Watership Down is a book written by English novelist Richard Adams, published in 1972 to worldwide adoration, about a cluster of wild rabbits who leave their home after the weakest of them accurately foresees its destruction. It is generally regarded as a literary classic, and perhaps most delightfully, it includes appendices of rabbit mythology, and a glossary of the lapine lexicon. In 1978, it was adapted as an motion picture by director Martin Rosen.
In my eyes, this adaptation is the finest animated film ever produced. Ironically, I was first exposed to it as a kid, because it was mistaken for a kids’ movie.
What it is, aside from practically flawless, is Hard Stuff. Once upon a time, writers were allowed to be far more subtle in their depiction of “coming of age”. It didn’t always have to be a weird molestation scenario with Natalie Portman on a lake. It could be about learning to trust your animal instincts, if you will, and not only becoming stronger, but surviving because of it.
Hard Stuff is losing your friends, your family, your home. Hard Stuff is knowing that we all die someday, so learn to make the best of what you have. Hard Stuff is making the decision to end someone’s suffering, out of love. It’s about taking the toughest that life can throw at you, and coming out stronger on the other side.
They used to put it in cartoons.
Can you imagine the shame and confusion I feel, at the suspicion that I should probably open this article with a caveat? I skim comments and reactions to current films, animated and otherwise, online. There’s no way the average moviegoer could stomach Watership Down. I made a crack in an earlier article about a backlash I witnessed over Jurassic World. Apparently a giant dinosaur ate a nice person instead of a bad one.
Not to go off on a tangent, but this floored me. First off, a handful of innocent people wound up as dino-chow in the inaugural (and only decent) Jurassic Park. Secondly, it’s a monster movie. If you remove the heart, which is the idea that the monsters could get anyone, it doesn’t thrive. Imagine if the teenagers from Friday the 13th worked out that if they didn’t screw in the woods, Jason wouldn’t bother them. It’s not exactly fuel for dramatic tension.
So here’s your warning, people of the future, from an unfrozen caveman cartoonist. In this movie, bunny rabbits die. A lot of bunnies. With a lot of blood; a “bloodbath”, in fact. There is also a small concentration of what you would term High-Octane Nightmare Fuel. Trust me. I know what scares you, and I can state with all certainty: this will.
You’re gonna love it, though. Watership Down is that golden variety of film that will make you laugh, make you cry, and teach you things about life that you’ll carry forever. Try as they might, Disney has never come close to the emotional depth and breadth of this movie; they’re not even in the same galaxy. Disney movies hit emotional beats like buttons on an Xbox controller. The last decent animation that factory churned out was during the Second World War. This is completely out of their ballpark.
I vow to at least try not to keep waxing about how beautiful it is.
Okay. Deep breaths. Here we go.
We begin with the creation of the universe.
“Long ago, the great Frith made the world.
“He made all the stars, and the world lived among the stars. Frith made all the animals and birds, and at first made them all the same.
“Now among the animals, was El-ahrairah, prince of rabbits. He had many friends, and they all et grass together. But after a time the rabbits wandered everywhere, multiplying, and eating as they went. Then Frith said to El-ahrairah, ‘Prince rabbit, if you cannot control your people, I shall find ways to control them.’ But El-ahrairah would not listen, and said to Frith, ‘My people are the strongest in the world.’
“This angered Frith. So, he determined to get the better of El-ahrairah. He gave a present to every animal and bird, making each one different. When the fox came, and others like the dog and cat, the hawk, the weasel; to each of them, Frith gave a fierce desire to hunt and slay the children of El-ahrairah.”
Buckle up kiddies.
“Then El-ahrairah knew Frith was too clever for him, and he was frightened. He had never before seen the Black Rabbit of Death.“
[El-ahrairah begins frantically digging a hole, while the sun-god Frith looms over his bunny tush.]
“‘My friend’, said Frith, ‘have you seen El-ahrairah? I wish to give him a gift.’ ‘No, I have not seen him.’ ‘So’, Frith said, ‘come out, and I will bless you instead.’ ‘No, I cannot. I am busy. The fox and weasel are coming. If you want to bless me, you’ll have to bless my… bottom.’
“‘Very well. Be it so.’ And El-ahrairah’s tail grew shining white, and flashed like a star. His back legs grew long, and powerful, and he tore across the hill, faster than any creature in the world.
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you. Digger. Listener. Runner. Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
The imposing visage of Frith gives way to a lushly painted meadow, and the music softens to match the transition. The change from primitive style to realism is simply awe-striking.
The musical score is exemplary. From my understanding, this opening suite was the work of Malcolm Williamson, who was replaced by Angela Morley (who wrote the remainder) when he fell behind. I don’t know what more you could ask from a soundtrack; it’s got triumph, pathos, warmth, and razor-wire tension. There’s also an Art Garfunkel song that makes me misty coming up later (“Bright Eyes”) , written by Mike Batt, creator of the Wombles. Look, I take up so much time here celebrating American culture of the 1970s, it’s time I give some love to our pale pals across the pond. There’s no way anyone who loves animation should place anything Disney’s made against this single movie.
The opening sequence was directed by John Hubley, the film’s original director, who died in 1977 and was replaced by Martin Rosen. I doubt Hubley intended the entire film to have the same look, but it’s interesting to posit that the transition came out of necessity. You know the Brits and their carry-on spirit. The backgrounds are done in watercolor, which combines with the ink-and-paint animation to create a painstakingly crafted look. This is a beautiful film.
The surly voices of bickering workers fade into the distance, and we’re introduced to Hazel, the main protagonist rabbit, and his friend Fiver, the runt (fifth) of the litter. This is done through an extreme close-up of Hazel’s eye, before he blinks, twitches his nose, and signals that it’s safe to come out and graze. From the get-go it’s abundantly clear that these animators have spent a lot of time observing flesh-and-blood rabbits.
All the rabbits move and act like their real-life counterparts. When they speak, it’s so natural that you accept it immediately. I know I’ve spilled a thousand words on the first five minutes, but that only emphasizes its importance and gravitas.
Very gradually the look of the lepus simplifies, smoothing out the hair and finer details to ease the animation process. When Hazel speaks, we hear the cherished voice of John Hurt, soft like a leather glove. Fiver has a flitting, nervous manner, courtesy of the late Richard Briers. Every voice in this film is Shakespeare quality. It feels like all involved loved the novel.
After a brief stand-off with a rabbit soldier over a patch of precious coltsfoot, Fiver stumbles onto the smoldering butt of a cigarette left behind by man, and sees a vision of “terrible things coming”. He tells Hazel to look at the field. The field is covered with blood.
The soundtrack rises in horror. This first vision is more abstract; the real hellacious ones come later. Be ready. I don’t wanna hear any whimpering.
Fiver becomes hysterical, as would most of us, and starts ranting that they need to get away from the burrow. Hazel continues to try and calm him, to no avail, until he finally suggests that they take his concerns to the Chief Rabbit. The first act is all about convincing the other bunnies to leave. But why would they? They’re protected by the Owsla, a disciplined militia, who only require first dibs on roughage and does. It’ll take a lot more than a cracked-out runt to make the whole warren pull up stakes.
At the mouth of the Chief Rabbit’s burrow, Hazel encounters Bigwig, standing guard.
Bigwig is a tough jackrabbit with a tuft of dark hair that looks like a toupee. He’s voiced by Michael Graham Cox, who also played Boromir in Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings. That’s Bigwig on the poster. Everyone loves Bigwig.
Hazel is familiar to Bigwig, who is willing to listen, but is ordered to send him away by his gruff superior, Captain Holly. Fiver again pleads that there is a bad danger coming, and Bigwig lets them sneak in, noting “I’ll probably get my ears chewed off for this.” He introduces them to the Chief Rabbit, an immense bunny who takes up an entire corridor, who knew Hazel’s mother. Despite this, Fiver’s frantic premonitions fall on long deaf ears. Leave in May, the mating season? Why, the very idea. Fiver panics, and exits the burrow screaming that they can’t afford to wait.
Late that night, Hazel and Fiver are surprised to find several rabbits emerging from the mist to join their exodus, some claiming to have bad feelings about the burrow themselves. We round out the main cast with Blackberry (Simon Cadell), Silver (Terence Rigby), Dandelion (Richard O’Callaghan), Pipkin (Roy Kinnear) and a small herd of others. They carefully make their way through the fog, away from the warren, passing a sign that foreshadows the horrific truth of Fiver’s vision.
At the edge of the field, the herd is rousted by Owsla, who round up all the kittens and does to be marched back into the burrow. Hazel and company steal away, however, before Bigwig reappears, telling them he’s left the Owsla and that he believes Fiver’s vision. Their conversation attracts Captain Holly, who tries to arrest the group until Bigwig knocks him down. Holly assumes Bigwig has lost his marbles, and runs off to get the Owsla. Now, there’s no going back.
There’s a theme that plays when Bigwig joins Hazel, around 14:35. If you’ve ever seen Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts you have, right around now you’re finding the (weak in my opinion) score to that epic a lot less original. What can I say. You probably never made the Hobbit/rabbit connection before either. Writers of great fiction know how to make the unreal sound authentic, the mundane seem fresh, and this is a fine example.
The rabbits want to rest, but Hazel insists that they cross the forest before they do. The depiction of the woods is hair-raising (I didn’t make the pun, you’re welcome), all thorny vines and hidden danger, and Morley’s music uses echoing woodwinds to evoke strange birds and predatory calls. It genuinely captures the alien feeling of a forest at night.
Bigwig sniffs the air, and a badger with bloody lips pops out of the ivy and into your nightmares.
The group is safe because of the bloody lips; the “lendron” (their word for badger) already ate. Because this is the internet, I don’t have to tell you how big a threat one badger is. One could easily kill a man. They’re kin to the honey badger. Not even a leopard or a lion will fuck with a honey badger. So the bunnies really caught a break here.
By dawn, the rabbits’ trail is stopped by a river, and Fiver begins to delineate where he thinks they should be going; a high, clear place where man never comes. Whether this place really exists is up for debate. Bigwig reports that “there’s a dog loose in the wood”. This is not a film for people who fear dogs.
Desperate to lose the dog, everyone swims while Silver and Bigwig push Fiver and Pipkin on a wooden sign Blackberry finds floating in the river. Safe on the other bank, Hazel vows to remember this idea while an unseen man whistles the dog back.
The journey continues over rolling green hills and splendorous meadows where plump cows graze. It’s not all wonder, however; there is frustration within the crew over the lack of direction, and the next challenge arrives in the form of a paved road with a squashed critter on it.
The sight of the street pizza baffles Hazel, but Bigwig says a man-thing killed it. A “rhududu”. It runs on it; faster than rabbits can. Hazel says it sounds dangerous, and Bigwig says they don’t even notice them, and proves it by sitting in the middle of the road as a car whizzes past. Then another comes from the other direction, and the bunnies scatter. It’s a terrific scene, and what a wonderful word for car they use; “rhududu”, like the sound of a motor revving.
While resting in a fragrant field, the rabbits lose a doe named Violet to a swooping owl, and get moving again, finally settling on a dark cemetery in which to sleep. At 23:15, Bigwig stretches out on the dirt floor for a nap, and there’s a music-box flourish on the soundtrack that is just the sweetest thing you’ve ever heard. Of course, immediately after this quantum of solace the herd is chased from the shack by rats and a snowy owl.
By now, the rabbits are becoming demoralized, and they argue in the rain over whether Fiver is full of crap or not. The debate is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a strange, effete hare. This is Cowslip, with the voice of Denholm Elliott, whom you may remember as Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones series. Elliott was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987, and died in 1992 of AIDS-related tuberculosis. He reprised his role as Brody in 1989’s Last Crusade. If you do the math, that should give you a newfound respect for George Lucas and company. Do you know what the general attitude was regarding AIDS in 1989?
Cowslip invites the herd into his burrow, which turns out to be man-made, rousing everyone’s suspicions. When someone suggests telling tales of El-ahrairah, Cowslip disapproves, preferring dignity and acceptance to tricks. It slowly becomes apparent that this is a warren that is sometimes harvested for a farm. When Cowslip begins reciting an eerie, morbid poem, Fiver runs out into the daylight. Hazel again tries to deal with him, but Bigwig mocks his tranced-out behavior, and cries “PRAKA!” “Praka” is the rabbit word for “bullshit”. Try it, you’ll like it!
Immediately after delivering this verbal smackdown, Bigwig runs right into a trap; the wire snare referenced on the poster. When a rabbit is injured in this movie, they let out a signature bark, like the cry of a squirrel. I have no idea if this is the actual sound rabbits make when hurt, but it’s so unpleasant to hear, I’d call that a safe bet.
Hazel keeps Bigwig talking, begging him to draw on his Owsla training regarding snares. Blood foams from Bigwig’s nose as the other rabbits dig at the trap to free him. It is as tense as any hospital drama. A lot of kids left the room during this part. Miraculously, Bigwig is freed.
Okay, if you haven’t seen this before, I’m pretty much spoiling it for you, but Bigwig pulls through. There’s a climactic melee he’s a huge part of, at the end. But still, you’ll never see this kind of cartoon carnage today, not by a long shot. It’s not that the blood is gratuitous; it’s treating the viewer like they can handle the sight of it. And honestly, the people who made this film probably had childhoods that included farm life, and all the mature situations that entails. After all, meat has to come from somewhere.
Bigwig’s return elates the others, and Fiver announces that the paradise of his dreams is now in view, over the horizon. A great hill of unusual shape, flat on the top, resembling a capsized boat: “Watership Down”.
At dawn, outside a farm, Hazel wakes a recalcitrant and groggy Pipkin for a reconnaissance mission. Inside a barn are some doe bunnies in cages that could be freed, but there’s also a cat somewhere on the premises, plus a tied-up hound. Hazel lays on the charm for the does, who don’t seem to want freedom; they’re pets. Soon enough the cat catches their scent, and sends Hazel and Pipkin running.
Later that day, the rabbits are making their way down a ravine, when they hear a terrible moaning that they can’t identify. We are locked and loaded for the Scariest Part of the Movie. You thought Secret of NIMH disturbed you? Oh, sweetheart. Get under the blanket.
The terrible moaning, which scares the shit out of everybody, comes from Captain Holly, who has been searching desperately for Bigwig. Fiver’s vision came to pass, you see, music cue and all. The field was covered with blood because construction vehicles tore up the meadow. The runs of the warren are all blocked with dead rabbits who suffocated trying to escape; men filled in the holes. There was a strange sound (the machines), and the air turned bad (the exhaust). Shovels fling bunny corpses skyward and HOLY JESUS CHRIST ALMIGHTY HOW MANY KIDS PISSED THEIR GARANIMALS WATCHING THIS?!?
Not me, I mean. However, writing about this scene in particular has been a sheer act of will. Drawing and animating it must have been even more so. Making it through this movie without cracking was a badge of honor in grade school. That might seem weird now.
The rabbits arrive at Watership Down, and find an empty burrow there. The music swells and everything seems perfect, but we’re only at the halfway point. What better to ruin the mood than a screaming seagull?
This is Kehaar, voiced by the inimitable Zero Mostel. There are three movies Mostel was good in, those being The Producers, Rhinoceros and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He was alright in The Front. As advice to his aspiring actor son Josh, Zero imparted “suck on something red so your tongue will show up.” The nicest thing I can say about his performance in this film is that it shuts people up about Jar Jar Binks.
I know, Kehaar is a seagull. Seagulls are known to create noise pollution, like fake bikers. But either Mostel or the director made the decision to have Kehaar shry in a Yiddish accent which is… uncomfortable. (Not to mention, whenever Kehaar appears, the music takes on a Jewish flavor, all rolling clarinet notes.) Before the show is through, you will know from whence Kehaar came: the Big Water. That’s BEEEEEEEEGH VAAAAAAAHHHHTAAAAAAHHH.
Kehaar was attacked by the farm cat, and his wing needs time to heal. The rabbits take him under their, uh, wing, and his relentless screaming informs them that they may be safe in paradise, but they’re still just a bunch of dudes with no girlfriends. This prompts an attempt to free the caged does at the farm, but this time the family patriarch is awake and armed, dropping Hazel with buckshot when he tries to escape. As Fiver searches the darkness for his friend, led by the Black Rabbit of Inle, the soft voice of Art Garfunkel rises up, and “Bright Eyes” unfolds over a montage of flashbacks.
Every time I lose a hamster (or any pet), this song plays in its entirety within my head, and I know every word. For the purposes of this article, I will be fast-forwarding this part. I’ll be damned if I get weepy for you people. This is my Achilles heel.
Fiver finds Hazel barely alive in a pipe, and Kehaar proves his worth by pecking out the buckshot in his haunch. Hazel wants the bird to guide them to Efrafa, but he and Captain Holly agree that there are too many rabbit soldiers there. What’s worse, the slash on Holly’s shoulder is actually an identification mark, which determines when he’s allowed to be above ground. If one is above ground at the wrong time, they could be slashed to pieces before the council. Holly only escaped when a train ran down the Owsla in pursuit. Efrafa is a bad, sick place, but there are does there in need of liberating.
In the third act the group infiltrates Efrafa, and the action really begins. We’re introduced to the sinister Captain Campion, and the treacherous and ill-fated Blackavar. All the Efrafans have whitish eyes with dark circles underneath. When they bare their teeth and claws to fight, it’s uniquely unsettling.
Bigwig is captured, and taken before General Woundwort, whom he surprises by asking to join Efrafa. This is all an infiltration plot, which Woundwort suspects, but he allows him to join anyway. Campion slashes Bigwig’s haunch, marking him as an officer. Campion is voiced by Sir Nigel Hawthorne, whom you may recall as George III from The Madness of King George.
There is an Efrafan doe we’ve seen briefly before called Hyzenthlay, whom I haven’t mentioned yet because I was fearful of typing her name. (This article owes much to copy and paste.) She told General Woundwort that overcrowding is causing reduced litters, and is considered a troublesome rabble-rouser. Bigwig realizes she is prime rebel doe material, and as it later turns out, she has precognitive visions just like Fiver.
At the river, Hazel tells Kehaar to meet Bigwig at the iron road (train tracks). It takes several tries to get it into his bird brain, and he still screws it up chasing bugs. Nevertheless, Bigwig manages to funnel a herd of does (and Blackavar) out of Efrafa, before Kehaar fights off the enemy patrol as only a shrieking seabird (plus coincidental lightning) can do. This whole escape sequence is incredibly suspenseful, as the General constantly dogs the group, until they at last board their hidden boat and float down the river to safety. Kehaar says his farewells, and sets off for the BEEEEEEEGH VAAAAHTAAAAAH.
Back on Watership Down, it seems like we’re in for a happy ending. The music is tranquil and serene, and then it sucker-punches you with startled brass at 1:16:00.
The Efrafans have found Watership Down. Silver runs up, shouting “Get the holes filled in! Everyone, underground! It’s the General!” It has the authentic feel of a sudden disaster panic. Bigwig gathers everyone in the warren, and they all begin filling holes while Hazel dashes off on a mission of his own. I won’t reveal the details, but it truly lives up to the legacy of El-ahrairah, and his tricks of legend.
At 1:18:08, one of the best parts of the score amps up with a sobering rattle of snare drums. You could put this piece up there with the themes from Jaws and Psycho. Instantly the tension ratchets up, and the final battle for the burrow erupts. As Hazel prays in his mind to Frith, asking a bargain of his life for his friends’, General Woundwort breaks through the dirt into the warren. Blackavar attempts to redeem himself with a sneak attack. It goes poorly for him.
Bigwig ambushes Woundwort, and they kick and slash at each other until pink foam drops from their yaps, evenly matched. The combat in this movie is visceral and brutal. Meanwhile, the dog and cat at the farm have been loosed, which is a serious problem because the cat is still pissed off from before, and the dog is absolutely bugfuck.
This proves a disadvantage for the Efrafans, as the dog promptly runs amok and massacres them.
General Woundwort runs out into the bloodbath, cursing his soldiers for panicking, and bellows his famous last words:
“Dogs aren’t dangerous!”
General Woundwort’s body was never found. It could be that he lives his fierce life somewhere else. But from that day on, mother rabbits would tell their kittens, that if they did not do as they were told, the General would get them. Such was Woundwort’s monument. And perhaps, it would not have displeased him.
The closing scene sees Hazel aged and frail, presiding over a thriving colony of rabbits atop Watership Down. He is visited by the Black Rabbit of Inle, who comes to him not as the stark mask he was before, but as a softly penciled rendering of a sweet bunny face. The Black Rabbit tells Hazel it’s time to join his Owsla. After a few moments of contemplation, he takes his last breaths and does so. (The voice of the Black Rabbit is Joss Ackland, whom you may recall as the villain Chuck De Nomolos from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.)
This is simply an incomparable film. The attention paid to depicting the beauty of nature is something I’ve never seen elsewhere, excepting possibly Spirited Away and later Kurosawa. The movements of all the animals are naturalistic; none of the characters are humanized, which obviously makes them more believable as rabbits. The cast is sterling, despite my ribbing of Mr. Mostel. When the voices are panicked and merged with alarmed faces, the film gains tremendous suspense momentum. There are group shots of different hares, emoting terror or disgust, that pack much expressionistic wallop. The story is a lean adaptation that pulls no punches and wastes no time.
How appropriate that the story takes its name from a mountain; that’s how high it sets the bar for animated film.