

    January 27, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I see this film is on Netflix, download, so I hope to catch it soon – while I’m convalescing.
    Thanks for suggesting a documentary, even if it’s a psuedo one.


  3. Bonnie

    January 28, 2011 at 2:34 am

    When I saw your comment, Person, I thought that there must be actual documentaries reviewed here, because JPFMovies is a huge documentary fan. But when I searched, the closest I could find was The Hurt Locker, which is not a documentary but has the feel of one, at times, because of its very spare filming. Here is the link to that review:

    I suspect that JPFMovies would be happy to review a few documentaries if there are requests. I have a request, of course! I would like to see a documentary that follows up on the themes of Punishment Park — the abuses of civil rights that have occurred following the passage of the Patriot Act — or a documentary or documentaries (maybe a trio, like the one you did for the Oliver Platt tribute, JPFMovies) on other topics related to power and abuse or misuse of power by politicians and governments (in the U.S. or other countries). Or perhaps something on corruption in politics (rampant in the U.S.), or the economy. Or that great documentary that came out not long ago on credit card debt — I don’t remember the title, but I’m certain that JPFMovies can pull it out of his encyclopedic memory….

    However, I don’t want to interrupt the progress toward Dr. H’s Oscar post or posts. But maybe the documentaries could be next in line?


  4. Jude

    January 28, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Dude, this flick was scarier than Rosemary’s Baby. Chilling. Where do you find this stuff?


  5. DR H

    January 28, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Yoy have to give JP the devil’s due.He DOES HAVE AN EYE FOR THE THE SUBLIME AND THE RIDICULOUS.
    Sometimes I wonder if he is in the wrong day job.
    By the way guys watch out for the Oscar special — the site’s 100th post —we have come a long way. Mark my words it will a lot of fun and an opportunity to win prizes.


    • Person

      January 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm

      Dr. H:
      When will you be posting the Oscar contest information? I’m dying to know what the prizes consist of!!
      Thanks for letting us know,


    • princess of the universe :)

      February 1, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      the sublime and ridiculous…I’d agree with that



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