Movies at the Mudd: “Punishment Park” packs a punch

Corey Lehnert

“Movies at the Mudd” is a weekly review of films available in the Seeley G. Mudd Library.America is struggling to hold itself together from internal and external strife. The United States continues a seemingly endless war in the interest of national security. Meanwhile, countless individuals suspected of engaging in the overthrow of the government are imprisoned without trial by jury and placed in detention camps.
Although this scenario may be reminiscent of the events brought about in the aftermath of Sept. 11, it is really the setting for the visionary 1970 Peter Watkins film “Punishment Park.”
“Punishment Park” takes place in an alternate fictional America of the 1970s where, due to the escalation of war in southeast Asia and internal anti-government groups, President Nixon decides to invoke the powers of the 1950 Internal Security Act – a now-defunct piece of legislation that allowed the president to detain without trial by jury any individual suspected of engaging in subversive activities and place them in a detention camp.
In Watkins’ vision of America, these detainees have the choice to either serve out a prison sentence placed upon them by a tribunal, or to attempt to win their freedom by completing a trial in a “punishment park,” a 53-mile desert course that the individual must cross without water and under the constant threat of capture.
The film follows the actions of penal groups 637 and 638 in the style of a fictional documentary, providing an objective voice as the detainees attempt to win their freedom via the punishment park course and provide testimonial defense before a tribunal for their accused subversive actions.
Although both groups are told by their captors that they will be treated fairly if they remain polite and passive, it soon becomes clear that the tribunal and the police officers have no plans for mercy. What follows is a sort of civil war of clashing moralities and uncontrollable emotions that stays with you for days and weeks to follow.
The acting in “Punishment Park” has fantastic moments of subtlety, and the politically charged dialogue avoids droll technical notions in favor of the powerful yet muddled arguments that are often carried during times of great emotion – two facts that are all the more amazing when one learns that the actors are largely all amateurs, and that the dialogue is almost entirely improvised.
Watkins’ film has many fine moments, but perhaps its greatest accomplishment, and the reason for its almost total obscurity until recently, lies in the unorthodox and challenging opinions voiced and often forcefully acted upon by its characters. Now, thanks to a recent DVD release, “Punishment Park” is available once again, and is more relevant than ever.

“Punishment Park” directed by Peter Watkins. Not Rated.