Watership Down becomes a film,

in October 1978.


Nepenthe's leaping rabbits
Sorry, but this should be the film advertising image.
The public face of the Martin Rosen's 1978 film 'Watership Down'.
This is the quad for the film. The original is 40 X 30 inches (1.01m x 0.76m).
High-res
This is an image seen all over the UK during late 1978 and all of 1979. It first appeared on posters advertising the film; with the stark tagline: 'All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a thousand enemies, and when they catch you they will kill you.' In the UK the quote was not continued as it is in the book: 'But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.' At least the US posters did include, 'But first they must catch you.'

This image very soon appeared on the Penguin paperback edition of the book (although the Puffin edition, sold as a children's book, kept the familiar Pauline Baines painting) and on tie-in merchandising such as the film soundtrack LP. Probably the most popular of the merchandising was the Watership Down Film Picture Book: over 250 stills with specially written linking text and Preface by Richard Adams and a Foreword by Martin Rosen, the film's director. Most of the images below come from this wonderful and unusual book (for a start the pages are black with white text...).

It has been said that this stark and haunting image was used to put parents off bringing young children to the film. Martin Rosen wanted an 'A' certificate, roughly equivalent to today's 'PG', but got a 'U' instead. To avoid the public thinking this was a 'Disney' style film this image was used with it's grim quote. I shall leave you to ponder on what effect it actually had on the public, but it was not the expected one! (A clue: this is a quite naturalistic Bigwig in the snare... but most people don't notice the wire) One thing I can say is that these posters were particularly effective in the close confines of the London Underground system! I now know what a "shape" may have looked like.

Nepenthe's leaping rabbits
Those leaping rabbits were Nepenthe Productions', Martin Rosen's production company, trademark. Here they are again, a bit bigger this time:
Nepenthe Production's Leaping Rabbit trademark

They appeared on some merchandising, though it has to be said there wasn't much. Watership Down was released before merchandising had become commonplace, and the film was not initially expected to have a mass-market audience.

Nepenthe's leaping rabbits

The film's view of Sandleford at sunset.
The film's view of Sandleford at sunset.
This is the opening scene of the film: the Sandleford warren at sunset. Now those few of you who have the film picture book will notice that this is back to front. Well, it's not. The picture in the book, along with quite a few others, are back to front; this is how it actually appears in the film. The real location is quite similar. Hazel will soon appear from the undergrowth by those trees. The notice board is a little way off to the left of this picture. This is as naturalistic as any animated film up to that time, and for many years later, got.

Nuthanger Farm at evening, the rabbits first encounter with the farm.
Nuthanger Farm at evening, the rabbits first encounter with the farm.

This is the film version of Nuthanger Farm which is very similar to how it appears in real life. In this scene Nuthanger is shown in the half light of very early morning, just before dawn. Later in the film we see the farm at night and mid-afternoon. Compared to other locations; most notably Watership Down itself, and Newtown churchyard; Nuthanger is portrayed very accurately, though it is odd that this is not the case with all locations, notably Watership Down itself.

Interestingly the Railway Arch is another location that is shown accurately in the film, even down to the marks where the arch was extended. These marks are difficult enough to notice in the photographs, but they are accurately drawn (albeit on the wrong side of the tracks) in the film.

Nepenthe's leaping rabbits

Holly, recalling his experiences in Efrafa.
Holly, recalling his experiences in Efrafa.
Now here's a wonderful image. I would like to say it's from the film but in fact it's not. This scene never appears in the film and must have been edited out quite late on, at least after the Film Picture Book had been prepared. The rabbit is Holly, probably my favourite character from the film - he seems to be very much the Holly I imagined. However this powerful image never made it to the final cut of the film, and I would dearly love to see the rest of this sequence - part of his escape from Efrafa I presume.

Hazel and Blackberry.
Blackberry asking Hazel to reconsider going on the raid to Nuthanger Farm.
This is another of my favourites. It's Hazel and Blackberry discussing the raid on Nuthanger. The reason I like it is because both rabbits look so 'in character'. Blackberry looks intelligent and Hazel looks, well, like Hazel! There are two interesting things to note: The hill on which Nuthanger stands has been enlarged, probably to make it stand out from the background; and the painting of the foreground plants to give the impression of evening light.

This image, like the one of Holly, doesn't actually appear in the film, at least not in this form. We see this scene right enough, but at no time in the scene do Hazel and Blackberry look at each other directly. As the conversation between the two proceeds first Blackberry looks away towards Nuthanger farm in the distance, then Hazel looks, but before he turns back there is a fade to Nuthanger farm itself, while the conversation continues as a voice-over. I presume that this particular image comes from a point in the conversation after the fade, and that fade was done during editing to keep the pace up. Thus, somewhere, there is a few seconds, at least, of fully completed animation that we have never seen.

There are other cut scenes. The biggest, and possibly the biggest loss to the film as a whole is about 3 minutes 30 seconds of El-ahrairah and the Story of the King's Lettuce. Yes, we might have seen King Darzin, Prince Rainbow and Hufsa on screen! By all accounts, and they are several, it was more or less completely animated and was certainly fully scored by Angela Morley. Maybe a version of it still exists....

A moment from the destruction of the Sandleford warren.
A stylised moment from Holly's description of the destruction of the
Sandleford warren.
Holly brought news of the destruction of the old Sandleford warren to Watership Down, the destruction that Fiver had predicted. It was portrayed in the film in a visually stylised 'nightmare' sequence to a voice-over by Holly. In the film he was the only survivor of, and thus only witness to, that destruction. In the book Bluebell survives with him.

Who this terrified rabbit is, or was, we cannot know. All we know is that he died because he was in our way.

Nepenthe's leaping rabbits
Blackberry and Dandelion tell Fiver that Hazel has been shot.
Blackberry and Dandelion tell Fiver that Hazel has been shot.

The raid on Nuthanger farm ended with the shooting of Hazel. Here we see Blackberry and Dandelion tell Fiver that his brother will not return to Watership Down. This is the start of the 'Bright Eyes' sequence. The only thing wrong with this is Fiver's ears, just what are they doing?

The film Watership Down has a wonderful
score. Malcolm Williamson and Angela Morley drew heavily for inspiration on the styles of
Delius, Debussy and Satie and the string
tradition of English music to create
a lyrical and emotional evocation of nature.
Angela Morely, who died in early 2009,
set the record straight about
Williamson's and her
involvement with the film.

Blackberry knows all sorts of interesting facts about Watership Down.

Fiver follows the Black Rabbit to find Hazel during the Bright Eyes sequence.
Fiver follows the Black Rabbit to find Hazel during the Bright Eyes sequence.
This is not from the Film Picture Book, it's a greetings card.
Some people didn't like the Bright Eyes sequence. Some complained about the song, saying that it interfered with the narrative flow of the film, some critics felt the animation style, which was more stylised and much more metaphoric and surreal than the rest of the film, didn't work. The audience seemed, from what I remember, to universally love it. People may have forgotten the rest of the film, but they don't forget Bright Eyes, neither the song, nor the animation. For many people this IS Watership Down. Personally I feel the sequence is almost perfectly judged. It provides a welcome interlude in the story, the imagery is wonderful and the arrangement of the song is near perfect, though the production, with Art Garfunkel's voice being faded in through the first verse, is a problem. Overall though, I feel this sequence is a triumph.

'Can you run?' Hissed the cat.
'"Can you run?" Hissed the cat. "I think not... I think not...."
There is one quote from the film that I have often used: "Can you run?" hissed the cat. "I think not... I think not...". The cat is not particularly well-drawn in the other scenes but here she, Tab to give her her name, comes alive - much to Hazel's discomfort.

Woundwort and Bigwig fight it out.
Woundwort and Bigwig fight it out.
The film of Watership Down is sometimes described as being violent. This scene, the all out fight between Bigwig and General Woundwort, is the main reason why. Here we see Bigwig crumbling under Woundwort's relentless pressure. Disney it isn't, but then again it's nothing compared to most mainstream live-action films. It depicts rabbits as being able to attack each other and prepared to defend themselves with tooth and claw.

Nepenthe's leaping rabbits

Hazel recognises the stranger.
Hazel recognizes the Black Rabbit, or is it El-ahrairah...
or is it both? Or is it a kind of a dream?
Hazel's death, the final sequence of the film of Watership Down, is one of the best animation sequences I have ever seen, anywhere. It handles a very difficult subject - death itself. This is not cute cuddly bunnies, this is not blood and gore, this is simply the peaceful passing of a old rabbit. It is a very powerful sequence and I make no apology for showing as much of it as I can - these four images. However it is not perfect, though it is very, very technically accomplished. The imperfection comes about from the simplification of the book that was necessary for the film. In the book El-ahrairah was totally separate from the Black Rabbit. The film mingles them into a composite character.

Hazel leaves his body lying by the ditch.
Hazel leaves his body lying by the ditch so that he can join
the stranger's owsla
The Black Rabbit - Inlé-rah - is a lapine form of our 'Grim Reaper'. He is death, but that is no more than his appointed task. His job is to do what he must do, there is no bargain with the Black Rabbit. El-ahrairah, on the other hand, was the mythical 'Robin Hood' of rabbits. Thlayli (Bigwig) says to Hyzenthlay when they are in Efrafa that his companions, meaning Hazel and the other Watership rabbits, are 'El-ahrairah's owsla - no less.' In the epilogue it is El-ahrairah who comes to collect Hazel on behalf of the Black Rabbit. He asks Hazel, who does not recognise him at first - until he sees the 'faint, silver light' in his ears, to join his oswla. Thlayli was right all along.

The stranger tells Hazel that he needn't worry about the future of rabbits.
The stranger tells Hazel that he needn't worry about
the future of his rabbits
This sequence uses an unusual drawing style to depict the rabbit's souls, they are translucent and look as if they are delicately drawn in pencil. The drawing style of the Black Rabbit, voiced by deep, velvet tongued Joss Ackland, changes throughout this sequence from this semi-naturalistic style (probably depicting the El-ahrairah aspect) to a much more 'cartoony' style to illustrate the Black Rabbit side of this compound character.

Hazel following the stranger.
Hazel following the stranger
The background is beautifully uncluttered yet full of detail. The scene takes place 'one chilly, blustery morning in March', and this is used to great advantage in the back- and foregrounds. The music is also very significant, it is a modified reprise of 'Climbing the Down', perhaps signifying that Hazel's death is only the start of a new, greater adventure.
This is the very last scene of the film of Watership Down - a worthy end to a ground-breaking animated film. One that proved it was possible for animation to appeal to adults just as much as children.

Nepenthe's leaping rabbits

Click Bigwig here to return to select another location. It might be best to avoid his ears, his fleas live there!