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British Movie Toons

        Watership Down - poster image

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Watership Down    (1978)
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producers: Martin Rosen / Nepenthe
cel animation
     run time: 92 mins


    "Long ago, Frith made the world..."
      Richard Adams' best-selling tale of  feuding rabbits and the search for a new
      warren on the South Downs is expertly and uniquely adapted for the big screen.

      A troop of rabbits lead by friends Hazel and Fiver flee their warren after
      Fiver has visions of their world being turned upside down by some unspeakable
      horror. That horror arrives in the form of Man who has annexed the land where
      their warren lies for property development. The troop face many hardships, a
      river crossing, snares, farmyard encounters, and nightmarish tales concerning
      the folks they left behind before they arrive at the paradise hilltop of Watership
      Down. But their idyll is not complete, for there are not enough females amongst
      them to sustain their new warren. Subsequently, Hazel is injured whilst attempting
      to release some captive does from a nearby farm. And then the collective are
      visited by a bloodied and mauled escapee from another warren. We learn
      of Efrafa and of the dreaded General Woundwort who rules by blood and
      claw. A plan is unleashed to infiltrate the tyrant's cruel realm and free the
      does and bucks he holds captive. But the battle will be bloody and desperate,
      and only the canniest rabbits will survive the encounter...

      The film begins with a fabulous, wood-cut-style prologue narrated by Michael
      Hordern. It depicts the rabbits' fable, detailing how they came to be, their
      enemies, and introducing the guiding spirit of the Black Rabbit of Inle.
      Then we get in to the film itself, with its ruddy foreground palette and
      washed watercolour backgrounds. The mood and texture is absoloutely
      spot on, capturing the inherent beauty and danger of the Downs, the
      mulched and muddied look of the working farm. Fiver's ominous visions
      of the future are suitably blood-soaked and the leaping, guiding spirit of Inle
      remains an evocative memorable image long after the story ends.
        The Black Rabbit of Inle

      Production on the film began in 1975. Producer Martin Rosen put together
      an animation team under the direction of animator John Hubley (funnily
      enough, they had a studio near Warren Street, in London). Hubley was a
      hugely-talented maverick who had worked for, and fought against, Walt
      Disney before moving to Screen Gems where he pioneered a move away
      from animated realism, to what he saw as being a marriage between design
      and story. He spent a year on the film, wrestling with ideas and themes.
      But progress was slow, and he and Rosen simply didn't see eye to eye.
      Eventually, he parted company with the project, though his spirit lives
      on in the form of that floating epilogue, when the Black Rabbit comes for
      Hazel. As for the dazzling prologue, that was further developed by Australian
      production designer Luciana Arrighi, who was, in turn inspired by native
      Aboriginal artworks...

      The road to release was very bumpy. The £2m film was independently
      financed, and thus had no distributor upon completion. Its dark themes
      and bloody content weren't everyone's cup of tea. After much rejection,
      CIC eventually agreed to handle the film, but only if the producers paid
      for the publicity. After a hasty bout of extra fundraising, the movie
      premiered at the Empire, Leicester Square, on 19th October 1978.

      In the UK, "Watership Down" expanded slowly from that platform release
      to a nationwide run that took the film in to number six in the UK box-office
      for 1979. The film found adult fans at late-night screenings, and it returned
      to cinemas in various double-bill performances. Its success was bolstered
      by the amazing popularity of Mike Batt's theme song "Bright Eyes". This
      was put out as a single in March 1979, some six months after the film had
      opened, but it went to number one for six weeks, sold 1,155,000 copies and
      became the biggest selling single of the year. That Summer, there were rabbits
      everywhere. They even infiltrated that bastion of bad taste television, "Tiswas".
      For weeks, every Saturday, this anarchic children's show featured a young lad
      (Matthew Butler) dressed in a soppy rabbit suit, whilst crying and singing
      along to the song. He eventually released his version as a rival single!

      It wasn't all plain sailing, however. "Bright Eyes" seemed to propagate the
      myth amongst newcomers that this was a soft-hearted children's film,
      and many parents voiced concern about the film's certificate. Even exhibitors
      were piqued. In July 1979, industry paper "Screen International" published
      a letter from the manager of the Peterhead Playhouse who asked why
      "Superman" had been granted an "A" certficiate, when "Watership Down"
      (which he cited as being "very violent and frightening") got away with a "U".

      The film's independent funding had given Rosen creative freedom. But that
      same freedom also meant that film's big commercial nugget,"Bright Eyes"
      almost didn't make it in to the film. Mike Batt had actually recorded three
      songs for inclusion, but they were deemed intrusive. Two were dropped,
      and in its final film form, "Bright Eyes" includes an extended orchestral
      break. And take a look at that famous film poster. Most folks only see the
      stark image of a rabbit in silhouette. But if you look closer you'll see that
      it's actually Bigwig, caught in a snare. What a brave design. It's hard to
      imagine an image like that being developed in Hollywood!

      Or indeed, the movie itself. Almost thirty years on, "Watership Down"
      remains a dynamic, evocative and at times unflinchingly brutal work.
      Bloody brilliant, in fact.

» In 1982 Martin Rosen brought us a chilling adaptation of The Plague Dogs

» In 2001 Nepenthe returned to the world of the South Downs with a
          Watership Down tv series. Brighter colours were added to the palette
          here but there were still hints of those mature themes underpinning
          the action...


     See also

     Watership Down (series)

     Watership Down on DVD

     UK DVD 
Watership Down
                Region 2 / Warner Home Video / August 2005

     USA DVD Watership Down
                Region 1 / Warner Home Video / March 2002


director:       Martin Rosen
       writer:          Martin Rosen
                           from Richard Adams' novel
       anim dir:      Tony Guy
       music:          Prologue and Main Title by Malcolm
                           Williamson, narrated by Michael Hordern.
                           all other tracks by Angela Morley except:
                           song "Bright Eyes written by Mike Batt
                           sung by Art Garfunkel
       voices:         John Hurt (Hazel)
                           Richard Briers (Fiver)
                           Michael Graham Cox (Bigwig)
                           Harry Andrews (General Woundwort)
                           Ralph Richardson (Chief Rabbit)
                           Zero Mostel (Keehar)
                           Roy Kinnear (Pipkin)
                           Denholm Elliott (Cowslip)
                           John Bennett (Captain Holly)
                           Simon Cadell (Blackberry)
                           Richard O'Callaghan (Dandelion)
                           Terence Rigby (Silver)
                           Nigel Hawthorne (Captain Campion)
                           Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay)
                           Mary Maddox (Clover)
                           Lyn Farleigh (Cat)
                           Michael Hordern (Voice of Frith)
                           Joss Ackland (Black Rabbit)
                           Michelle Price (Lucy)
                           Derek Griffiths (Vermin)
                           Clifton Jones (Blackavar)


      On the web

       CMG Fan-site
       One big glossy film page here. Features quality screen
       grabs and MPEGs...

       Steward's Pages
       Steward's page has a fine gallery of images for you...

       Watership Down

       And this place really captures the spirit of the movie with some big
       screen grabs and info...

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© Watership Down Productions Ltd 1978 / F2006