Directed By: Martin Rosen
Starring: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson
Tag line: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you... but first they must catch you"
Trivia: Most of the locations in this movie either exist or were based on real places in Hampshire, England and surrounding areas
Having never read the classic adventure novel by Richard Adams, I have no idea how 1978’s Watership Down, an animated film written and directed by Martin Rosen, stacks up against the original work. What I do know, however, is that the movie, about a group of wayward rabbits looking for a new home, creates a fascinating little world of its own, one that’s every bit as exciting as it is dark and dramatic.
The rabbits of the Sandleford warren have been living the good life for some time, with plenty of food and a deep shelter to keep them safe from predators. But according to young Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers), danger is on its way. A clairvoyant, Fiver sees a future in which the fields of Sandleford run red with blood, and tries to warn the others that they must leave the area as soon as possible. But seeing as he’s a runt, only a handful of rabbits take him seriously. Defying the orders of their leader to stay put, Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt), along with Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), Blackberry (Simon Cadell), Pipkin (Roy Kinnear) and others manage to sneak away in the middle of the night.
According to Fiver, there’s a lush field on top of a tall hill just waiting to be found, a place where they can all be safe and happy once again. But getting there isn’t going to be easy. The first day out, one of them is carried away by a hawk, and later on a few others will encounter an angry dog, a barnyard cat (Lynn Farleigh) and a farmer armed with a shotgun. With the help of a gull named Kehaar (Zero Mostel), the rabbits do eventually find their hill, only to realize they need more rabbits, including some females, if they’re to make this peaceful oasis a true warren.
More than simply telling a story, Watership Down draws us into its unique world, a place where rabbits have their own mythology, as well as an intricate, and sometimes oppressive, system of government. The opening scene, narrated by Sir Ralph Richardson (being a fan of both Dragonslayer and Time Bandits, his voice was immediately recognizable to me), relates the tale of the Sun God Firth, who the rabbits believe created the entire world; and El-Ahrairah, Prince of the Bunnies, whose arrogance caused Firth to curse the rabbits, turning the other animals against them. Along with explaining how rabbits got their speed and keen sense of impending danger, this brief segment establishes up-front the basis of its character’s belief system, which later on will expand to include death itself (voiced by Joss Ackland, The Black Rabbit collects the souls of the deceased).
As the movie plays out, we also learn about the rabbits’ occasionally unjust social structure, including how the Owsla (a sort of police force) carries out the orders of the head rabbit, who sets the rules for the entire warren (during the course of their adventure, Hazel, Fiver, and the others encounter the tyrannical Woundwort, voiced by Harry Andrews, who rules over a large group, and punishes those who challenge him. The film’s electrifying final act features a showdown between the main characters and Wormwound’s Owsla).
Director Rosen (aided in large part, I’m sure, by Richard Adams’ novel) presents all this in a manner that makes it easy to comprehend, yet never once does he pander to his audience with needless exposition. Instead, he provides us with the details, and then asks us to work it all out for ourselves.
In addition, Watership Down benefits from having a talented group of actors toiling behind the microphone. Leading the way is John Hurt as Hazel, the rabbit that becomes the group’s leader; and his most powerful ally is Michale Graham Cox’s Bigwig, a former Owsla official and easily the most battle-ready of the bunch (he helps them escape that first night by standing against fellow Owsla Captain Holly, voiced by John Bennett). For comic relief, there’s Roy Kinnear as the cowardly Pipkin, and Zero Mostel (in his final screen role) as the misguided yet ultimately kind-hearted Kehaar. These performers, as well as all the others, infuse their characters with a distinct personality, allowing an already intriguing story to burst convincingly to life.
Though he would direct only one other film (1982’s The Plague Dogs), Martin Rosen achieved a minor miracle with Watership Down by taking a beloved book and turning it into an equally respected motion picture.