Watership Down (film)

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Watership Down
A sunset depicting Bigwig in a snare, with the title in fancy font and the credits below.
US cinema poster
Directed by Martin Rosen
John Hubley (uncredited)
Produced by Martin Rosen
Screenplay by Martin Rosen
Based on Watership Down 
by Richard Adams
Narrated by Michael Hordern
Starring John Hurt
Richard Briers
Michael Graham Cox
Simon Cadell
Harry Andrews
Zero Mostel
Music by Angela Morley
Malcolm Williamson
Editing by Terry Rawlings
Studio Nepenthe Productions
Distributed by CIC (UK)
Avco Embassy Pictures (US)
Release dates
  • 19 October 1978 (1978-10-19) (UK)
  • 1 November 1978 (1978-11-01) (US)
Running time 101 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office $3,713,768 (US)[1]

Watership Down is a 1978 British animated adventure drama film written, produced and directed by Martin Rosen and based on the book of the same name by Richard Adams. It was financed by a consortium of British financial institutions. Originally released on 19 October 1978, the film was an immediate success and it became the sixth most popular film of 1979 at the British box office.[2] It was one of the first animated feature films to be presented in Dolby.

It 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.

The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson. Art Garfunkel's hit single "Bright Eyes", which was written by songwriter Mike Batt briefly features.

Plot[edit]

According to lapine culture and mythology (invented by Adams), the world was created by the god Frith, who represents the Sun. All animals lived harmoniously, but the rabbits eventually multiplied, and their appetite led to a food shortage. At the prayers of the desperate animals, Frith warned the rabbit prince El-ahrairah to control his people, but was scoffed at. In retaliation, Frith gave special gifts to every animal, but some animals he made predators to prey upon the rabbits. Satisfied that El-ahrairah had learned his lesson, Frith also gave the rabbits speed and cunning; while many would seek to kill them, the rabbits could survive by their wits and quickness.

In the present, in the English countryside of Sandleford, Fiver, a rabbit seer has an apocalyptic vision and goes with his older brother Hazel to beg the chief to have the warren evacuated, but they are dismissed and attempt to make an exodus themselves. The group meets resistance from the warren's police force called the Owsla, but eight manage to fight and escape: Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, Silver and Violet. They travel through the dangerous woods and make it to a bean field to rest. In the morning, Violet is killed by a hawk, leaving the group without a female.

After several dangerous situations, they meet the enigmatic rabbit Cowslip, who invites them to his warren. They are grateful, but Fiver senses something bizarre in the atmosphere, and the resident rabbits' overly resigned attitudes, and leaves. An irked Bigwig follows, and chastises Fiver for supposedly causing senseless tension with his instincts. Moments later, however, he is caught in a snare trap. Fiver attempts to get help from their hosts, but is ignored. Bigwig is freed after nearly dying. As Fiver reveals, the warren is fed by a farmer who snares rabbits in return for his food and protection from predators. After Bigwig's narrow escape, the other rabbits willingly follow Fiver's and Hazel's advice and set out once more.

The rabbits discover Nuthanger farm, which contains a hutch of female rabbits, necessary for a new warren. However, they do not manage to free them, on account of the territorial farm animals. They find the injured Owsla captain Holly, who recounts the destruction of Sandleford by humans, and a mysterious group called the "Efrafrans" before falling unconscious. Fiver finally leads the group to the hill he envisioned, Watership Down, where the rabbits settle.

They settle in, developing their own warren, with Hazel as chief. They befriend an acerbic injured seagull, Kehaar, who offers to survey the local area for does. The rabbits return to Nuthanger to free the does; Hazel is shot by a farmhand and presumed dead, but Fiver has a vision and follows the apparition of the Black Rabbit of Inle to his injured brother. Kehaar returns and while removing buckshot pellets from Hazel's leg, reports of Efrafa, a large warren with many females. Holly, who encountered Efrafa, begs them not to go there, describing it as a totalitarian state, run by vicious and heavily territorial rabbits. Hazel feels they have no choice but to go there. Bigwig infiltrates the colony and is made an Owsla officer by the cruel chief, General Woundwort. Bigwig recruits several potential escapees to his cause, including Hyzenthlay, an idealistic doe and Blackavar, a scarred attempted escapee. They flee, with Woundwort and his Owsla in pursuit. Using a boat to float down the river, they evade capture, helped by Kehaar. That night, Kehaar leaves for his homeland, with the gratitude of the warren.

Several days later, Efrafan trackers discover their trail and follow them to Watership Down. Hazel offers a treaty with Woundwort, who dismisses Hazel, telling him to turn over Bigwig and the other deserters or he will kill the entire warren. The Watership rabbits barricade their warren and are besieged by the Efrafans. Fiver slips into a trance, in which he envisions a dog loose in the woods. His moans inspire Hazel to free the dog from Nuthanger and lead him to the warren to intervene. He escapes with Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay.

Hazel prays to Frith, offering his life for that of those in the warren, a bargain Frith acknowledges, but doesn't accept, as the outcome is ultimately up to Hazel. Hazel frees the dog while his companions bait it into following them to Watership Down; Hazel is attacked by the cat, but saved by Lucy (the owner of the hutch rabbits). When the Efrafans break through the warren's defences, Woundwort leads the attack. Blackavar confronts Woundwort, but is overpowered and killed. Bigwig ambushes Woundwort and they fight to exhaustion. The dog arrives and kills many of the Efrafan soldiers. Hearing the commotion, Woundwort abandons Bigwig and fearlessly confronts the dog. No trace of Woundwort is found, leaving his fate ambiguous.

Years later, the warren is thriving. An elderly Hazel is visited by El-ahrairah, who invites him to join his Owsla, assuring him of Watership Down's perpetual safety. Reassured, Hazel accepts and dies peacefully. Hazel's spirit follows El-ahrairah's spirit through the woodland and trees towards the Sun, which metamorphoses into Frith and the afterlife.

Cast[edit]

This was the first film to feature both John Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne. Both later starred together in two other animated features, The Plague Dogs (which was also based on a Richard Adams book), and The Black Cauldron. Hurt and Richard Briers (who voiced Hazel and Fiver, respectively, in the film) later returned to voice General Woundwort and the new character, Captain Broom, respectively in the 1999 TV series remake.

Hazel John Hurt Rabbit
Fiver Richard Briers Rabbit
Bigwig Michael Graham Cox Rabbit
Captain Holly John Bennett Rabbit
Threarah Ralph Richardson Rabbit
Blackberry Simon Cadell Rabbit
Silver Terence Rigby Rabbit
Pipkin Roy Kinnear Rabbit
Dandelion Richard O'Callaghan Rabbit
Cowslip Denholm Elliott Rabbit
Kehaar Zero Mostel Black-headed Gull
General Woundwort Harry Andrews Rabbit
Campion Nigel Hawthorne Rabbit
Hyzenthlay Hannah Gordon Rabbit
Blackavar Clifton Jones Rabbit
Chervil/Vervain Derek Griffiths Rabbit
Lord Frith Michael Hordern Deity
Black Rabbit/El-ahrairah Joss Ackland Deity
Tab Lynn Farleigh Cat
Lucy Michelle Price Human

Production[edit]

The film was originally to be directed by John Hubley, who died in 1977. His work can still be found in the film, most notably in the "fable" scene. He was replaced by the film's producer Martin Rosen, his directorial debut.

After the genesis story rendered in a narrated simple 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 watercolours. Only one of the predators, the farm cat, Tab, is given a few lines, the rest remaining mute.

The backgrounds and locations, especially Efrafa and the nearby railway, are based to the diagrams and maps in Richard Adams's book. Most of the locations in this movie either exist or were based on real spots in Hampshire and surrounding areas.

Although the film was fairly faithful to the novel, several changes were made to the storyline, mainly to decrease overdetailed complexity and improve pace and flow of the plot. In addition, the order in which some events occur is re-arranged. 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 disturbing. When the film was first submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, the BBFC passed the film with a 'U' certificate (suitable for all ages), deciding that "...Whilst the film may move children emotionally during the film's duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story is broken and a 'U' certificate was therefore quite appropriate".[3] However in 2012, the BBFC admitted that it "has received complaints about the suitability of Watership Down at U almost every year since its classification"[4]

This attitude extended to when the animated Watership Down 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.

Some marketers in the U.S. were also worried that the main promotional poster (see above) appeared too dark and might scare some children. The poster is actually showing Bigwig in a snare (his distinctive fur is clearly visible), and the image on the poster does not appear in the film, which has a far bloodier depiction of the scene.

Music[edit]

The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson, Morley replacing Williamson after the composer had fallen behind and only composed the prelude and main title theme in sketch form.[5] A list of the musical cues for the film can be found on the composer's website, which also gives information about the different composers working on the project.[6]

The soundtrack included Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", which was written by the British singer and songwriter Mike Batt (although in a different arrangement from the one released as a single). Batt also wrote other songs for the film which were not used. The composer recorded three songs with vocals by Garfunkel, but only "Bright Eyes" made it to the film. The song "When You're Losing Your Way in the Rain" has a very similar feeling and arrangement, and was recorded by the former Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone in 1979. Garfunkel's version was heard years later, on the TV series soundtrack released in 2000. The song, like many others which appeared on the TV soundtrack, was never used in the show.

Another song, "Watership Down", was written by Gerry Beckley of America for use as the theme song. It was never used, but the band recorded it for their 1976 album, Hideaway. An alternative mix can be found on the boxed set Highway.

Reception[edit]

The film has received a generally positive critical reception, with an 81% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a rating of 67% from select critics.[7] The film was nominated for Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1979. In 2004, the magazine Total Film named Watership Down the 47th greatest British film of all time and it was also ranked 15th in the "100 Greatest Tearjerkers".

Investors in the film reportedly received a return of 5,000% on their investment.[8]

Media[edit]

Picture book[edit]

A picture book of the animated film was also produced, titled The Watership Down Film Picture Book. Two editions of the book were published, one a hard-cover, the other a reinforced cloth-bound edition. The contents include stills from the film linked with a combination of narration and extracts from the script, as well as a preface written by Richard Adams and a foreword written by Martin Rosen.

Home releases[edit]

  • Watership Down (region 1, USA, currently out of print) (2002)
  • Watership Down 25th Anniversary Edition (region 4, Australia) (2003) (Big Sky Video)
  • Watership Down (Australia, 2008, Umbrella Entertainment)
  • Watership Down Deluxe Edition (region 1, USA) (7 October 2008)
  • Watership Down 2-Disc Deluxe Edition (2011)

Watership Down was originally scheduled to be released on Blu-ray in the UK in October 2010 but this release was postponed for reasons unknown. The Blu-ray release, however, was released in Germany. The UK release was eventually released on October 28, 2013, not by Warner Home Video, but by its original domestic rights holder, Universal Pictures, with a higher quality restoration and a 1.78:1 widescreen presentation.[9]

International distribution[edit]

Theatrical
Video/DVD

The film has also been dubbed in Japanese.[10][11]

TV series[edit]

Almost twenty years later a TV series with the same title 'Watership Down' was created. It had 39 episodes and was loosely based on the events of the film, albeit the storyline is more child-friendly.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Would You Believe an Industry Could Die?" Sunday Times [London, England] 15 June 1980: 63. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
  2. ^ "Watership Down". Toonhound. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  3. ^ BBFC Examiners Report 15th February 1978 http://www.bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/Watership-Down-report.pdf
  4. ^ BBFC Centenary Archive, From the Archive… a “repressive rabbit regime https://web.archive.org/web/20130313205723/http://bbfc.co.uk/case-studies/archive…-“repressive-rabbit-regime” archived from the original at http://www.bbfc.co.uk/case-studies/archive%E2%80%A6-%E2%80%9Crepressive-rabbit-regime%E2%80%9D
  5. ^ Watership Down at angelamorley.com
  6. ^ Cue sheet at angelamorley.com
  7. ^ http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/watership_down
  8. ^ Alexander Walker, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984-2000, Orion Books, 2005 p6
  9. ^ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Watership-Down-Blu-ray-John-Hurt/dp/B00EF44B52
  10. ^ Video on YouTube
  11. ^ Video on YouTube

External links[edit]