Watership Down is a 1978 British animated film written, produced and directed by Martin Rosen and based on the book by Richard Adams. It was financed by a consortium of British financial institutions. Originally released October 19, 1978 in the UK by Cinema International Corporation & November 1, 1978 in the US by AVCO Embassy Pictures, the film was an immediate success and it became the sixth most popular movie of 1979 at the British box office. The film is rated PG (U in the UK) for strong animal violence/gory images and some mild language – all involving animals. This has caused many controversies, especially in the UK, with some reviewers stating it must be an adults' film.
It features the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, and Roy Kinnear, among others, and was the last film work of Zero Mostel, as the voice of Kehaar the gull. The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson. Art Garfunkel's hit single "Bright Eyes", which was written by songwriter Mike Batt, briefly features.
Watership Down opens with a narrated prologue establishing the Lapine culture and mythology, describing the creation of the world and its animals by the sun god "Lord Frith," including the rabbits' leader, Prince "El-ahrairah." All the animals are friendly, and eat grass, but the rabbits soon multiply and overwhelm the other animals. When Frith warns El-ahrairah to control his people, the prince scoffs at his warning; Frith takes this as arrogance and in retaliation, gives each animal a gift, turning several of them into predators that prey on the rabbits. Satisfied that El-ahrairah has learned his lesson, Frith also gifts the rabbits with speed and cunning; all creatures may seek to kill El-ahriarah and his descendants, but the rabbits may survive by their wits and quickness.
The film then switches from a stylized narrative to a more realistic animation, set in the English countryside of Sandleford. Fiver, a young runt rabbit with prophetic abilities, foresees the end of his peaceful rabbit warren and asks others to leave with him. Fiver and his older brother Hazel attempt to persuade their Chief Rabbit to have the warren evacuated and moved elsewhere, but they are dismissed, and attempt to recruit individuals instead. The group meets resistance from the warren's police force, or Owsla, but eight manage to fight and escape: Fiver, Hazel, the burly ex-Owsla officer Bigwig, the cunning Blackberry, the smallest rabbit Pipkin, storyteller and runner Dandelion, the elder Silver, and the only female, Violet.
They travel stealthily through the woods, close to many predators. After crossing a river (using a floating piece of driftwood) and a road, evading a hunting dog, they make it to a covered bean field to rest the night. However, in the morning, as she attempts to feed nearby, Violet is killed by a hawk, leaving the group without a female. A few days later, after escaping from a rat-infested cemetery, the hungry band meets a rabbit named Cowslip, who invites them for much-needed food to his warren of strange but friendly rabbits. The group is content and grateful for shelter, but Fiver senses something terribly wrong and leaves in a fit. As Bigwig follows him, taunting his bizarre behavior, he is caught in a snare; Fiver attempts to get help from Cowslip and his warren, but he is rudely ignored. As the rabbits frantically dig to free Bigwig, he collapses and lies motionless. As the rabbits mourn him, Fiver admonishes them: The warren is fed by a farmer who occasionally snares rabbits in return for his food and protection from predators. After this revelation, Bigwig miraculously awakes; on Fiver's advice, the band moves on with new respect for the seer's wisdom.
The rabbits discover Nuthanger farm, which contains a hutch of female rabbits. Hazel realizes that females will be needed to begin a new warren, but the rabbits are forced to leave by the appearance of the farm's cat and fierce guard dog. Hazel promises to return, and the rabbits set off again. Later, they are unexpectedly found by the Sandleford's Owsla Captain, Holly, who is exhausted and severely maimed. He reveals that Fiver's vision was true and that Sandleford warren was destroyed by humans, and falls unconscious after mentioning a mysterious group called the "Efrafans". After he recovers, Fiver soon leads the group to the high hill he envisioned, Watership Down, where the rabbits discover empty burrows suitable to live in. They settle in, developing their own warren, with Hazel informally recognized as Chief Rabbit.
They befriend an acerbic injured seagull, Kehaar, who offers to survey the local area for females. Meanwhile, the rabbits return to Nuthanger farm to free the does, but as they make their escape, Hazel is shot by the farmer and presumed dead; however, Fiver, following a vision of the Black Rabbit of Inle, returns to the farm to discover Hazel still alive. Kehaar returns, and while removing buckshot pellets from Hazel's leg, reports of Efrafa, a large warren which is overcrowded and has many females. Holly, who encountered Efrafa, begs them not to go there, describing it as a highly militarized and totalitarian state run by vicious and heavily territorial rabbits led by the despotic General Woundwort. However, Hazel feels they have no choice but to go there.
After Hazel recovers from his injury, the band heads into Efrafan territory. Along the way, they are stalked by a fox which is drawn away by Bigwig, who unintentionally leads it into an Efrafan Wide Patrol on their trail; the fox kills the patrol's captain. Bigwig then decides to infiltrate Efrafa: Woundwort is impressed by him and makes him an Owsla officer. In time, Bigwig recruits several would-be escapees to his cause, including Hyzenthlay, an outspoken, rebellious doe, and Blackavar, a persistently attempted escapee permanently scarred as a public deterrent. After one morning's feeding (or silflay), they escape, with Woundwort and the Efrafan Owsla in hot pursuit. Aided by a timely airborne attack by Kehaar during a lightning storm and their use of a boat off a river bank (echoing their earlier use of driftwood), the group barely escapes. That night, Kehaar leaves for his homeland, with the gratitude of the warren.
However, their union is short-lived: Efrafan trackers discover their trail several days later, following them to Watership Down and laying siege upon the warren, with the General himself planning to recapture the escapees. Hazel heads off to reason with Woundwort while he's still in Efrafa, offering an alliance of "free and independent warrens"; after appearing surprisingly intrigued, Woundwort abruptly dismisses him, ordering Hazel to "tell Bigwig" to unconditionally surrender or he will kill the entire warren. It is then that Hazel decides to fight: Upon his return, the Watership rabbits hole themselves up inside their own warren, and are soon besieged by the Efrafans. In all the commotion, Fiver slips into a trance, in which he envisions "a dog loose in the woods" from their earlier travels. His moans scare the Efrafans, but inspire Hazel; he organizes a plan to free the guard dog from Nuthanger and lead him to the warren to attack the Efrafans. He escapes, this time with Blackberry, Dandelion, and Hyzenthlay. Woundwort ignores them, intent on finding Bigwig.
On their way, Hazel prays to Frith, offering his life for the life of the warren, a bargain Frith acknowledges but does not except. Upon their arrival, Hazel proceeds to chew off the dog's leash, after which he is pounced on by the cat, but is rescued by the farmer's daughter. His companions bait the dog in relay fashion into following them uphill to Watership Down. When the Efrafans finally break through the warren's defences, Woundwort goes in alone; Blackavar attacks him, but Woundwort easily overpowers and kills him. Woundwort is soon ambushed by Bigwig and they fight to the point of exhaustion; when Woundwort asks why he won't surrender, Bigwig defies him: "My chief's told me to defend this run." Woundwort, who had always assumed Bigwig was chief, hesitates as he imagines a rabbit even bigger and more formidable then Bigwig in charge of the warren. As he wonders, the dog arrives, led to the warren by Hyzenthlay; the dog goes into a blood-rage and attacks the Efrafan soldiers standing guard outside the warren, killing three of them and chasing off the rest. Hearing their screams, the General abandons Bigwig and emerges from the warren; when the dog sees him, it charges at Woundwort with its mouth open, but Woundwort fearlessly stands his ground.
The fate of General Woundwort is left a mystery; his body is never found, but he is never seen or heard from again, and his memory becomes a ghost story used by rabbit parents to frighten their children into obedience. The rabbits of Watership Down are safe at last. The epilogue shows the thriving warren several years later. As stories are told of the warren's early exploits, a tired and elderly Hazel attempts to silflay when he is visited by a shadowy rabbit, eventually revealed as Prince El-ahrairah. He invites Hazel to join his Owsla, assuring him of Watership Down's perpetual safety. Reassured, Hazel agrees; he falls asleep on the grass and peacefully passes away. In a reprise of other mystical scenes in the film, Hazel discards his body and freely follows El-ahrairah, who manifests into the Black Rabbit of Inle, through the woodland and trees towards the sun—which metamorphoses into Frith—and into the afterlife:
“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you: digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and your people will never be destroyed.”
- John Hurt as Hazel
- Richard Briers as Fiver
- Michael Graham Cox as Bigwig
- John Bennett as Captain Holly
- Ralph Richardson as the Threarah
- Simon Cadell as Blackberry
- Terence Rigby as Silver
- Roy Kinnear as Pipkin
- Richard O'Callaghan as Dandelion
- Denholm Elliott as Cowslip
- Lynn Farleigh as Tab
- Mary Maddox as Clover
- Zero Mostel as Kehaar
- Harry Andrews as General Woundwort
- Hannah Gordon as Hyzenthlay
- Nigel Hawthorne as Campion
- Clifton Jones as Blackavar
- Derek Griffiths as Vervain and Chervil
- Michael Hordern as Lord Frith and Narrator
- Joss Ackland as Black Rabbit of Inlé and El-Ahrairah
- Michelle Price as Lucy
A picture book of the animated film was also produced, titled The Watership Down Film Picture Book. Two editions of the book were published, one a hard-cover, the other a reinforced cloth-bound edition. The contents include stills from the film linked with a combination of narration and extracts from the script, as well as a preface written by Richard Adams and a foreword written by Martin Rosen.
Watership Down was released several times in the UK & US, it encountered several distributors in the UK, and only one in the US, in the UK, it was released on VHS & DVD in the UK by the distributors listed below, and in the US by Warner Home Video, mainly because independent films are usually released by a different home video company. The film was originally scheduled to be released on Blu-ray in the UK in October 2010 but this release was postponed due to a dispute between Universal (the UK distributor of the movie) & Warner Bros (The US & International rights holder) because Warner released a DVD release of the movie in 2005 in the UK. The Blu-ray release, however, was released in Germany. The UK release was eventually released on October 28, 2013, by Universal Pictures, with a higher quality restoration and a 1.78:1 widescreen presentation. This release would later be released in the US in 2015 by The Criterion Collection under the Janus Films label, despite Janus not distributing the film in the US.
- Theatrical Distribution
- UK: Cinema International Corporation
- Australia: Filmways Pictures
- US: Avco Embassy Pictures
- Netherlands: Concorde Film
- Finland: Suomi-Filmi
- UK: Guild Home Video(1987)/ PolyGram Video(1990s)/ 4 Front Video (1990s)/Warner Home Video (2005) / Universal Pictures(2001, 2013-present)
- USA/internationally: Warner Home Video(1983–present)
- Finland: Finn Innovation Products(1995) / Future Film LTD(2005)
- Australia: CIC Video(1980s-1999)/Roadshow Home Video(1999–2000)/Blue Sky Video (2005)
- At the beginning of the film, Fiver finds a smoking cigarette. This means that men have been in the area within the last ten minutes (at most.) Yet all the rabbits are happily outside their holes, and Hazel is happily munching grass only a few feet away. The smoke smell alone should have put everyone on high alert, in addition to any lingering "man smell".
- The coloring of the rabbits shifts several times, particularly when they are outside Cowslip's warren.
- In Holly's flashback of his time in Efrafa - which occurs long before the other rabbits have even heard of Efrafa - Bigwig can be clearly seen talking with the Efrafan rabbits (this was taken from a scene later in the movie).
- Bigwig disappears then reappears on screen as the rabbits enter the shed near the cemetery.
- In a wide shot of Bigwig spotting Hyzenthlay and Blackavar in the distance, they appear as two rabbits with normal, erect ears. In the next shot, Blackavar's ears are shredded and drooping, as they should be.
- When Cowslip tells the poem about the stream and the camera tilts up toward the ceiling, his head disappears before it has a chance to completely go off screen.
- After Bigwig is rescued from the snare, thanks to having the wooden peg dug out of the ground, there's a wider shot showing the snare and the wooden peg. There should be a hole near the peg to note that rabbits had just dug it out of the ground, but no hole appears. All you see is the peg lying on the ground.