Watership Down becomes a film,
in October 1978.
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.'
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).
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.
Those leaping rabbits were Nepenthe Productions', Martin Rosen's production company, trademark.
Here they are again, a bit bigger this time:
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.
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.
The film's view of Sandleford at sunset.
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.
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.
Holly, recalling his experiences in Efrafa.
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.
Blackberry asking Hazel to reconsider going on the raid to Nuthanger Farm.
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....
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.
A stylised moment from Holly's description of the destruction of the
Who this terrified rabbit is, or was, we cannot know. All we know is that he died because he was
in our way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'"Can you run?" Hissed the cat. "I think not... I think not...."
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.
Woundwort and Bigwig fight it out.
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 recognizes the Black Rabbit, or is it El-ahrairah...
or is it both? Or is it a kind of a dream?
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.
Hazel leaves his body lying by the ditch so that he can join
the stranger's owsla
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.
The stranger tells Hazel that he needn't worry about
the future of his rabbits
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
Hazel following the stranger
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.
Bigwig here to return to select another location. It might be best to avoid his ears,
his fleas live there!