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 by Martin Rosen
John Hubley (uncredited)
Produced by Martin Rosen
Screenplay by Martin Rosen
Based on Watership Down
by Richard Adams
Starring John Hurt
Richard Briers
Michael Graham Cox
Simon Cadell
Harry Andrews
Zero Mostel
Narrated by Michael Hordern
Music by Angela Morley
Malcolm Williamson
Edited by Terry Rawlings
Distributed by CIC (United Kingdom)
Release date
  • 19 October 1978 (1978-10-19)
Running time
91 minutes
Country United Kingdom[1]
Language English
Budget $4.8 million[2]
Box office $3.7 million (US)[3]

Watership Down is a 1978 British animated adventure-drama film written, produced and directed by Martin Rosen and based on the novel of the same name by Richard Adams. It was financed by a consortium of British financial institutions. The film was distributed by Cinema International Corporation in the United Kingdom, while the film was distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures theatrically in the US and on home video by Warner Bros. Pictures via Warner Bros. Animation in the United States and internationally. 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.[4] It was the first animated feature film to be presented in Dolby surround sound.

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", which was written by songwriter Mike Batt, briefly features.


According to Adams' Lapine language, culture and mythology, 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 ordered the prince rabbit, 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 (now also known as "Prince with a Thousand Enemies") 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 unsettling in the atmosphere, as well as 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 cat and dog. Later, they are found by the maimed Owsla Captain Holly, who recounts the destruction of Sandleford by humans, and a mysterious group called the "Efrafrans" before falling unconscious. After he recovers, Fiver finally leads the group to the hill he envisioned, Watership Down, where the rabbits settle in with Hazel as their chief.

They befriend an acerbic injured black-headed gull, Kehaar, who offers to survey the local area for does. The rabbits return to Nuthanger Farm to free the does; Hazel is shot by a farmer and presumed dead, but Fiver has a vision and follows the apparition of the Black Rabbit of Inlé (the rabbit equivalent of the Grim Reaper) 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 enemy warren 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, and 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 all the 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 Farm and lead him to the Efrafans. He escapes with Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay.

Hazel prays to Frith, offering his life for the warren; a bargain Frith acknowledges, but does not accept. Hazel releases 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 goes in alone; Blackavar attacks him, but Woundwort slays him easily. Bigwig ambushes Woundwort and they fight to exhaustion. The dog arrives and attacks the Efrafan soldiers. Hearing the commotion, Woundwort abandons Bigwig and fearlessly confronts the dog. No trace of Woundwort is found, leaving his fate ambiguous.

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


Hazel John Hurt
Fiver Richard Briers
Bigwig Michael Graham Cox
Holly John Bennett
Chief Rabbit Ralph Richardson
Blackberry Simon Cadell
Pipkin Roy Kinnear
Silver Terence Rigby
Clover Mary Maddox
Dandelion Richard O'Callaghan
Cowslip Denholm Elliott
Kehaar Zero Mostel
Woundwort Harry Andrews
Hyzenthlay Hannah Gordon
Campion Nigel Hawthorne
Cat Lynn Farleigh
Blackavar Clifton Jones
Vervain Derek Griffiths
Frith Michael Hordern
Black Rabbit Joss Ackland


Production of the film began in 1975 and 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, 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.

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".[5] However, in 2012, the BBFC admitted that it had "received complaints about the suitability of Watership Down at U almost every year since its classification".[6] In the U.S. on the other hand, the film was rated PG due to the violent scenes.

This attitude was extended when the animated Watership Down TV series was marketed with the producers making an effort to reassure parents that the violence had been softened and that the main characters would not be permanently harmed in their adventures. Although the third season took a slightly darker tone to try and attract more of an audience, the season only aired in North America, Germany, and Greece.

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


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.[7] 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.[8]

The soundtrack includes Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", which was written by the British singer and songwriter Mike Batt.


The film was an immediate success at the UK box office and has received a mostly positive critical reception, with an 82% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 33 reviews.[9] The critical consensus reads: "Aimed at adults perhaps more than children, this is a respectful, beautifully animated adaptation of Richard Adams' beloved book." 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.[10]

Despite its success at the UK box office, the film underperformed at the US box office, earning only US$3 million against a budget of $4 million.

Rating controversy[edit]

The British Board of Film Classification have been criticized for declaring Watership Down as a U rating, which is intended for anyone at least 4 years of age. The film was released to theaters in the UK before the PG rating was created in the UK, but had never been rerated after the PG rating came. The fact that the film is an animation about rabbits makes many unaware parents mistake the film for being a typical child-friendly film, arguing that the frequency of gore, death, and disturbing imagery should have resulted in at least a 'parental guidance' rating. Some places like Quebec have given the film a G rating as well; however, in places like the United States, Australia, and Ireland, the film was rated PG due to the film's violence and disturbing imagery.


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.[citation needed]

Home media releases[edit]



  • Watership Down (2001 release: Universal Studios Home Video, region 2, UK)
  • Watership Down (2002 release: Warner Home Video, region 1, US, OOP)
  • Watership Down 25th Anniversary Edition (2003 release: Big Sky Video, region 4, Australia)
  • Watership Down (2005 release: Umbrella Entertainment, region 4, Australia)
  • Watership Down Deluxe Edition (2005 release: Warner Home Video, region 2, UK)
  • Watership Down Deluxe Edition (2008 release: Warner Home Video, region 1, US)
  • Watership Down (2011 Blu-ray release: Warner Home Video, region A/B/C, Germany)
  • Watership Down (2013 Blu-ray release: Universal Studios Home Entertainment, region B, UK); this was originally scheduled for release in October 2010, but was postponed due to a rights dispute between Universal (who holds some UK distribution rights from overseas arm CIC) and Warner Bros. (who previously released a DVD of it in the UK and owns all US and other international rights).
  • Watership Down (The Criterion Collection Spine #748 – 2015 release: region 1 DVD & region A Blu-ray, US)

International distribution[edit]



  1. ^ "Watership Down (1978)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  2. ^ FILM CLIPS: 'Rabbit Test' a Rivers Conception Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 23 May 1977: e9.
  3. ^ "Would You Believe an Industry Could Die?" Sunday Times [London, England] 15 June 1980: 63. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
  4. ^ "Watership Down". Toonhound. Retrieved 2006-12-18.
  5. ^ BBFC Examiners Report 15 February 1978 http://www.bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/Watership-Down-report.pdf
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ "Angela Morley – Watership Down cue sheets". Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  8. ^ "Angela Morley – Watership Down music cues (page 1)". Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  9. ^ "Watership Down". 1 November 1978. Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  10. ^ Alexander Walker, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984–2000, Orion Books, 2005 p6

External links[edit]