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Watership Down (1978)

Courtesy of Euro London

Main image of Watership Down (1978)
35mm, 92 min, colour
DirectorMartin Rosen
Production CompanyWatership Productions
 Nepenthe Productions
ProducerMartin Rosen
ScreenplayMartin Rosen
From the novel byRichard Adams
MusicAngela Morley

Voices: John Hurt (Hazel); Richard Briers (Fiver); Michael Graham Cox (Bigwig); John Bennett (Captain Holly); Ralph Richardson (chief rabbit); Denholm Elliott (Cowslip); Mary Maddox (Clover); Zero Mostel (Kehaar); Harry Andrews (General Woundwort); Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay); Nigel Hawthorne (Captain Campion); Michael Hordern (Frith)

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When their habitat is threatened by human development, a group of rabbits venture out in search of sanctuary and a new life free of fear and tyrannical leaders.

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In a barren period for animated features, producer Martin Rosen saw the opportunity to translate the success of Richard Adams' bestselling fantasy to the big screen. After original director John Hubley was fired for favouring experimentation over productivity, Rosen took over the directorial reins himself, guiding a team of young British animators afforded relative creative autonomy thanks to unique funding from commercial banks.

In keeping with Adams' often harsh vision, the rabbits are notably less anthropomorphised than most animated animals, with Rosen's team taking a naturalistic approach to their physical attributes and wilder instincts. However, these furry creatures are still a cultured group, and the film faithfully sets out the rabbits' own folklore, religion, poetry and their own language, Lapine.

Despite some very violent scenes, the film was awarded a 'U' certificate, while the oft-repeated contention that it is too dark for children, not least with its religious and political subtext, has led to comparisons with pioneering British animation Animal Farm (d. John Halas & Joy Batchelor, 1954). Whereas Orwell's famous four-legged fable was an attack on Stalinism, Watership Down can be read as a political allegory attacking fascism and appeasement. Nevertheless, editor Terry Rawlings manages to maintain the energy of what remains a vivid adventure narrative when it could have been mired in subtext.

The film embraces the natural, rendering the rich hues of the English countryside onto canvas, while the sound effects were sourced from the actual locations in Hampshire that inspired Adams' original tale. Despite a pastoral score from Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson, the film's soundtrack was popularised by the song 'Bright Eyes', composed by Mike Batt and sung by Art Garfunkel. With a video using scenes from the film, 'Bright Eyes' scored a UK number one some six months after Watership Down's release and secured the film's place in British popular culture.

Attracting the cream of British voice talent, led by John Hurt and Richard Briers, Watership Down is an admirable example of an uncompromising British animation that initially struggled to find distribution before box office returns confounded expectations. Rosen's attempt to repeat the formula with another Adams novel, The Plague Dogs (US, 1982), was less successful, however, as was a return to Watership Down some 20 years later for a children's series (ITV, 1999), which suffered from the dilution of adult themes for a younger audience.

Stephen Collings

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Video Clips
1. Prologue (3:39)
2. Fiver's premonition (1:36)
3. Finding Watership Down (1:44)
4. Hazel's not dead (2:58)
Animal Farm (1954)
Briers, Richard (1934-2013)
Gordon, Hannah (1941-)
Hurt, John (1940-)
Kinnear, Roy (1934-1988)
Rawlings, Terry (1933-)