Watership Down is a 1978 animated film directed by Martin Rosen and based on the book by Richard Adams. It was largely financed by Jake Eberts' company, Goldcrest Films. After a slow start upon release, it became the sixth most popular film of 1979 at the British box office.
The film featured the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne and Roy Kinnear, among others, and was the last film appearance of Zero Mostel, as the voice of Kehaar the gull.
Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", was also featured, although in a different arrangement from the version released as a record. The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson.
After the genesis story rendered in a narrated simplistic cartoon fashion, the animation style changes to a detailed, naturalist one, with concessions to render the animals anthropomorphic only to suggest they have human voices and minds, some facial expressions for emotion and paw gestures. The animation backgrounds are watercolors. Only one of the predators, the farm cat, is given a few lines, the rest remaining mute.
After crossing a road, evading a hunting dog, and escaping from a rat-infested cemetery, the band meets a rabbit named Cowslip, who comes from a warren of what appears to be friendly rabbits. The majority of the group is content and grateful for shelter, but Fiver senses something wrong and soon leaves. Bigwig follows him, taunting, but becomes caught in a snare. Fiver attempts to get help from Cowslip and the rest of his warren, but he is dismissed. The Sandleford rabbits discover that the warren is fed by a farmer, who occasionally snares rabbits in return for his food and care from predators. Bigwig passes out, still trapped, and after he is released the rabbits assume he is dead; however, he awakens moments later. On Fiver's advice, the band moves on with a profound new respect for the seer's wisdom.
The rabbits discover Nuthanger farm, which contains a hutch of female rabbits, does. Hazel realizes that females will be needed to begin a new warren, but the rabbits are forced to leave by the appearance of the farm's cat and dog. Hazel promises to return, and the rabbits set off again. They are unexpectedly found by the Sandleford's Owsla Captain, Holly, who is injured and in extremis. He recounts the destruction of the Sandleford warren, proving Fiver's visions to be true, and collapses after mentioning a warren called Efrafa. Shortly after, Fiver discovers the hill Watership Down, where the rabbits discover an empty space suitable to live in.
They settle in, developing their own warren, and Hazel is informally recognized as Chief Rabbit. They befriend an acerbic injured seagull, Kehaar, who offers to survey the local area for females. Meanwhile, the rabbits return to Nuthanger farm to free the does, but as they make their escape, Hazel is shot by a farmhand and presumed dead. Fiver, following a vision telling him that his brother is alive, returns to the farm just in time to find and save Hazel. Kehaar returns, having found Efrafa as a main warren which may have females. Holly, who knows of Efrafa, begs them not to go there, describing it as a highly militarized and totalitarian state. Hazel, however, feels they have no choice but to seek does. and when a number of the rabbits visit Efrafa, Bigwig decides to stay to infiltrate the colony. He meets the Chief Rabbit, the powerful General Woundwort, who makes him an officer of the warren. Bigwig easily recruits several would-be escapees to his cause. Among them are Hyzenthlay, an outspoken, rebelious doe, and Blackavar, a male rabbit who was wounded and permanently scarred by Efrafa's Owsla to be an example in order to dissuade any rebelious rabbits. They soon flee Efrafa, with the help of Kehaar and the other Watership Rabbits.
However, their union is short-lived. Efrafa's trackers find their trail several days later, following them to Watership Down, and the General himself has come to recapture the escapees. Hazel attempts to reason and offers an alliance, but when he is dismissed, he decides to fight. The Watership rabbits dig themselves into their own warren to be safe and are besieged and in all the commotion, Fiver becomes scared and slips into a trance, in which he envisions "a dog loose in the woods." His moans scare the Efrafans, but he inspires Hazel to free the dog from Nuthanger and lead him to the warren to attack the Efrafans. Several of the rabbits taunt the dog into following them uphill, but Hazel is caught by the farm cat—only to be saved by the farmer's daughter.
When the Efrafans finally break into Watership Down, Woundwort jumps in first and quickly kills Blackavar. He is soon ambushed by Bigwig, and the two fight to near exhaustion. Woundwort tries to persuade Bigwig to surrender, but the dog suddenly arrives and rapidly kills most of the Efrafan rabbits. The General emerges and leaps to attack the dog; later, no trace of him is found, and his memory becomes a ghost story used by rabbit parents to frighten their children into obedience. All of the rabbits of Watership Down are safe at last.
The epilogue shows the warren several years later. Hazel is old and tired, but his warren is thriving. As stories of the warren's early exploits—distorted and mythologized—are retold in the background by new rabbits, he is visited by a shadowy shape he cannot make out. The rabbit reveals himself to be El-ahrairah, the mythological rabbit trickster, inviting Hazel to join his Owsla. In a reprise of other mystical scenes in the film, Hazel discards his body and follows him towards the sun—which metamorphoses into Frith—and into the afterlife.
Unlike many animated features, the film faithfully emulated the dark and violent sophistication of the book. As a result, many reviewers took to warning parents that children might find the content highly disturbing. This attitude extended to when the animated TV series was marketed with the producers making an effort to reassure parents that the violence was softened and that the main characters would not be permanently harmed in their adventures.
Despite the aforementioned violence, the film currently retains a British "U" certificate for all home video releases. The film is a U-rated film but does include the phrase "piss off" (spoken by Kehaar to Hazel, as in the book). In the United States, the film is rated "PG" by the Motion Picture Association of America. Throughout Canada however, the film was rated "G", or "F" in Ontario. Note that at the time, in Canada the PG rating did not exist.
Some marketers in the U.S. were also worried that the main promotional poster (see above) appeared too dark and may scare some children. The poster is actually showing Bigwig in a snare (his distinctive hair is clearly visible), and the image on the poster did not appear in the film, which has a far bloodier depiction of Bigwig in the snare.
Although the film was fairly faithful to the novel, several changes were made to the storyline:
These changes were most likely made to make the film easier to understand. Several characters were also taken away from the film (probably so there would be fewer characters to keep track of). In the book, eleven rabbits go on the trek to Watership Down; in the film, eight leave (but seven survive).
Also, the order in which some events occur is re-arranged, and the length of time spent in different places is changed. For example: in the movie, Pipkin and Hazel make their first visit to Nuthanger farm during the journey to Watership Down. In the book, they make their first visit much later, after the journey is over and they've been settled on Watership Down for a while. Additionally, in the movie the rabbits find Holly before finding the down, whereas in the novel they find him later.
And some characterizations are changed. For instance, the character of Silver takes on some of the attributes and actions of the absent Hawkbit, and Dandelion's primary roles in the book as the group's best scout and storyteller are almost entirely absent; his storytelling ability is alluded to a couple of times, but he never actually tells a story or does any scouting in the movie.
|Bigwig||Michael Graham Cox|
|Chief Rabbit||Ralph Richardson|
|General Woundwort||Harry Andrews|
|Black Rabbit||Joss Ackland|