Published on April 30th, 2016 | by Clint Davis
Watership Down 
Summary: A dark, beautiful adaptation of the classic novel. The art is crude by modern standards and the voice work requires subtitles but its transcendental themes and honest style make it stand out.
PG | 101 min.
Director & Screenplay: Martin Rosen (based on Richard Adams’s novel)
Starring: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox
Distribution: Avco Embassy Pictures (Criterion Collection)
I imagine director Martin Rosen’s Watership Down scarred a lot of childhoods when it hit theaters in 1978. But scars — like great films — never leave us.
This adaptation of British author Richard Adams’s most cherished book about a group of rabbits who seek to establish a home of their own after a phophetic vision predicts the annihilation of their old habitat, was the first to be made after the novel’s publication in 1972. It remains the definitive screen version of Watership Down.
The movie pares down the book’s 400+ pages into a fast-moving 101-minute tale, while keeping in tact the rich history and spiritual philosophy of the rabbit civilization created by Adams. I appreciate Rosen’s vision of the book because it doesn’t water down the challenging parts present in the text. This film tackles death, oppression and faith head-on.
In fact, you could come away from Watership Down thinking it was a movie obsessed with death. We see many characters die in great detail, whether from being ripped apart by a dog’s razor teeth, being lifted from the Earth by a hawk’s talons or lying mangled on the side of the road as the victim of a passing car (or a “hrududu,” as the rabbits call vehicles in their language). In the film’s most terrifying sequence, a rabbit who narrowly survived his home being destroyed by a construction crew describes the agonizing experience of being inside a rabbit warren as men filled the holes in with dirt, suffocating his friends and family.
This passage was horrifying and truly difficult to watch as the rabbit’s traumatizing descriptions were interpreted on screen artistically, rather than literally. But it leaves the viewer thinking about any time they may have messed with an animal’s burrow as children. It leaves a sickening ball of remorse in your stomach.
But death is not always something to be feared in Watership Down. The movie’s touching final scene presents death as a friend, a triumphant cap on a life well lived. The simple animation of a character lying down alone in a bed of grass, his family unseen in the distance, his body swelling with a big breath, then an exhale and finally stillness. Watership Down was Rosen’s first film, but that ending sequence is masterful. It’s one of the most satisfying death scenes I’ve ever watched.
The story follows Hazel (voiced by British acting icon John Hurt), a brave and selfless rabbit who leads his brother Fiver (Richard Briers) and a small band of male rabbits out of their doomed warren to a new home high on a hill across the English countryside. Along the way, the gang runs across dangers and temptations from both fellow rabbits and the “thousand enemies” their species is warned of by their God. The plot is mostly just journey and adventure until the rabbits realize they need to find some females to help populate their new colony, leading them to try to liberate some from an oppressive, prison-like warren run by the ruthless General Woundwort (Harry Andrews).
The plot of Watership Down is a lot like Homer’s Odyssey or similar epic journey tales. But whereas Odysseus’s trek was a return home, these characters seek unknown ground, requiring a great deal of faith among the travelers. The line between protagonists and antagonists is clear as bottled water. In Watership Down, the bad guys are always bad and the good guys are always good. This lack of ambiguity among the characters is one weak point of the story but it’s only a minor complaint about a film that is more mature than many cartoons.
Another knock on Watership Down — like the book — is that it doesn’t feature any meaningful roles for its female characters. The female rabbits in this story are all relegated to subservient roles. We see them kept in cages by men as pets and as concubine slaves by Woundwort’s harsh regime. In both situations, they require male characters to free them, unable to secure freedom themselves. Watership Down can surely be labelled sexist but to write it off as such means ignoring the myriad uplifting themes and positive overall message of the story.
Watership Down can easily be viewed as a parable of the founding of Israel and the rabbits as a group of Jews searching for a home free of oppression. The refrain from the rabbits’ God that the first rabbit was the “Prince of a thousand enemies” and warning the species that “All the world will be your enemy” immediately brings up visions of the persecution faced by millions of Jews throughout history. The rabbits in the film are deeply spiritual, with Hazel and Fiver even having a transcendental relationship with their God; they appear to be “chosen ones,” if you will.
But Watership Down doesn’t have to be viewed through this lens, the story can also be used as a parable for any group that seeks independence at the cost of personal peril. It’s a versatile and almost universal story about the desire for a place of one’s own.
This film also poses a moral question about conservation and man’s domination of the wilderness. Before Happy Feet and Fern Gully, this was the animated film that damned man for trampling on the world’s other creatures. As Fiver tells his companions in one scene, “They’ll never rest until they’ve spoiled the Earth.” Rosen doesn’t beat his audience over the head with this message but it does ring clearly in several scenes.
From a technical standpoint, Watership Down is a bit crude by the standards of modern audiences. Even when compared to the animation Disney was doing at the time (1977’s The Rescuers) or the standard-setting depiction of nature Disney’s cartoonists had created over 30 years earlier in Bambi, this film looks a bit simple. But the art style in Watership Down is effective in its simplicity and did strike me as gorgeous in the ways it presented abstract ideas like faith and spiritual departure. I’d never call this movie ugly but I fear kids today would dismiss its visuals after growing up with modern animated films.
I’d defy anyone to sit through the sequence where Fiver seeks out his injured brother, as Art Garfunkel’s original song “Bright Eyes” plays, and call this movie anything but beautiful.
The voice acting and sound quality tend to be difficult to understand. Perhaps some of the fault was with my American ears, which always have difficulty with heavy English accents but I also blame the inability to watch Watership Down with subtitles turned on, as is usually my custom. I watched the film on Hulu, as part of the streaming Criterion Collection, which didn’t offer subtitles.
I enjoyed nearly all the performances, finding Briers’s tender portrayal of Fiver and Michael Graham Cox’s confident reading of Bigwig to be my favorites. However, Zero Mostel’s nearly unintelligible performance as the seagull Kehaar was almost unbearable to my ears. The character is obviously meant to be abrasive but I don’t think his reading needed to be so irritating.
Watership Down is a moving and unflinching animated film that adults may appreciate more than young children. The harsh realities of nature are presented in a way that was mostly uncommon to Disney or other animation studios of the day. Disney didn’t approach this level of peril to its anthropomorphized animals until 1994’s The Lion King — and even that film didn’t feature the kind of bloodshed that is present here.
Watership Down performs that rare feat of making you want to get off the couch, turn off the TV and sit outside for a while … just watch where you step, of course.