Category Archives: Peter Watkins

Punishment Park (1971)

“Would you like me to define what a politician is?”

Made during the Vietnam War, Punishment Park from director Peter Watkins extends the social unrest of the times and presents a society in which dissidents are rounded up–mainly for their opinions, and then subjected to tribunals and punishment. Heavily influenced by the Kent State incident, the film is set in an America in which Nixon activates the 1950 McCarran Act, allowing federal authorities to detain people who are deemed to be risks to security and candidates for “future acts of sabotage.”

punishment parkThe film goes back and forth between scenes of the tribunals held in a tent for group 638 and scenes of group 637 in the desert. The dissidents include war protestors, anti-recruitment activists, draft dodgers, and university students. Opposed to the Vietnam War, they’ve been summarily rounded up, and now judged security risks, they are given the choice of hefty sentences in federal penitentiaries or the rigors of Punishment Park.

Facing a typical sentence of forty years in a federal penitentiary or four days in Punishment Park, naturally, the dissidents chose the latter. In Punishment Park, the dissidents–now prisoners–are set loose in the harsh Southern California desert with no water. Their goal is to reach the American flag hoisted some 53 miles away within 3 days and 2 nights. If they can reach the flag, in this exercise replete with both literal and symbolic overtones, they will be free to go. This is clearly a cruel ‘game’–sport (officially called a training exercise) for the police officers, army personnel, and SWAT teams who are assigned to monitor the prisoners. The participants on both sides of the Punishment Park fiasco are interviewed, and opposing opinions and attitudes are presented in this microcosm of the times.

Similar to Watkins’ film The Gladiators the backdrop of a competition is used to make statements about societal values. Punishment Park is not nearly as successful a film as The Gladiators. Some of the tribunal scenes border on the hysterical, and although they begin as ideological battlegrounds, they usually devolve into swearing sessions between the dissidents and their bourgeois judges. However, some of the moments in these ad hoc courtrooms are priceless. Various members of the establishment conduct the hearings and at one point, they question a black prisoner. Tribunal members argue that “black people in the U.S, have more cars and T.Vs” than the entire population of Russia. This, tribunal members believe, is a substantive argument for black compliance with the system.

Punishment Park like The Gladiators is another Peter Watkins cult hit still waiting to happen. Ostracized by the media, but also in self-imposed exile, his work remains outside of mainstream media channels. Although Punishment Park was made almost 40 years ago, it remains startlingly prescient, and it’s as though societal elements that Watkins saw in their fragmentary form have come to fruition in this new century. In Punishment Park Watkins portrays the pathology of authority, the erosion of the constitution, and the division of America by the politics of polarization.

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The Gladiators (1969)

“Basic humanity–that’s what’s wrong with that boy.”

Set in the future, the bleak satire The Gladiators from British director Peter Watkins is a docudrama that televises “the Game,” an international competition of military exercises conducted in the interests of “world peace.” These games were devised as a substitute for war, and are supposed to channel and control man’s natural predilection for violence, so instead of the entire planet being ruined, and millions killed, the violence is confined to a small space with a few dozen participants. Well that’s the theory, at least. The Game is held in Sweden, a neutral country, and the programme, sponsored by a pasta company and complete with advertisements, is broadcast worldwide as teams aim to achieve their goal of reaching the control room. Each team is comprised of a number of soldiers–male and female–who are given numbers only.

GladiatorsWhile The Gladiators is an anti-war film, it’s not an anti-war film in the traditional sense. The Game is, arguably, a viable alternative to war, an arena in which only a handful of people die rather than millions. But at the same time, this is warfare distilled down to its essential elements: a blind acceptance of established hierarchy, the depersonalization of combatants, a willingness to die for abstract ideals, and the attaining of meaningless strategic goals. The team members are representatives of their countries, and when members of the allied team are interviewed prior to the commencement of the Game, they are unable to answer questions about why they are fighting–except to spout platitudes regarding national pride, patriotism, duty and honour (“I’m here to defend the democracy of my country” blah, blah). And as the Game commences, the fraternizing generals of the participating countries dispassionately monitor the teams’ progress, stuffing themselves with various dishes as the ‘lower’ (and subservient) echelons suffer. The soldiers play the Game to win nothing of substance, and they are manipulated at various points to boost the ratings.

A French student enters the Game in an attempt to destroy it, but as he becomes part of the Game, he’s inevitably manipulated by it. And by the introduction of this character, Watkins makes some strong statements regarding revolutionary ethics, about working within the system, and about recuperation by the system. Although the film was made during the Vietnam War, the film seems chillingly prescient given the staging and orchestration of the Iraq war, with key points covered by major news stations in theatrical entertainment fashion. The Gladiators is a deeply subversive, thought-provoking film, and there’s an entire audience out there for this incredible film if people knew about it. Watkins is hardly the darling of mainstream media, and so his films remain largely ignored. Re-released on DVD in 2006, extras include The Diary of an Unknown Soldier–a 17 minute film made by Watkins, a Watkins filmography, and a 12 page booklet which includes a self-interview with this amazing director.

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Privilege (1967)

“We face on every side the danger of overthrow by the forces of communism and anarchy.”

Privilege a 1967 Peter Watkins film, examines the issues of media and population control through the manipulation of a pop idol, Steve Shorter (Paul Jones). Set in Britain in the near future, Steve Shorter is the biggest name in the entertainment business. Capable of drawing huge crowds, his stage show consists of him reenacting a prison term. He’s led onto the stage in handcuffs, and placed in a sized-down replica of his jail cell while baton wielding prison guards circle menacingly around Steve’s cage. Shorter then sings a song about being set free, and the fans scream and go crazy while Steve’s pleas go unanswered. But when Steve rattles the bars, and the guards respond with brutality, the fans go berserk. At this point, a fan is plucked from the audience and allowed to ‘release’ Steve. This results in an on-stage beating for Steve.

Steve Shorter’s subversive image strikes a chord with his hysterical fans. Meanwhile Shorter’s circle jerk management team control his time, his actions and even his love life. Subject to a grueling schedule of public appearances, he also appears in adverts and markets all sorts of items, ranging from clothing to washing machines.

But the manipulation of Steve, and by extension his audience, goes far beyond the usual demands of the vast appetite of the capitalist system. With a coalition government in power, the goal is to “usefully divert violence of youth” away from any political involvement. Obsessed with Steve, and eager to mirror his behaviour, millions of adoring young fans are effectively kept “off the streets and out of politics” through manipulation of his image.

There are 300 Steven Shorter discos built to “spread happiness throughout Britain,” and there are plans to finally remake Steve into a Messianic figure. Steve’s management team, in cahoots with the government and the Church, concoct a religious conversion rally for Steve. The plan is that Steve will accept the yoke of conformity, and enter back into society in front of millions of adoring fans. When Steve publicly acknowledges his acceptance of law and order, it’s thought that his followers will brainlessly follow his meek example. The government and the church, as the dual institutions pulling the power strings in the country, both realise that they have a limited audience, and this is where Steve fits in. As an iconic rebel figure, he appeals to the youth, and so his popularity is harnessed and then hijacked at a convenient moment so that he will deliver a message of mindless conformity to his vast audience:

“It’s really quite simple. Steven Shorter has the largest following in the history of the entertainment business. We need a larger audience, so we’re using Steve’s. And we hope that through him, many of these followers will return to the faith.”

One of the more annoying members of Steve’s management team is Freddie Kay, a “self-confessed anarchist.” He’s an irritating, barely coherent, jabbering fellow, just as much in cahoots with the establishment as the rest of the ponces who surround Steve. Freddie’s avant-garde approach challenges those with more traditional leanings, and in spite of his often-contrary voice, he’s still quite at home with the rest of the management team. It’s impossible to take this character at surface value, and in his case, his professed ‘anarchism’ seems to be a pose or perhaps he serves as a complement to Steve’s rebel image.

Privilege is unfortunately very difficult to find, and that’s not too surprising. Like other films from Watkins, it doesn’t pander to a mainstream audience, and it’s intensely political and subversive. The film illustrates how iconic figures are manipulated and hijacked into patterns of conformity. To a capitalist society, a figure with any sort of following represents coveted rich, new avenues for potential audiences. And it is, therefore, essential, that anyone with mass audience appeal should be harnessed back into the system.

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The War Game and Culloden (1964 & 1965)

“The blast from a thermonuclear explosion has been likened to an enormous door slamming in the depths of hell.”

In the 1960s, director Peter Watkins made two films for the BBC–The War Game and Culloden. Both docudramas, The War Game was so controversial, it never made it to the screen, but was instead banned. The British government’s policy under Churchill was that any television programme on the subject of nuclear war should not be “defeatist.” Interesting attitude….I suppose the only way not to be defeatist about nuclear war is to be the country dropping the bomb with no thought of the consequences. But The War Game presents Britain under nuclear attack. It’s impossible to present people falling like flies on a scorched planet, subject to the cruelest wounds possible and still keep an upbeat attitude.

The War Game shows exactly how pathetically futile it is try to prepare for a nuclear war. Watkins is not concerned with sparing the feelings of his audience, and here he shows graphically, and matter-of-factly exactly what happens to humans caught in a nuclear blast. Various subjects are interviewed as Watkins shows how the country would react under emergency conditions. There are those who vainly and rather smugly hope a couple of sand bags will save them, and then there’s the fate of the injured and dying as the numbers of casualties overwhelm available medical staff. With its merciless, uncomfortable vision, it’s no wonder this film was banned rather than aired. After all, why alert the average British citizen to the horrors of nuclear war?

The second film, Culloden is basically a reenactment of the last battle on British soil, the infamous battle of Culloden in 1746 which pitted the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie against the Duke of Cumberland, the son of George II who defended the Hanoverian crown. Watkins defies time once again as he interviews many of the battle’s ‘participants.’ The incompetence of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s commanders (whose men had not eaten or slept for several days before the battle) is clear. Also examined is the disagreement between the various commanders regarding the selection of Culloden field as a suitable battleground. But what is particularly remarkable about the film is how Watkins captures the hierarchy among the troops. While the commanders possess various lands and wealth, they force peasants who possess at best–a cow–to participate in their war. So on one hand, there’s amazing privilege, and on the other hand, there’s devastating poverty.

The battle is reconstructed and detailed. Its brutal, and shameful aftermath is also covered, and by the film’s end, Bonnie Prince Charlie escapes unscathed to the palaces of Europe, while the peasants–who stood to gain absolutely nothing from a change of monarch, and were forced at threat of death to participate, are left to pay the price for another’s ambition and thirst for power. While Culloden is an anti-war film, it’s most certainly not a traditional format, and instead questions the nature of power, hierarchy and obedience. While these two films share a common theme of exposing crimes against humanity (the possible and the historical), they both possess remarkably unemotional delivery, and this detached tone increases the horrors of what we see. Excellent. DVD extra features include: 2 full length commentaries for The War Game, and a 12-page booklet which includes background information about the film.

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