Skip to main content

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down
(1978)

(SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate.



As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much informed by an Old Testament view of God, such that Frith treats his rabbit subjects (and particularly El-ahrairah) with impunity, rather than mercy. They are, as C3P0 might say, made to suffer. The novel’s main narrative is broken intermittently with stories concerning the attempts by El-ahrairah to outwit Frith, or punishment by his god, or his encounters with the Black Rabbit of Inle (in the film, Hazel offers himself to Black Rabbit to protect his own, as El-ahrairah does in the novel; in both instances, Frith turns him down).



It’s striking how fully developed Adams’ world is, in a manner not so dissimilar to George Lucas’ pre-fabricated Star Wars universe. Both preoccupy themselves with the Campbellian hero’s journey, after all. Adams arranges his stage with prophets (Fiver, voiced by Richard Briers), no-nonsense heroes (Bigwig, voiced by Michael Graham Cox) and sidekicks/comic relief (Kehaar, voiced by Zero Mostel, who manages to be the amusing centre of the movie while also occupying what is ostensibly the Han Solo role, right down to swooping to the rescue at a crucial moment).



Underpinning and permeating these archetypes is an absolutely integral belief system. Rather than the Force, it is Frith and the Black Rabbit that are a simple fact of existence; the picture is bookended by Frith’s individualisation of El-ahriarah as a rabbit, and an older Hazel shuffling off his mortal coil in the company of the Black Rabbit; so too, at the midpoint, there comes the inclusion of Art Garfunkle’s memorably crooned Bright Eyes (more famous than the film itself), as Fiver is led to his brother Hazel through a vision quest. 


Uncartoonified design, fitting the pigeonhole-less book, Watership Down, despite being directed by an American, fits into a highly individualised tradition of British animation (until the industry essentially became Aardman). The anthropomorphism is subtle, such that you’re barely aware (barring Keehar) of mouth movements as the (outstanding) voice cast deliver their dialogue. 


The results are simple yet poetic and elegiac, visualised through pastoral pastel backgrounds and naturalistic behaviour and movements from the landscape’s animal inhabitants. Filmmakers often say they’re attempting to honour source material while the end product reveals nothing of the sort, so betraying their essential cynicism, but Rosen genuinely means it and genuinely delivers. Areas that would no doubt have been discarded under a Hollywood umbrella, such as the distinctive rabbit language, are retained without, rightly, feeling the need to explain; audiences can readily understand.


Adams’ book is replete with sex and death. The former is less prevalent in the picture, albeit remains the motivating force for all the problems encountered during the second half of the picture. Of note is that Adams’ presents the matriarchal rabbit kingdom as patriarchal, with does objectified as producers young, which has earned it understandable criticism from some quarters. The novel also features liberal helpings of coprophagia. As Rosen notes, no one was sure initially if this was a children’s or adult book, and the film follows that guiding principal, often regarded as much too distressing for young children by parents yet contrastingly loved dearly by those who appreciate a different, distinctive, intelligent tale, one that refuses to talk down to or coddle its audience.


And it isn’t as if the makers attempted to hoodwink cinemagoers; the poster depicts Bigwig caught in a snare in! Blood is everywhere in the film, both literal and metaphorical, and there is no shying away from animal casualties; this is animation poised between the comfort of anthropomorphism and the reality of a natural history programme (as a reminder of its heartland feel, we even hear “This is the BBC Home Service” on the radio at one point).


There is also much hallucinatory imagery, from Fiver’s vision of blood encroaching across a field (very much adopting the tone of a horror movie, sinisterly corrupting the countryside Just as the machines will in due course) to Holly recounting the terrifying destruction of the warren, expressionistic rabbits suffocating in blocked holes, grasping for air. One wonders if the film didn’t impact on Vincent Ward when he was making Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, what with the interpretation of the great metal beast that is a train as a messenger from Frith.


Sound is also used in an uncompromising way, very much following the horror genre. Angela Morley turned five minutes of Malcolm Williamson cues into a full score in only two weeks, and takes in themes from the idyllic to the martial, almost imperially so, of the Efrafan in their pursuit of the Hazel’s rabbits. The climax is notable in that (like the novel) it utilises what would become the fake-out of a thousand slasher movies or Thomas Harris novels; just when you thought it was safe, General Woundwort returns.


There is compression here, but little of it leaves one complaining how much better the the film would have been if only it stuck to the source material. Changes include having Holly come across the Efrafans during his escape from the doomed warren (rather than as part of an expedition sent by Hazel to find mates), but this doesn’t really hurt the structure; while it would be quire possible to make a two-and-a-half-hour Watership Down (apparently the ‘90s TV series loosely followed, and sanitised, the novel), and make it riveting to watch, that just isn’t the way with animations, which, conscious of viewer ages and resources, generally stick to the 90-minute mark. Perhaps Fiver is rather forgotten in the end (he doesn’t get his moment at the climax, unlike the novel) but he does cue up events with the warning “There’s a dog loose in the wood”.


Some find the animation style crude, judged by today’s standards, and it was even called out in relation to the cost-cutting approach of Disney at that time (Time Out was scathing, writing it off as a glorified radio play and lacking any of the novel’s punch), yet I find it difficult to countenance such criticism with what is so persuasively charming and distinctive.


Also distinctive is one of the best voice casts ever assembled for an animation, headed up by Hurt’s unusually heroic role as Hazel, Briers perfectly encapsulating Fiver’s woozy vulnerability, and Pipkin even looking a little like Roy Kinnear. Ralph Richardson’s Chief Rabbit is almost a boorish civil servant, oblivious to the danger he is in, while Denholm Elliot’s Cowslip, resident of the snared warren, is a fantastically louche, flaky, creepy rabbit poet (“Where are you going, stream…”), sitting idly by and ignoring suffering on his doorstep (so a rabbit very much humanised by human intent). 


Indeed, one most regrets the reduction in representation of characters from the novel when one scans the supporting cast; names such as Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay), Nigel Hawthorne (Campion) and Derek Griffiths (Vervain). Michael Hordern and Joss Ackland are marvellous as Frith and the Back Rabbit respectively, the former instilling a hauntingly wistful authority, while Harry Andrews is a suitably imperious Woundwort (“Dogs aren’t dangerous!”)


And, of course, there’s seagull Keehar’s “plenty good fella”, wonderfully brought to life by Zero Mostel in his last film role. He’s the comic relief, granted the best hero moment and also the biggest laugh (and shock), exclaiming “Piss off!” to the rabbits when he first meets them (this is in the novel, but it’s still an eyebrow-raiser in a U certificate family film). While there’s little similarity between the plots of Watership Down and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, both Robert C O'Brien's novel and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, the latter released four years after Watership Down, also include a feathered slapstick sidekick in the form of dim-watt crow Jeremy (voiced by Dom DeLuise).


Watership Down went down extremely well in the UK, but was a failure in the US. Perhaps its uncompromising approach was a bit of a sucker punch in a country so used to Disney niceties. Still, it did well enough that Rosen followed it up with an adaptation of Adams’ The Plague Dogs (also with Hurt and Hawthorne). The in-the-making BBC CGI adaptation of Watership is inevitable, I guess, although I will be extremely surprised if it remains as true to the novel as Rosen (conversely, it would be nice to see faithful remakes of the likes of Mrs Frisby, The Iron Giant and The Fantastic Mr Fox one day). Watership Down’s greatest strength is that it carries the air of undoctored truth, neither patronising nor appeasing its audience; nature is cruel, harsh, resplendent and beguiling in this melancholic classic. It’s one of the best British animations ever made.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016) (SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners (1996) (SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody loves a tax inspector. They’re beyond the pale!

Too Many Crooks (1959) (SPOILERS) The sixth of seven collaborations between producer-director Mario Zampi and writer Michael Pertwee, Too Many Crooks scores with a premise later utilised to big box-office effect in Ruthless People (1986). A gang of inept thieves kidnap the wife of absolute cad and bounder Billy Gordon (Terry-Thomas). Unfortunately for them, Gordon, being an absolute cad and bounder, sees it as a golden opportunity, rather enjoying his extra-marital carry ons and keeping all his cash from her, so he refuses to pay up. At which point Lucy Gordon (Brenda De Banzie) takes charge of the criminal crew and turns the tables.

Oh, I love funny exiting lines.

Alfred Hitchcock  Ranked: 26-1 The master's top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here .

Well, it must be terribly secret, because I wasn't even aware I was a member.

The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970) (SPOILERS) No, not Joseph P Farrell’s book about the Nazi secret weapons project, but rather a first-rate TV movie in the secret-society ilk of later flicks The Skulls and The Star Chamber . Only less flashy and more cogent. Glenn Ford’s professor discovers the club he joined 22 years earlier is altogether more hardcore than he could have ever imagined – not some student lark – when they call on the services he pledged. David Karp’s adaptation of his novel, The Brotherhood of the Bell is so smart in its twists and turns of plausible deniability, you’d almost believe he had insider knowledge.

Now all we’ve got to do is die.

Without Remorse (2021) (SPOILERS) Without Remorse is an apt description of the unapologetic manner in which Amazon/Paramount have perpetrated this crime upon any audiences foolish enough to think there was any juice left in the Tom Clancy engine. There certainly shouldn’t have been, not after every attempt was made to run it dry in The Sum of All Our Fears and then the stupidly titled Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit . A solo movie of sometime Ryan chum John Clark’s exploits has been mooted awhile now, and two more inimitable incarnations were previously encountered in the forms of Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber. Like Chris Pine in Shadow Recruit , however, diminishing returns find Michael B Jordan receiving the short straw and lead one to the conclusion that, if Jordan is indeed a “star”, he’s having a hell of a job proving it.

A drunken, sodden, pill-popping cat lady.

The Woman in the Window (2021) (SPOILERS) Disney clearly felt The Woman in the Window was so dumpster-bound that they let Netflix snatch it up… where it doesn’t scrub up too badly compared to their standard fare. It seems Tony Gilroy – who must really be making himself unpopular in the filmmaking fraternity, as producers’ favourite fix-it guy - was brought in to write reshoots after Joe Wright’s initial cut went down like a bag of cold, or confused, sick in test screenings. It’s questionable how much he changed, unless Tracy Letts’ adaptation of AJ Finn’s 2018 novel diverged significantly from the source material. Because, as these things go, the final movie sticks fairly closely to the novel’s plot.

They wanted me back for a reason. I need to find out why.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) (SPOILERS) I wasn’t completely down on Joss Whedon’s Justice League (I had to check to remind myself Snyder retained the director credit), which may be partly why I’m not completely high on Zack Snyder’s. This gargantuan four-hour re-envisioning of Snyder’s original vision is aesthetically of a piece, which means its mercifully absent the jarring clash of Whedon’s sensibility with the Snyderverse’s grimdark. But it also means it doubles down on much that makes Snyder such an acquired taste, particularly when he has story input. The positive here is that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell. The negative here is also that Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the luxury of telling the undiluted, uncondensed story Snyder wanted to tell (with some extra sprinkles on top). This is not a Watchmen , where the unexpurgated version was for the most part a feast.

Maybe back in the days of the pioneers a man could go his own way, but today you got to play ball.

From Here to Eternity (1953) (SPOILERS) Which is more famous, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf in From Here to Eternity or Airplane! spoofing the same? It’s an iconic scene – both of them – in a Best Picture Oscar winner – only one of them – stuffed to the rafters with iconic actors. But Academy acclaim is no guarantee of quality. Just ask A Beautiful Mind . From Here to Eternity is both frustrating and fascinating for what it can and cannot do per the restrictive codes of the 1950s, creaky at times but never less than compelling. There are many movies of its era that have aged better, but it still carries a charge for being as forthright as it can be. And then there’s the subtext leaking from its every pore.

To our glorious defeat.

The Mouse that Roared (1959) (SPOILERS) I’d quite forgotten Peter Sellers essayed multiple roles in a movie satirising the nuclear option prior to Dr. Strangelove . Possibly because, while its premise is memorable, The Mouse that Roared isn’t, very. I was never that impressed, much preferring the sequel that landed (or took off) four years later – sans Sellers – and this revisit confirms that take. The movie appears to pride itself on faux- Passport to Pimlico Ealing eccentricity, but forgets to bring the requisite laughs with that, or the indelible characters. It isn’t objectionable, just faintly dull.