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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.
U.S. theatrical release poster
Directed byMartin Rosen
John Hubley (uncredited)
Screenplay byMartin Rosen
Based onWatership Down
by Richard Adams
Produced byMartin Rosen
Narrated byMichael Hordern
Edited byTerry Rawlings
Music byAngela Morley
Malcolm Williamson
Distributed byNepenthe Films[1] (United Kingdom)
Release dates
  • 14 October 1978 (1978-10-14) (Sweden)
  • 19 October 1978 (1978-10-19) (United Kingdom)
Running time
102 minutes[2]
CountryUnited Kingdom[3]
Budget$2.4 million

Watership Down is a 1978 British animated adventure-drama film, written, produced and directed by Martin Rosen and based on the 1972 novel by Richard Adams.[4] It was financed by a consortium of British financial institutions and was distributed by Cinema International Corporation in the United Kingdom. Released on 19 October 1978, the film was an immediate success and it became the sixth-most popular film of 1979 at the UK box office.[5]

It features the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne and Roy Kinnear, among others, and was the last film work of Zero Mostel, as the voice of Kehaar the gull. The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson. Art Garfunkel's hit song "Bright Eyes" was written by songwriter Mike Batt.


In Lapine language mythology, the world was created by the god Frith. All animals were grass eaters, living harmoniously. The rabbits multiplied, and their appetite led to a food shortage. Frith ordered the rabbit prince, El-Ahrairah, to control his people, but was scoffed at. In retaliation, Frith gave special gifts to every animal, making some into predators to hunt the rabbits. Satisfied that El-Ahrairah has learned his lesson, Frith gives rabbits the gifts of speed and cunning.

In the present, in a warren near Sandleford, a rabbit seer named Fiver has an apocalyptic vision and takes his older brother Hazel to beg the chief for evacuation. The chief dismisses them, and orders Captain Holly, the head of the warren's Owsla police force, to stop those trying to leave. Fiver and Hazel along with other rabbits named Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, Silver, and Violet manage to escape, passing a sign (meaningless to them) confirming that a residential development is coming.

They journey through the woods, avoiding several dangerous situations; until Violet - the group's only doe - is killed by a hawk. The others eventually meet a rabbit named Cowslip, who invites them to his warren, where a farmer leaves Cowslip's group ample vegetables. They are grateful, but Fiver leaves when he senses something unsettling in the atmosphere. Bigwig follows, berating Fiver for causing tension when a snare catches Bigwig. Bigwig's friends manage to free him, and Fiver learns that the farmer is protecting and feeding Cowslip's warren so that he can snare rabbits for his own meals. The group returns to its journey.

The rabbits discover Nuthanger Farm, which contains a hutch of domesticated does. Before they can free the females, the farm cat and dog chase them away. Later, they are found by Captain Holly, who recounts the destruction of Sandleford by humans as well as vicious rabbits called the "Efrafans". Fiver finally finds the hill he envisioned, Watership Down, where the group settles in with Hazel as their new chief.

They soon befriend an injured black-headed seagull named Kehaar, who flies out in search of does. That night, the rabbits return to Nuthanger Farm to free the does, but an attempt to free them fails which ends with Hazel getting shot. Fiver follows a vision of the mythical Black Rabbit to his injured brother. Kehaar returns and, while pecking out buckshot from Hazel's leg with his beak, reports of the many doe at the large Efrafa warren. Captain Holly describes it as a dangerous totalitarian state, but Hazel feels they must go there. Bigwig infiltrates the warren and is made an Owsla officer by their cruel chief, General Woundwort. Bigwig recruits several potential escapees to his cause, including Blackavar and Hyzenthlay. With Kehaar's help, the escapees find a boat to float down the river. That night, Kehaar leaves for his homeland with the gratitude of the warren.

Efrafan trackers eventually find Watership Down. Woundwort rejects Hazel's offer of peace and demands that all deserters must be turned over or Watership Down will be wiped out. While the Watership rabbits barricade their warren, Fiver slips into a trance, in which he envisions a dog running loose in the woods. His mumblings inspire Hazel to try and release the farm dog and lead it to the Efrafans. When they arrive at the farm, Hazel unties the dog and releases it while Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay use themselves as bait to make the animal follow them. Meanwhile, when the Efrafans break through the warren's defences, Woundwort goes in alone; Blackavar attacks him but is easily killed. Bigwig ambushes Woundwort and they fight to a standstill. When the dog arrives and starts attacking the Efrafans, Woundwort abandons Bigwig and fearlessly attacks the dog. However, no trace of Woundwort is ever found, which leaves his fate a mystery.

Several years later, an elderly Hazel is visited by a strange ghostly rabbit, who invites him to join his own Owsla, assuring him of Watership Down's perpetual safety. Reassured, Hazel accepts and dies peacefully. His spirit follows the visitor through the woodland and trees towards the Sun, which metamorphoses into Frith, and the afterlife, as Frith's parting advice to El-Ahrairah is heard once more.



Film rights were purchased by producer Martin Rosen.[6] He did this with the assistance of a merchant banker, Jake Eberts, who enjoyed the experience so much it launched Eberts's career in the film industry. The option for the film rights was £50,000.[7]

Rosen estimated the budget at $2.4 million. Eberts raised $1 million from the Pearson company and clients of the merchant bank Lazard.[8]

Production of the film began in 1975 by a new animation studio, formed in London by Rosen.[9] It was originally going to be directed by John Hubley, who left after disagreements with the film's producer Martin Rosen. His work can still be found in the film, most notably in the "fable" scene. He was replaced by Rosen who thereby made his directorial debut.

After the genesis story, which was rendered in a narrated simple cartoon fashion, the animation style changes to a detailed, naturalistic one. There are concessions to render the animals anthropomorphic only to suggest that 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 Tab, is given a few lines, the rest remaining mute.

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

BBFC rating

Although the film is fairly faithful to the novel, several changes were made to the storyline, mainly to decrease overly detailed complexity and improve the 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, similar to the MPAA's "G" rating), 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".[10] This choice has been quite controversial though, and in 2012, the BBFC acknowledged that it had "received complaints about the suitability of Watership Down at 'U' almost every year since its classification".[11]


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.[12] 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.[13]

The soundtrack includes Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", which was written by the British singer and songwriter Mike Batt. He 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 Watership Down TV series soundtrack released in 2000. The song, like many others which appeared on the TV soundtrack, was never used in the show.

Release and reception

Watership Down was first released to the UK on 19 October 1978, and was later released in the United States on 1 November 1978, for the latter, the movie was distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures.

The film has received mostly positive reviews from critics: it has an approval rating of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews, with an average rating of 7.2/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Aimed at adults perhaps more than children, this is a respectful, beautifully animated adaptation of Richard Adams' beloved book."[14] The film has also received a weighted average score of 64 out of 100 from Metacritic based on 9 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[15]

In a retrospective review in 2018, Ed Power of The Independent characterised the film as a "classic," that also "arguably traumatised an entire generation."[16]

The film was nominated for Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1979.[17]

When Watership Down was released, the film was very successful at the box office. According to financier Jake Eberts, the investors who put up the $50,000 development finance "got their money back with interest, plus an additional $450,000, making a total of ten times their investment".[18] Other investors in the film reportedly received a return of 5,000% on their investment.[19]


Picture book

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

Home media releases

Watership Down was initially released on VHS in the UK by Thorn EMI Video, then later by Guild Home Video and later by PolyGram Video. It was given a DVD release in 2001 by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and another in 2005 from Warner Home Video.

In the US, Watership Down was first released on CED in 1981 and was given a VHS release in 1983 by Warner Home Video. The film was re-released a number of times on VHS in the US by Warner Home Video, including through their Warner Bros. Classic Tales label, and was released on DVD in the US in 2002[20] and again in 2008. The 2002 DVD release was later duplicated for Warner Bros' 2005 DVD release in the UK, with the only difference being the film being converted to PAL format.

A UK Blu-ray for the film was planned to be released in 2010 but, due to a rights dispute between Euro-London Films, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros., the release was canceled. Warner eventually put out a BD release in Germany, where it held distribution rights. The UK Blu-ray was eventually released in 2013 by Universal using the same HD master as on Warner's 2008 DVD and 2011 German Blu-ray release. In 2014, Euro-London Films acquired the remaining US rights from Warner Bros. (who had held US distribution rights since the 1980s) and licensed the film to The Criterion Collection for release on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming in 2015 and Janus Films for theatrical repertory runs.


  1. ^ "Watership Down". British Board of Film Classification. Archived from the original on 28 December 2019.
  2. ^ "Watership Down". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 5 March 2022.
  3. ^ "Watership Down (1978)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  4. ^ Lenburg, Jeff (1999). The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons. Checkmark Books. p. 212. ISBN 0-8160-3831-7. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  5. ^ "Watership Down". Toonhound. Retrieved 18 December 2006.
  6. ^ Boston, Richard (6 August 1976). "Against the totalitarian military machines of the Axis powers is pitted a civilian army of docent, easy-going, liberal English rabbits who believe in parliamentary democracy. . ': Richard Boston, in his fifth article, reflects on the extraordinary success story of a children's book read by adults, a novel read by people who don't normally read novels". The Guardian. p. 10.
  7. ^ Eberts pp. 11–12
  8. ^ Eberts p 14
  9. ^ "'Watership Down' Goes Avemb; Pending For N.Y. Film Festival". Variety. 31 May 1978. p. 44.
  10. ^ BBFC Examiners Report 15 February 1978
  11. ^ "From the Archive… viewing a "repressive rabbit regime" « British Board of Film Classification". Archived from the original on 9 April 2012. Retrieved 29 March 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  12. ^ "Angela Morley – Watership Down cue sheets". Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  13. ^ "Angela Morley – Watership Down music cues (page 1)". Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  14. ^ "Watership Down". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 7 October 2021. Edit this at Wikidata
  15. ^ Watership Down (1978) Reviews - Metacritic, retrieved 16 August 2021
  16. ^ "How Watership Down terrified an entire generation". The Independent. 20 October 2018. Retrieved 22 March 2021.
  17. ^ "1979 Hugo Awards". The Hugo Awards. 26 July 2007. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  18. ^ Eberts pp. 17–18
  19. ^ Alexander Walker, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984–2000, Orion Books, 2005 p6
  20. ^ "On 26 March, the Enchanting Watership Down Becomes Available on DVD for the First Time Ever". Business Wire. Berkshire Hathaway. 14 December 2001. Archived from the original on 21 December 2001. Retrieved 4 August 2019 – via


  • Eberts, Jake; Illott, Terry (1990). My indecision is final. Faber and Faber.

External links