Forgotten Films: Watership Down (1978)

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 162nd in my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films

This week’s film is forgotten by me and I think many others. Back in 1972 while I was in college it was hard to find someone who had not heard of Watership Down, the novel, which was a cause célèbre at the time.

A first novel, the story of a group of intrepid rabbits was welcome in the literary world and another fantasy reached the mainstream, though most would not acknowledge that it was “fantasy.” Surely it must be an allegory or fable or something more palatable.

I believe I read the book in 1973 or whenever the paperback came out. Hardbacks were too expensive for my college budget. But I read the paperback even though I had more than I could read with the English classes and the rest. I really enjoyed the tale and was excited when I heard about the film version to come.

It took a while for the animated version to appear (1978) and I saw it then and, again, enjoyed the story. The other day, Turner Classic Films offered it as part of the rotation and my fingers clicked the Record function on the DVR.

So today I decided to watch it. I had such fond impressions left from my last viewing in 1978 that I don’t know quite what I was expecting. I got an interesting Heroic Rabbit Exodus story.

The tale follows a group of rabbits led by Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) and his brother Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers). Fiver has had a vision of impending doom for the warren where the two reside. They bring their warning to the Chief Rabbit (Ralph Richardson) who is not impressed. Hazel convinces several rabbits, including Bigwig a former leader, to leave with them and they are soon challenged by the Owsla (the rabbit equivalent of an army or militia). A group of eight rabbits manage to escape. Fiver’s vision soon comes true and the warren is destroyed by men for a building project.

The group is soon cut down to seven as the only female doe Violet is killed by a hawk. Their trip to some place that only Fiver knows is peppered with dangerous situations including a loose dog, a cat and some rats. Eventually they meet the very odd rabbit Cowslip (Denholm Elliott) who offers the group a place in his warren. But something is not good about it and Fiver tries to leave. Bigwig challenges him and in following Fiver finds himself in a snare. This intense scene was the subject utilized in the movie poster, which I feel was a bad move.

Bigwig is saved, though not without incident and the group leaves the warren which was a man-made rabbit factory where rabbits lived an easy life with food and protection until they are plucked away and never seen again.

They eventually arrive at Watership Down, Fiver’s mystical place of “milk and honey” where they run into a totalitarian warren overseen by General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) who does not to let a group of females leave and join the new less restrictive warren.

At the time of release, most animated films were aimed totally at children. This film with its brutal looking poster and intense sequences must have been somewhat problematic. There was some comic relief supplied by the seagull Kehaar (Zero Mostel).

Also, the opening and closing sequences are very stylized and contain a sort of creation myth for the rabbits involving Frith, the sun god, and El-ahrairah, the prince of all rabbits. The rest of the film presents fairly realistic representations of the rabbits.

For myself, I was somewhat disappointed this time through. The film was very episodic and seemed a little jerky. And it was not an epic fantasy type film. In several areas I found it a little dull and wished for something to happen. Probably that’s just curmudgeonly me reacting to the animation changes of the last 30 years. I’m glad I saw it again, but I would not recommend it for younger viewers.

Of course, your mileage will certainly vary. Bear in mind that my taste is in my mouth and you may love this film. If so, spread the word.

My postings may be spotty over the next month or so. I am taking on a new day job and it will require relocation, so I may not have time to view and report. I will try, but I am being realistic. I am about to have an incredibly intense five weeks. The same will apply to my Forgotten Book posts on Thursday.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.


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