Watership Down [1978] [HCF REWIND]

Directed by:
Written by: ,
Starring: , ,

Runtime 101 mins

Available to buy on DVD


When I was growing up, I adored movies, particularly animated movies.  But for me it was never Disney, the first film I saw at the cinema was ‘The Jungle Book’; and I literally slept through it (though have come to appreciate it later).  No, for me it was all about the British invasion of 1978, when Disney was on the wane.  It was all about ‘Watership Down’ in 1978 and a few years later ‘The Plague Dogs’ in 1982, both from Richard Adams novels, both created wonderfully for the screen by Martin Rosen.

‘Watership Down’ has stuck with me since the first time I saw it in the early 80’s.  It was the first film I ever saw on VHS.  I remember the first trip to our local video store, being handed a catalogue of all the films they had (and having weekly updates to slip into said catalogue) and walking away with ‘Watership Down’ to watch.  The film just spoke to me, and I hired it out whenever I could.  I learnt the script almost off by heart, I read the book, I even at the age of maybe 9 or 10 did an assembly on it at school.  A total geek in childhood, this film continues to speak to me on a variety of levels in adult life.  The music, mostly composed by Angela Morley, in just over a week(!) still stands as some of the best British music ever.  The look of the film, which some deride (and are therefore crazy) is beautiful.  From the woodcut style opening, presumably done by previous director, veteran animator John Hubley, who had worked for Disney in the golden age on the likes of Bambi, worked on the film for a year, before Rosen took over, through to the actual, gorgeously rendered scenes in the film itself, this film oozes quality, and is certainly not a quick knock off of a film.   The characters are for the most part three dimensional, which adds to the overall quality.  The leadership of Hazel, voiced wonderfully by John Hurt (who from this film onwards became one of my favourite actors – ever) comes naturally through the story, he isn’t strong and powerful, but wise and determined and even those with more power than him (Bigwig, Holly) fall behind him as the film progresses.  The comic relief, from Kehaar the seagull, voiced by Zero Mostel, is also believable, credible, and yes, funny.

For a U film, the film is dark but growing up, I was never once traumatised by this film.  Scared, maybe, emotionally rocked, definitely; by Violet’s abrupt death, before we even get to know her, by Captain Holly’s torture and his retelling of the warren being gassed by the developers, by Hazel getting wounded and left to die. Hard hitting stuff.  By Bigwig, the strongest character in the film facing up to the horrifyingly General Woundwort as he defends the warren, and utters the line ‘My Chief’s told me to defend this run.’ It chokes me every time.

This film was made way before animated films had ‘names’ attached to voice characters.  Nowadays if it doesn’t have a Tom Hanks or a Hugh Jackman voicing, it’s usually a dud straight to video crapfest (or sometimes those are the ones that get the names attached, but you get me).  However, back in the animation world of the 70’s, it was near unheard of to have top talent like Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliot, Richard Briers, Roy Kinnear, Zero Mostel, John Hurt etc voicing a cartoon!  Luckily that’s what we got and the film just bristles because of it, so many quotable lines.

‘It floats Hazel, it floats’

‘There’s a dog loose in the woods’

‘All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.’

‘Dogs aren’t dangerous!’

I could go on, ‘Can you run, I think not’…ok, i’ll stop.

So for the few of you that haven’t seen this film, what is it about?

A bunch of rabbits live in a warren, enjoying life, when Fiver, a young rabbit who has visions, sees the imminent destruction of his warren.  He and his brother, Hazel, try and fail to convince their elders that they should leave, so they set out on their own, narrowly avoiding the death that follows in the warren.  They set off on a journey of danger and discovery and when they finally reach a new home at Watership Down, they find that they are still not safe and have to do battle with a neighbouring Warren called Efrafa, run by the dictator like General Woundwort.

A simple story done rather well.

So what’s not to like?   Whenever I mention this film, people always point to the ‘Bright Eyes’ segment of the film, a pop song from the late 70’s sung by Art Garfunkel, and written by Mike Batt of Wombles fame, and how horrible it is, and how this film is terrible because of it.  Huh?  Yes, its not the greatest song in the world, but it serves a purpose and is the only ‘song’ in the film – Rosen didn’t even want it in there, but this film deserves another watch by anyone traumatised by that song, cos its bloody marvellous.

Blood, did someone mention blood?

Yes, there’s also quite a lot of blood in this film, some scenes are quite hard to watch, the snare scene comes to mind, the Dog loose at the end too.  But this film just has a sheer inventiveness, a mix of wonder, adventure, peril and daring that Martin Rosen took with him to his other Richard Adams adaptation, ‘The Plague Dogs’ (reviewed elsewhere on this site), even if that film has little of the warmth of ‘Watership Down’.  After all, The Plague Dogs has a sequence where a dog shoots a man in the face with a shotgun, how much more brutal can you get.

‘Watership Down’ is one of those films that everyone knows about, but few have really rewatched in recent years.  With animation, hand-drawn, taking a nose dive anywhere outside of Japan and France, to be replaced by sometimes wonderful, sometimes hideously lazy CGI animation, do yourself a favour and go back to the wonderful ‘Watership Down’ and equally wonderful ‘The Plague Dogs’ and be rewarded.  Its available on DVD, and is cheap.  The Brit DVDs have a few interviews with the makers on them, an Australian DVD from a few years back had a fab commentary with Rosen and Film Threat’s Chris Gore.  The only thing that makes me really sad is  I just wish I had seen it on the big screen. 

35 year anniversary, could still happen.

The film had a spin off TV series about 10 years ago, which was watered down and depressing, luckily no-one has said the word remake about this one yet.  Apart from me, darn it.

Shhhhh, keep it quiet, just watch the original.  It’s ace.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Avatar photo
About Peter Hearn 5 Articles
Writer/Director, sometime Editor. Currently I am working on promoting short silent horror movie 'Motto' whilst putting the finishing touches to feature horror 'Scrawl'. I love movies, watching and making them. Check us out at www.scrawlfilm.com or follow us on fb at www.facebook.com/scrawlmovie


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.