The Rumpus Review of Punishment Park


In America, good dinner etiquette entails avoiding certain contentious topics, particularly politics. Whether it has more to do with possible digestive disorders developing from unpleasant –isms or a predilection towards harmonious dining, I do not know. However, I am aware that putting out your polemics with the potatoes is just as offensive as resting your elbows on the table or licking your plate.

It’s fair to say as well that unless your politics fall within a certain spectrum accepted by the majority, audiences are also not going to want to see it in a movie. Usually, only when a delicate subject has evolved into a moot point does Hollywood venture to summarize the crisis with melodramatic performances and life lessons. Exploring a hot-button issue while it is contemporary is a no-no and criticizing America is generally the nightshade in what constitutes “box office poison.” Going further, if you intend to take a stand against American hypocrisy and frame your frightening dystopian hypothesis within a pseudo-documentary format, you’ll really be pushing it— in the case of Punishment Park, you’ve pushed your release date thirty years, which was how long the film was banned in America.

Made in 1970, the film is very guilty of being of its time. We’re talking Weather Underground, Black Panthers, COINTELPRO, Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Kent State shootings, the hyper-politicization of America’s youth and minorities, and the great divide that stretched between those who thought America was the best of all possible worlds and those openly advocating social revolution. There were no two ways of seeing— there was one or the other, and the other was immoral. Were kids who forcibly shut down a draft board office heroes or traitors? In such hotheaded circumstances, objectivity was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Punishment Park takes an authentic piece of legislation— the 1950’s McCarran Internal Security Act, which authorizes detention for disloyal or subversive persons in times of war or internal security emergency— and examines the theoretical consequences should this law be enforced. As the narrator of the film explains in the opening shot of an American flag flapping in the desert:

The President…is authorized without further approval of Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an internal security emergency. The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and then shall be confined to places of detention.

This narrator is a member of a West German/ British “documentary” team covering the trial of accused subversives as well as the punishment of another group. Over the course of three days, defendants are brought before a citizens’ tribunal where they attempt to justify the morality of their actions (there being no tangible evidence they are a genuine, violent threat, their charges are based on words, ideas, abstracts) and are even offered in some instances to recant their beliefs by signing loyalty oaths to the government.

Scenes from this trial are intercut with coverage of a group of prisoners struggling through ‘Punishment Park,’ an area in the California desert, where prisoners can win their freedom if they “capture the flag.” The flag they are to reach is 53 miles from their starting point. If that weren’t challenging enough, the detainees are sent into the desert with no food or water in stifling meteorological conditions, all the while being pursued by police and National Guard troops, hunted if you will. The park serves a two-fold purpose: it becomes a training exercise for troops as well as a “punitive” trial for “subversives.” Moreover, if some dissidents are killed in pursuit, their deaths save the taxpayers money and keep prisons a little less crowded. If convicted, they are “criminals” and thus their worth as human beings has become negligible.

The accused standing trial are a motley bunch: white and black, male and female, hairy, bearded, bell-bottomed, yet bespectacled and somber, suggesting intellectual habits. The defendants are not garden-variety hippies or armchair revolutionaries. Leroy Brown is an author, broadcaster, and political activist. Jay Kaufman is co-founder of the Committee Against War and Repression. James Arthur Kohler is a conscientious objector. These people are organizers, pamphleteers, and pacifists. It is they who provide the intellectual arguments of protest. Prosecution makes perfect sense in this context. Cutting off the head is pure Machiavelli.

On the other hand, the tribune is entirely white with but a single woman affecting the demographic singularity. None of them is an elected official. They are amateurs working in a jurisprudential capacity wielding indiscreet judgments on lifestyle choices eminently unfamiliar to their own, in effect running a kangaroo court or star chamber in which the game is fixed before it’s even started. It is true that they are generally older, though it’s not necessarily a generational gap thing— whether Frank Sinatra is more of a man than Jimi Hendrix, say– but rather has everything to do with preferred paradigms. After all, the soldiers and police who enforce the decisions of the establishment are the dissidents’ contemporaries and are very much of the opinion that the “criminals… get what they deserve.”

In the deliberations between the court and the accused, everyone’s talking, no one’s listening. The exchange veers dangerously between philosophy and churlishness. More than an authentic trial, the back-and-forth reminds one of bitter family spats, summed up perfectly when one tribunal member complains the kids could have used “less Spock and more spank,” a hit against the baby boomers’ parenting guru Benjamin Spock (who, incidentally, was a major figure in the anti-war movement and was arrested for attending numerous demonstrations). Because of their emotions they cannot rise to their responsibilities nor realize how hypocritical it is that they should imprison those who deny America’s claim to being a “free” country.

You could argue this is the filmmakers’ polemic. Or you might say Main Street is being defensive. Whatever the case, their inane remarks become fodder for the accused to define their dissent in very strong, if not poetic language. Leroy Brown, the black author, comments, “America is as psychotic as it is powerful and violence is the only thing that can command your goddamn attention.” Allison Michener, an activist, elaborates on this during her session, arguing, “People become violent when they are deprived of their basic human needs.”

In the field, the prisoners running for their freedom are tailed by the documentary cameramen who query them on their condition, disposition, attitude. A young man in a ragged shirt, dirty, bruised, asks, “If they kill me now what difference does my politics or any politics make? I’ll be dead.” Another prisoner on the run clarifies, “My view is not committed to revolution…it’s committed to sanity.” Was this sentiment not famously reconstituted by comedian Stephen Colbert when he suggested, “Reality has a liberal bias?” It is one of the field’s pacifists that puts the plight of the accused in the most accurate moral context when he says, “Right now, the honorable thing to do is to be a criminal.” It is a fair extrapolation: if the government’s laws are unjust and it cannot justify its wars or violation of civil liberties, then individuals who break those laws, whether it is draft evasion or persuasive agitprop, provide a moral counterpoint.

When the dissidents are running for their lives in Punishment Park, the narrative of survival becomes a treatment on the various approaches to protest. The prisoners quickly disperse into factions choosing very unique survival techniques: basically they can meet the system with violence or nonviolence. Thus philosophy materializes into a simulated environment with real life consequences. In very tense scenes in which police and National Guard troops apprehend the activists in various stages of flight, the answers prove disastrous. These are probably the very best moments of the film as they are rife with confusion, anger, desperation, and madness. The cameramen too, cannot remain neutral. They become hysterical at what they perceive to be injustice and spar with the police.

One speculates on the casting— these are non-professional actors working from an outline rather than a screenplay— were they chosen for their beliefs? The acting, if amateur, is good. It never feels put-on, even when the dialogue is occasionally outrageous (the character of Leroy Brown has two of the best lines in the film: “How the fuck are you gonna overrule the constitution, man?” and “You just want to sit on your fat dividend-drawn ass and draw dividends!”) Did the director play off the actors’ beliefs in order to maximize tension? (The Stanford Prison experiment was conducted around the same time.) There is an us-and-them feeling to the actors that is hard to fake. As far as pseudo-documentaries go, Punishment Park feels frighteningly historical.

In his closing statements, the defense attorney reads a quotation that best illustrates the inherent dangers the tribune is engaging with conviction and arbitrary sentencing. The speech seems straight out of Richard Nixon’s playbook: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. The communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes, in danger, from within and without. We need law and order or our nation cannot survive.”

But it’s not Nixon speaking in 1970, it’s Adolf Hitler in 1932. Once a country begins cutting civil liberties in the name of national security, the consequences of compromise are far-reaching. As one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, so aptly put it, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

What does it all mean now? Quite a bit, actually. The drama of Punishment Park is very much alive, more than forty years later. Guantanamo Bay remains open, an escalation of troops in Afghanistan is called a “surge,” and last autumn the police crackdown against Occupy protesters descended into brutality. A “terrorist” is still very much a catchall phrase for those who might try to fight the system, whether through violence or argument.

The director of Punishment Park, Peter Watkins, is an Englishman. A number of individuals were offended that a foreigner had the gall to dramatize our society in such critical terms. But someone’s got do it if we don’t. Dinner table manners be damned.

A Los Angeles native, living in Kyoto, Japan, Sean Lotman's work has appeared in Fogged Clarity, Grey Sparrow, The Diverse Arts Project, The Literati, and many others. In addition to writing, he also works as a photographer and has an ongoing photo-haiku project . He is also the Pop Zeitgeist columnist for Heso Magazine. More from this author →