"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.
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
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
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.
1982 Martin Rosen brought us a chilling adaptation of The
In 2001 Nepenthe
returned to the world of the South Downs with a
Down tv series. Brighter colours were added to the palette
here but there
were still hints of those mature themes underpinning
Down on DVD
2 / Warner Home Video / August 2005
1 / Warner Home Video / March 2002
Richard Adams' novel
Prologue and Main Title by Malcolm
narrated by Michael Hordern.
other tracks by Angela Morley except:
"Bright Eyes written by Mike Batt
by Art Garfunkel
Richard Briers (Fiver)
Graham Cox (Bigwig)
Andrews (General Woundwort)
Ralph Richardson (Chief Rabbit)
Roy Kinnear (Pipkin)
Denholm Elliott (Cowslip)
John Bennett (Captain Holly)
Terence Rigby (Silver)
Hawthorne (Captain Campion)
Hordern (Voice of Frith)
Ackland (Black Rabbit)