Martin Rosen, John Hubley, “Watership Down” (1978)
A vivid and beautifully presented tale, this British film portrays what might be a foundation myth of an imaginary community of rabbits living in Watership Down in southern England. The community is founded by a small group of bunnies that break away from a warren in Sandleford when one of their number, Fiver (who has the gift of foresight), foresees a terrible disaster that could wipe out their people. Fiver (Richard Briers) and his older brother Hazel (John Hurt) beg their leader to take them all to safety but the leader refuses to listen to them and orders his lieutenant, Captain Holly (John Bennett), to arrest them. Fiver, Hazel and their friend Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) lead a small breakaway group and flee through the woods to escape Captain Holly’s forces, on the way passing a sign (which they would not have been able to read, less understand) that a residential development by humans is being constructed in their area.
The group survives many ordeals but unfortunately the only doe among them is taken by a hawk. The young rabbits take shelter with another community of rabbits but Fiver learns that these rabbits are being fattened for food by humans. Leaving these other rabbits, the group continues its journey until the rabbits sight the hill known as Watership Down in the distance and Fiver recognises it as the place of salvation in his earlier visions. (In the meantime their original community at Sandleford has been destroyed by humans and only Captain Holly has been able to escape and reach them to tell the sorry story.) They all reach Watership Down where they meet an injured seagull, Kehaar (Zero Mostel), who agrees to help them find does so they can found a new community.
The rest of the film follows the new Watership Down community in finding young does: after one failed attempt to free some does from a farm, the rabbits are led by Kehaar to another warren community ruled by oppressive tyrant General Woundwort. Bigwig infiltrates the community and is made an officer by Woundwort; in this capacity, Bigwig persuades several does and a few bucks to join him and move to Watership Down. The escapees manage to flee to Watership Down with Kehaar’s help but Woundwort and his forces manage to track them down and besiege the Watership Down community. While Bigwig manages to hold Woundwort at bay, Hazel and a couple of escapees entice a dog from the farm where they had previously tried to free some does to follow them back to Watership Down to confront Woundwort (Harry Andrews).
The film moves briskly with some gaps in the narrative, including one at the very climax of the film from which one has to deduce that things work out well for Watership Down – especially as the film jumps a few years into the future to reveal Hazel in his old age. The leaps in plot are unfortunate as much information that could reveal something of the personalities of Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig and Kehaar is lost and viewers have to make quite major assumptions to make sense of the film. The plot is otherwise highly absorbing and intense with many layers of meaning, and young children who watch the film will learn quite a few lessons about loyalty and camaraderie, courage under tremendous stress and pressure, resilience and self-sacrifice. Creatures that are the very symbols of vulnerability and fragility demonstrate enormous bravery when they are most afraid, and lay down their lives and freedom not only to help their own but to help and heal outsiders like Kehaar and to rescue other animals suffering from enslavement.
In its presentation as a foundation myth, following a creation story explaining how rabbits came to be and why they have so many enemies, and concluding with the death of Hazel and his entry into the afterlife to join the Rabbit Creator God, “Watership Down” can be viewed as a survey of religion and society, and of how societies use stories and legends to create and sustain their own identities and pass on significant values and morals to their young. The film’s visuals are rich with detailed English rural backgrounds painted in watercolour though the main characters are rather roughly drawn and lack much individuality. The cast voicing the animals are perhaps rather too mature and younger 20-something actors would have been more appropriate.
Despite the film having originally received a rating from British censors suggesting that it is suitable for young viewers, it is perhaps better seen by older children and teenagers as it is actually a complex and layered film about politics and in particular about choosing between political freedom and material security.