Watership Down (1978)

When it’s on: Saturday, 27 December (2.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

There aren’t many ‘U’ rated animated features like Watership Down, and on a personal note it’s one of the first movies I remember watching in full. As a treat one Christmas, my primary school (I can’t have been any older than eight) stopped classes one afternoon and screened it on their projection system. I can imagine the teachers’ train of thought – nice film about rabbits… good family fare… nothing harmful or corrupting there, and the terror that must have gone through their minds as the gore-soaked odyssey unfolded on the screen. I can only imagine the string of nervous Number Six that were smoked in the staff room that afternoon.

I remember very clearly loving it. Seeing it as an adult, I fully appreciate the concern some might have that it isn’t really a film for young kids, and by any family-rated movie’s standards it contains a lot of blood and more than its fair share of haunting imagery. There’s a powerful counter-argument that Watership Down to some extent delivers precisely what children want from their films, and very rarely get, an unblinking, visceral experience that makes no attempt to water down its material or condescend to young audiences. Added to that is genuine heart. If Watership Down has a message, it is that life is always precious, and very often fragile.

The film is of course based on Richard Adams’s bestselling novel, and tracks it closely in terms of the spirit and themes the author was attempting to convey. What really impresses about the story is the mythology Adams has created for his rabbit characters. These aren’t Disney bunnies, humans in animal form. They have their own stories, their own names for things e.g. ‘Hrududu,’ the rabbit word for moving motor vehicles, which is presumably – not to mention ingeniously – based on the noise they make and, critically in terms of the plot, their own ideas about death and the afterlife. The rabbits’ story about how they are all descended from El-ahrairah, the original prince of all rabbits, is told in the film’s prologue, a sublimely nasty piece of film that is shown as a kind of animated series of woodcuts. What it does is firmly establish the rabbits’ own sense of their place in the world – perils are all around. They have a thousand enemies, a fact reinforced by the sequence of dangers experienced by the film’s main characters. Yet they aren’t helpless. Frith, the rabbits’ God represented by the sun, gifts them with cunning and speed.

The story opens with frail ‘seer’ rabbit, Fiver (Richard Briers) begging his leaders to leave the warren and search for a new home. A human sign erected nearby has given him a vague yet horribly strong premonition of danger, illustrated as he sees their field covered in the dying oranges of the setting sun, which turns into blood. Unfortunately, the chief rabbit is unmoved when Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt) present their case. Fat and complacent, the head of the owsla (rabbit police) doesn’t want to know, and our heroes are compelled to steal away in the night with several others who believe their warnings. Sure enough, as the rabbits leave, they pass a board they obviously wouldn’t be able to read that tells us the land is scheduled for development. Later in the film, a captain from the owsla catches up with the runaways, and tells them the warren was blocked up by humans. In probably the movie’s most horrific scene, we see red-eyed rabbits clamber over each other, asphyxiating in their desperate struggle to escape their blocked-up tunnels and ploughed land.

What follows is the rabbits’ journey through an eternity of (mostly) perilous encounters, on their way to Watership Down, which Fiver describes as ‘high, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry, and the ground’s as dry as straw in a barn.’ It’s a real place, a hill in Hampshire that Adams evoked from his own childhood. Some of the dangers they come across are mild – a badger (or lendri) leering at them with blood-soaked teeth from the bushes. Others are less so. One rabbit is randomly picked off by a swooping hawk when she ventures from the safety of a cornfield. Hazel’s attempts to ‘rescue’ some tame doe rabbits from a farmhouse hutch are ever undermined by the presence of an ill-minded and predatory cat.

Creepier still is the heroes’ encounter with Cowslip, a seemingly friendly rabbit who offers to share his warren with them. Things seem too good to be true, and of course they are. The warren is riddled with snares and traps, its occupants ‘kept’ so that they can be killed and eaten by humans. Fiver, for all his moaning, is the one who sees it first, and who later helps to rescue the macho Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) from just such a snare.

The story culminates as the rabbits discover Watership Down, and find it’s every bit the perfect warren for them. Unfortunately they’ve arrived without any females, and the only place they can find any willing to join them is ruled by the fascist General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) and his ‘claw first, speak later’ owsla. The survival of the warren depends on whether they can extricate any of the does, some of whom are willing to come, but aren’t allowed to leave…

The fear of meeting the Black Rabbit of Death is all around. ‘When he comes for you, you have no choice but to go,’ Fiver warns, and in one of the film’s more dreamlike sequences, he indeed follows the black rabbit, which he believes is leading him towards the wounded Hazel. This is the sequence featuring Bright Eyes, the theme tune composed by Mike Batt and featuring the vocal stylings of Art Garfunkel that became a chart hit. It’s a scene that actually works incredibly well, Garfunkel’s voice taking on an ethereal quality as the black rabbit leaps elusively out of reach.

All of which is told using an animation style that has a rather beautiful, pastoral watercolour look. The English countryside scenery is detailed and gorgeous, and the animators’ attempt to create a very different style for the appearance of rabbit myths and legends is bold indeed. It’s not perfect; there’s sometimes an unnatural way that the animals move, no doubt a result of the technological limitations of the time, whilst the lack of shadows cast by the characters is an attention to detail that is addressed as a matter of course in modern films. Yet nothing looks quite like it, and the voice cast more than makes up for amy visual shortcomings. Briers lends Fiver exactly the nervous quality you would expect from a rabbit who can see dead people. Hurt is also on fine form as Hazel, and clearly has the kind of vocal range that makes him ideal for noble and heroic characters (he also made for a memorable Aragorn in the Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings). A roll call of British luminaries – Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Roy Kinnear, Michael Hordern, Denholm Elliott – make up the rest of the cast, and there’s a winning turn from Zero Mostel, who in his last ever role provided the voice of Kehaar, the gull who helps the rabbits when not providing the film’s much needed comic relief.

Watership Down: ****

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4 Replies to “Watership Down (1978)”

  1. Mike, I would have been a bit older than you when I first saw this, also at school. I think it went down quite well with the other kids, though I can’t recall exactly. What I do remember though was the way it transfixed me from beginning to end, and this is from someone who thought he’d reached an age where his sophistication and worldliness meant animated films were no longer for him! At the time, of course, I wasn’t aware of who the voice artists were but they suited the characters perfectly.

    1. Thanks Colin. Easy to explain the transfixing effect I’d imagine – a gritty and occasionally visceral story, told in an uncondescending way. Not many cartoons you used to be able to day that about, well not until Japanese animation became more widely available.

  2. I too recall first seeing this film in school at quite a young age and being a little bit upset by it at the time. Less so now of course and I can appreciate it’s message.

    1. Thanks Hollie. I think as an older viewer I get to appreciate better the level of imagination that went into telling the story from the rabbits’ point of view – their religion, their names for other animals, cars, etc. it’s all very clever and tells the tale much more convincingly.

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