Ultimately unsatisfying and implausible in many ways, Punishment Park is more valuable and more interesting as a failure than the overwhelming majority of movies could ever hope to be as successes.
This movie was made in 1971, at a time of such strife and anger and desperation over the Vietnam War and movements for racial and other forms of social justice that it really wasn’t far-fetched that the country would descend into chaos and civil war, or that some other massive change and upheaval would ensue. The film posits one specific way that might have played out. In its particulars it is not very plausible, but the general notion that something extreme and bizarre would happen was not at all implausible.
The President (Nixon) has suspended numerous constitutional provisions and procedural niceties to deal with the internal crisis of the breakdown in civil order. (Many of the “state of emergency” measures depicted would have been, and in some cases still would be, “legal” in the real world. Some of the scariest aspects of the film are also where it strays least from reality.)
Hippies, militants, protesters, activists, etc.—even musicians and poets whose work is anti-Establishment—are apprehended and incarcerated en masse either on vague conspiracy-type charges, or purely as preventive detention based on what they might do in the future. The conventional courts cannot handle the volume—plus there is a policy preference to not afford these types of defendants real trials—so an odd kind of tribunal system is established, where boards including politicians and military figures and such, but also ordinary citizens (from Nixon’s famous “silent majority”), interrogate and pass judgment on the defendants. The defendants—to some extent within the rules and to some extent in defiance of them—speechify and protest, and the board responds with denunciations and speeches of their own.
Imagine a panel consisting of Newt Gingrich, David Horowitz, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Archie Bunker, and the Church Lady angrily grilling strident hippies and folk singers. Not likely, but really it’s just a cinematic pretense used to allow various “types” to mouth the common positions and arguments and slogans of the era.
The form is hard to swallow, but the content isn’t. Not everyone will agree with the latter, as there is certainly a case to be made that much of this is in the nature of caricature, but a lot of people, from opinion leaders to man-in-the-street types, believed and said exactly these kinds of things back then.
Heck, anyone with access to Internet posting forums and chat rooms and such can verify that they still do. There is no shortage of common folks who are basically fascists, and that number would be a lot higher if there were even a fairly small uptick in civil unrest and protest. And there is no shortage of Dick Cheney/Ann Coulter-types to lead them when the time comes.
Some of the arguments are the same as came up in the Nazi era depicted in the Sophie Scholl movies I’ve written about, and in countless other times and places wherever a power elite and its dupes attack those who oppose an unjust system. (You’re stabbing our troops in the back. You hate your country. You’re being ungrateful in light of the benefits you’ve received from living in this country. You’re an insult to working people who don’t have time to be out demonstrating, or living hedonistically or unconventionally, because they’re too busy being responsible and holding down jobs and raising families. Etc. Etc.)
Actually another reason the angry speeches—on both sides—have the ring of truth despite how simplistic or clichéd they might seem, is that this very low budget, somewhat amateurish production used mostly non-actors basically playing themselves, and a lot of the dialogue was improvised, as people fell back on the kinds of arguments they made in real life. (I read all this later.)
The movie alternates about half and half between these pseudo-courtroom debates, and depictions of the “punishment park” ultimate fate of the victims of the kangaroo courts.
Upon conviction, the defendants are given the option of a harsh prison sentence, or a stint at a punishment park. (All or most of them choose the latter.) Punishment parks are a new phenomenon, a new institution, where detainees are given a chance to win release or a reduced sentence if they can prevail over a great physical/survival challenge.
This part is even harder to imagine really happening. The rationale given is that the punishment parks provide valuable training for law enforcement and National Guard to practice unconventional tactics they may need to use against rioters and guerrilla soldiers and the like, but it’s just not believable.
The particular punishment park challenge depicted in the film consists of dropping a group of detainees in the desert with no provisions, and pointing them to a finish line fifty miles away. Not only will they have to overcome the elements, but after a two hour head start, they will be hunted down by armed personnel. If recaptured, they will have gone through a grueling ordeal for nothing, as the prison sentences they opted out of will be reinstated.
Not only is the premise implausible, but the specifics of this challenge make no sense to me. The cops/soldiers not only have weapons (and water and other supplies), but vehicles. How hard is it to make up a two hour deficit before the detainees can travel fifty miles on foot? And if there is some danger of someone not being recaptured in time, why not just drive ahead to that finish line—since the cops/soldiers know just as well as the detainees do where it is—and wait to pick them off there? Under what scenario can the detainees “win”?
Plus the execution of these scenes is clumsy. I had the feeling material was cut out that would have made better sense of it all. I mean, I think I understand in very broad terms what happens: Early on, some detainees are somehow able to separate out one of their pursuers and ambush and kill him. His fellows retaliate by catching and massacring all the detainees. (I’m not clear if that was the plan all along with or without the provocation. Maybe the dirty secret of the punishment parks is that no one is intended to survive to be returned to conventional incarceration.) But a lot of the specifics eluded me—the timing of when this or that happened, what strategic move these people were making here, what the motive was behind this, etc. It’s confusing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it is incoherent.
I should also mention the general style of the film is that of a faux documentary. Or not so much a documentary itself, as raw footage that was shot with the intention of it being made into a documentary.
And that adds further implausibility. I doubt these tribunals would allow filming, and it’s even more far-fetched that the punishment parks would. The detainees are to some extent trying to hide in the desert in order to elude capture; presumably they wouldn’t be very welcoming of film crews whose very presence would make them easier to spot. I also don’t think they’d be taking breaks to give reality-TV style interviews while they’re busy dying of thirst and running for their lives. And are we to believe the film crew just watches them suffer and die, while they themselves presumably have water?
I could say a lot more about the flaws and dubious plot elements, but suffice to say this film doesn’t add up in numerous respects.
Yet, it had a real intensity for me. I was into this movie all the way, and I can feel the anger and frustration even trying to write about it. I couldn’t help but put myself in the position of the defendants, wondering what I would do.
My guess is I’d be too nervous and inarticulate for the tribunal shouting matches and attempted justifications. I’m not a good debater. One, my intelligence doesn’t always transfer into being verbally quick on my feet. Two, my commitment to critical thinking and truth means I police myself and try not to “win” arguments with fallacies, and in a situation where the folks on the other side are not putting such constraints on themselves I’m at a severe disadvantage.
And as far as the punishment park thing, I have to think I wouldn’t cooperate at all and would expect and accept death instead. I can’t see playing their silly, degrading game on the outside chance it’s not rigged.
I have a lot of martyr in me, and I generally imagine that’s the side of me that would come out in a situation like that. Just a shutting down, a kind of resignation, you know, fuck it, I’m not gonna argue with you, I know what’s going on here and how horrifically wrong it is, but I also know nothing I say is going to somehow convince you, so just kill me or whatever you’re going to do and get it over with.
But the movie felt very personal to me on that level. Plus it’s about hugely important issues of dissent, oppression, basic civil liberties, hatred of change and the Other, nefarious political propaganda, etc., and has its heart in the right place on these issues. (Though I will say that even though the film is clearly sympathetic to the anti-Establishment positions, a lot of the rhetoric from that side is angry, inarticulate “fuck the pigs” stuff. The film doesn’t stack the deck by having all the defendants give smooth, dignified, logical Sophie Scholl—The Final Days-type speeches that utterly befuddle the opposition.)
I can forgive some plot awkwardness and general amateurishness in a film that achieves this level of intensity, and more importantly is trying to do some good, as in this case seeking to alert people to the fascist attitudes that exist around us and have the potential to get a lot worse in a (real or contrived) crisis.
So I recommend this extremely obscure film.