I once watched the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco, and the audience started laughing when these words appeared on the screen Surely superfluous they must have thought: who wouldn’t recognize San Francisco with all that stock footage of the city’s essentials? But San Francisco was a much smaller, less culturally significant city back then and many American movie goers would not even have heard of it much less been able to recognize it by sight.
I enjoy these “unnecessary explanations” in old films as historical curios. Another of my favorites is in the 1948 criminal investigation classic Call Northside 777. A suspect takes a lie detector test and a scientist explains what the machine does at what to modern audiences seems like inordinate length (after all, even in films like Deceiver that revolve entirely around a lie detector, there is no such lengthy exposition). The scientist is Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the lie detector, a machine that audiences would not have heard of in 1948 and probably wouldn’t have taken as a credible plot point without all the sciency lecturing.
Similarly, another great police procedural of the same period, He Walked by Night, includes a detailed explanation of what a police composite sketch artist does because of course audiences at the time wouldn’t have already watched a million episodes of Law and Order on television.
Another notable example are “nature documentary moments” that appear in many films prior to the era of widespread television ownership, for example 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines. The characters in such films have plot-irrelevant conversations of the form:
Hero or Heroine: “What on earth is that?”
Grizzled Guide Who Knows the Local Terrain: “That is a leopard”
Hero or Heroine: Wow!
Pretty boring if you’ve seen a Jacques Cousteau special or virtually any hour of what plays on the Nature channel all day long. But audiences back then couldn’t watch television nature documentaries and few of them had access to exotic zoos or international travel either, so as dull as these bits of cinema are to us today, they amazed viewers at the time.
Do you have your own examples of anachronistic explanations in old movies? I would love to hear them in the comments if so.
In my transatlantic existence, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the differences between British and American culture. One of the smaller ones: only the former have a broadly-shared tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. A Christmas Carol is of course the touchstone of this British pleasure, but it apparently started centuries before Dickens’ classic.
BBC responded to and nurtured this tradition for a number of years by adapting a ghost story for television each yuletide season during the 1970s, reviving the practice a little over a decade ago. Most of them have featured the stories of M.R. James, though Mr. Dickens has also had his turn (An effective adaptation of The Signalman). James was a respected British academic and medieval studies scholar who famously had a sideline in writing chilling tales of the supernatural, most of which featured a central character from James’ world (e.g., a writer, professor, bishop, museum curator) who gets in over his head when encountering malevolent forces he cannot understand.
Many people incorrectly recall the first BBC ghost story as being a Christmas special like all those that followed, but it was actually a springtime entry in the long-running series Omnibus, which more typically carried art-focused documentaries. But in 1968, legendary director Jonathan Miller gave Omnibus audiences a giant scare instead. The story centers on Professor Parkins, vividly portrayed by Michael Hordern as a near-autistic Cambridge Don who talks to himself more than the people around him. In a remote English seaside town, he checks into a bed and breakfast with a plan to do some reading and some “trudging” along the desolate beaches. His social awkwardness is extreme, positioning him apart from the other guests both figuratively and literally. But in this pivotal scene in which the hyper-rational Professor puts a fellow guest who believes in ghosts in his place (“There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth”) we learn that it’s fundamentally smugness and not a sense of inferiority that separates Parkins from the rest of humanity. This is the classic M.R. James set up for a haughty intellectual to get his comeuppance via the world beyond.
And so it comes to pass. The Professor comes across a grave that has been eroded by the sea and wind. Unwisely, he sorts through the bones to find a whistle with a Latin inscription meaning “Who is this who is coming?”. Of course the poor sod can’t resist blowing the whistle. Something awakens, glimpsed first as a distant, shrouded, figure silhouetted by the fading sun, then taking more form in pursuit during the Professor’s nightmares, and far too closer for comfort soon after that.
Like all of M.R. James’ stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is not a blood-spattered terror ride, but an eerie tale of foreboding, in which evil is often only glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. This is the artiest of BBC’s many adaptations of James’ stories, probably because of Miller’s presence and because the Omnibus audience would have expected nothing less (This also may account for the opening documentary-like narration by Miller, which might better have been dropped). Dick Bush does a tremendous job with single black and white camera set ups and long takes, including some effective low-angle and deep focus shots. He uses very few mid-range shots, mainly relying on distant, lonely, camera placement interspersed with a few well-chosen extreme closeups. The whole effect is admirably unnerving.
Were this constructed as a pure suspenser, the 40 minute running time would have been too long, but that’s why Hordern is such a treasure here. About half the story is a character study of an odd and indeed not particularly likable man, and Sir Michael carries that off in a compelling way until we get to the truly scary bits.
Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a worthy start to what became a beloved Christmas tradition in the UK (of the ones that followed, A View from the Hill is my favorite). Although the same story was re-adapted in 2010 by BBC with a bigger budget, the original is still I think the stronger piece of television and very much worth your attention this wintry season.
London-based Hammer Films had a fertile and fiscally rewarding period in the 1950s and 1960s styling itself as the British second coming of the old Universal Studios Monster Movies. They gave Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy quite a workout, relying on generally solid and scary scripts, a stable of dependable stage-trained actors, not-bad special effects, atmospheric locations (e.g., Highgate Cemetery) and an abundance of aspiring starlets with daring décolletage. Many viewers remember Hammer monster movies in their nightmares, but few recall that the studio also turned out some high-quality psychological thrillers, most of them scripted by Jimmy Sangster. This week I recommend my favorite of these films: 1961’s Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear).
The story centers on a frequently-invoked but still effective thriller trope: The central character who has some physical limitation that makes them unusually vulnerable. In this case, it’s Penny Appleby, who has needed a wheelchair since suffering a tragic accident. She has traveled far to visit the wealthy father whom she has not seen since her parents’ divorce over a decade ago. Her father’s new wife and a family friend named Dr. Gerrard greet her warmly, but inform her that her father is away on business. Yet as the days go by, a series of peculiar and shocking events make her start to think her father has in fact been murdered! Has she come across the world’s wickedest stepmother, or is she losing her mind? Nerve-shredding suspense and some truly inventive plot twists follow.
Taste of Fear is often referred to as Hitchcockian, and while I can see why, it recalls for me much more the French classic Diabolique, which Sangster almost certainly must have seen. Both films create a sense of dread and continually lead the viewer to think “Ah, that’s what’s really going on” to be immediately followed by “I was wrong again – I have no idea what’s really going on”.
Hammer made the film in partnership with Columbia Pictures, which accounts for them landing American Susan Strasberg for the role of Penny. She brings across very well a young woman who is understandably fearful but at the same time determined and smart enough to keep pressing the question. The rest of the cast are British talents of the type that Hammer more typically favored, including Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, as an effectively creepy Dr. Gerrard.
The other undeniable strength of the film is Douglas Slocombe’s pristine, gorgeous black and white cinematography. Both he and director Seth Holt have refined visual instincts regarding the balance of light and shadow that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. They also create a stunningly horrifying shot underwater that I will not detail because it would spoil a plot point, but you’ll appreciate it when you see it. Credit former film editor Holt also for a tightly constructed movie – flabbiness is the enemy of suspense and everything in this movie is lean and tight.
Taste of Fear is a shamefully-forgotten thriller that you would do well to remember. I found a copy on Daily Motion, which I believe has the legal right to rebroadcast old movies on line, so you can enjoy Taste of Fear free of guilt right here.
The classic Dickens novels usually end with the central character finally finding a proper place in the world after years of hardship and misadventures. R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days takes the opposite approach of having a character with a tragic backstory find his proper place on the very first page, and spending the rest of his life realizing it. In 1980, BBC tapped Andrew Davies (later to pen prior RBC recommendation House of Cards) to adapt the novel to the small screen, and the result is a fine 13 part miniseries that I recommend to you this week.
The series opens with shell-shocked, limping, wan, Welshman David Powlett-Jones (John Duttine) returning from the horrors of the trenches to apply for a teaching post at Bamfylde boarding school in Devon. The wily, gentle, headmaster Algy Herries (endearingly played by Frank Middlemass) sees potential in the traumatized young man and hires him as a teacher. Surrounded by better educated, better born, men, Powlett-Jones initially struggles with that peculiarly Welsh working class admixture of pride and insecurity. But he slowly begins to find his footing, largely because he develops positive relationships with Algy as well as with a lonely, cynical, yet also compassionate senior housemaster (Alan MacNaughtan). He also grows to understand and be respected by the boys, despite not sharing their class background nor their politics.
David’s life is also shaped profoundly by three women he loves over the years, each of whom is emblematic of a different historical age. Beth Marwood is the perfect Victorian helpmate (indeed too perfect, she is the most flat character in the series unfortunately for Belinda Lang, who does her best). She is followed by the sexually liberated Julia, who has a flapper sensibility even though her horizons are limited by the social and occupational constraints placed on women in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Christine Forster arrives in a David’s life as a powerful person in her own right both psychologically and politically, facing down sexism while running for Parliament.
This series really grew on me episode by episode. In part that was due to Duttine’s layered performance as a lost, angry, and tentative person becoming over many years completely at home at Bamflyde, invested in life, and deservedly confident of his abilities. I also appreciated that some characters who started out as stereotypes, like Carter the failed soldier turned teacher (Neil Stacy) and the icy martinet headmaster Alcock (Charles Kay) became better-rounded over time. But the most rewarding feature of the series — as in virtually all drama — were the rich human relationships brought alive by a worthy script, directors, and cast.
The series isn’t perfect. The 12th episode features a subplot about anti-Semitism that is disappointingly carmelized and should have been dropped, one of the revelations in the final episode isn’t set up well enough in earlier episodes to have the desired impact, and throughout the series isn’t much to look at in terms of sets or camerawork. But it’s almost impossible to put 11 hours of film together and not have some weak spots.
To Serve Them All My Days is the sort of literate, solid entertainment upon which the BBC’s reputation for high quality drama rests. Make yourself a pot of tea and get watching.
The much-honored and beloved playwright Neil Simon has passed away at the age of 91. I re-post my recommendations for two of his most entertaining movies, and gratitude for making me laugh very hard many times:
There is an above average Jimmy Stewart movie called “No Time for Comedy“, in which he is cast as Gaylord Esterbrook. Gaylord writes hilariously funny plays yet feels he should write dramatic productions of greater weight in order to be a “serious writer”…but his effort to do so is disastrous. The movie always makes me think of Neil Simon. When he tries to be dramatic he is often manipulative, soppy, boring or pretentious. Films like “California Suite” make me ape Homer Simpson’s reaction to watching Garrison Keillor (Homer beats the idiot box yelling “Stupid TV! BE MORE FUNNY!”).
But when Simon gets over himself and just tries to be funny, he can be absolutely, rib-ticklingly, delightfully enjoyable. This week’s double feature recommendation highlights Simon at his gutbusting best in two loosely linked comedies directed by Robert Moore: Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978).
Both films are affectionate parodies of fictional detectives from the movies. Nick and Nora Charles, Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are sent up in Murder by Death. The Cheap Detective focuses only on Sam Spade (renamed Lou Peckinpaugh) as he works his way through the plots of many Humphrey Bogart classics, including the Maltese Falcon, the Big Sleep and Casablanca. There is murder and intrigue in both films and a plot as well, but who cares?: The purpose is laughter and laugh you will if you have a funny bone in your body.
The cast is gold, a simply stunning array of talent (some of whom appear in both movies): Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, Marsha Mason, James Cromwell, Nancy Walker, Elsa Lanchester, Sid Caesar and many more. Everyone knows what they are doing and gets every conceivable laugh out of Simon’s scripts.
My favorite bits are hard to choose from such an embarrassment of comedy riches, but I will try. In Murder by Death: The best ever update of “Who’s on First”, featuring a butler named JamesSir Bensonmum and his father Howodd Bensonmum. In the Cheap Detective: Betty DeBoop’s stage number and first encounter with Lou Peckinpaugh (“You made me swallow my gum”).
To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget.
Dorothy Hughes’ bewitching and disturbing novel In a Lonely Place has been re-issued by New York Review of Books. It very much recalls some of Jim Thompson’s darkest works, though she’s arguably an even better writer than he was. Hughes’ stylish evocation of a psychopathic psychology is like one of those sweetened Russian cocktails that tastes wonderful going down even though you know it’s burning out your insides and will leave you full of the blackest regret in the morning. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough, though not for the faint-hearted.
Once you have read it, consider watching the unforgettable film adaptation, which I recommended some years ago and re-up below.
I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
Amazingly, there are people who consider themselves Humphrey Bogart fans who have never seen the brooding, powerful 1950 film In a Lonely Place. In one of his greatest roles, Bogart plays bitter, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele, whose best days seem to be behind him. After being tasked with adapting a dreadful novel for the silver screen, he asks a ditzy hat check girl who loves the book to come to his apartment and tell him the plot. The next morning, the police inform Dix that the girl has been murdered and dumped by the side of the road. As the audience, we do not know what really happened. Steele is initially alibied by sultry neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, all eyebrows, curves and nimbly masked emotional turmoil), who promptly yields to his romantic advances. They fall in love and Dix is able to regain his gifts as a writer. But as Laurel sees Dix continue to be volatile and aggressive, she begins to wonder, Suspicion-style, whether Dix is a murderer after all.
This movie is cynical about fame, Hollywood, and human relationships, but tantalizes us with the possibility that new love can redeem it all. The suspense emerges less from the murder mystery than from the warring internal emotions of the characters. Director Nicholas Ray knew life’s dark places and how to get actors to go there. His marriage to the volatile Grahame ended in the most sordid way imaginable while they were making this movie, and the anguish and anger on the set comes out in the electric performances of the cast. The film is also remarkable for its opening five minutes, which are a clinic in how a great director and actor can establish a character with ruthless economy (incidentally, the bar in the opening scene was modeled after Romanoff’s, Bogart’s favorite watering hole).
There are countless movies told from the man’s point of view in which a beautiful, younger woman falls in love with the protagonist (indeed, Bogart himself made a number of such films). The women in those movies are flat characters and we aren’t told why they go for the hero. He wants her, the story needs them to fall in love, so they do. What is truly remarkable about this movie’s structure is that it follows this formula about half-way through and then flips the perspective to the woman’s point of view. Continue reading “Book and Film Recommendation: In a Lonely Place”
Today is the 50th Anniversary of the release of an incredibly well-made, influential, and entertaining American movie, in honor of which I re-post my review from several years ago.
Hollywood studios were in a rut in the late 1950s and early 1960s, struggling to cope with the rise of television, the loss of control of movie theaters after the Paramount case, and a widening cultural chasm between modern audience tastes and studio traditions. In desperation, the studio chiefs opened up filmmaking to a wave of young actors, directors, producers and writers who re-energized American movies, making them arguably the world’s trendsetters from the late 1960s through mid-1970s. One of the pivotal movies from this fertile period in American cinema is this week’s film recommendation: 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.
The story opens with a bored, sexually frustrated small town girl (Faye Dunaway) meeting a charming bad boy (Warren Beatty). She questions his courage and masculinity, and he shows off by drawing a gun and committing a robbery. They flee her backwards hometown together, intoxicated by freedom, danger and each other. More daring robberies follow, and with it growing fame for Bonnie and Clyde. Soon they gather other people around them, including a slow witted ne’er do well (Michael Pollard), Clyde’s older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and Buck’s prim, God-fearing wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons). The law of course comes after them, spurring epic gun fights and a wild cross-country chase sparked with episodes that are surreal (the mesmerizing family reunion scene, which was shot by putting a window pane in front of the camera) and comic (the best of which features Gene Wilder, in his first movie). The story’s conclusion, which I will not spoil, is justifiably one of the most famous scenes in the history of American cinema.
The sexuality and graphic violence on display here is light years apart from what Hollywood films had ever done before. This is one of the first movies to use squibs and to show bullet wounds spouting blood. The impact of the violence is further amplified through use of the choppy editing style popularized by the French New Wave. Also, in a striking reversal of the typical gender roles of films in the 1950s, the woman is the confident sexual aggressor and the man is sexually timid and indeed non-functional (in early drafts of the script, Clyde was in a gay relationship with one of the men in his gang, but in the final version he instead is impotent). The point of view of the story was also novel and in keeping with the rebellious spirit of the times: The heroes are murderers who mow down police officers without compunction.
But it is not just the sexual and violent themes that make Bonnie and Clyde a landmark American film, it is also the movie’s meditation on fame. The criminals’ exhilaration in their notoriety, their self-conscious pursuit of increased publicity and the way they are hero-worshiped by strangers highlight the absurdity of American celebrity culture in supremely effective fashion.
As for the acting, under Arthur Penn’s direction, the entire cast explodes off the screen. Parsons won an Academy Award for her performance but any of the leads and supporting players would also have been worthy choices. Last but certainly not least, Burnett Guffey’s “flat style” camerawork — a complete inversion of his remarkable work in prior RBC recommendations My Name is Julia Ross and The Sniper — is one of the lasting achievements in Hollywood cinematography. That Guffey could early in his career thrive in the deep focus, shadowy, stylized world of film noir yet later became a leading exponent of unadorned, naturalistic cinematography shows that he was truly one of the giants of his profession.
The backstory to this film has also become part of its legend. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were of course real-life bank robbers in Depression-Era America. The script of this film was brilliantly adapted from their exploits by David Newman and Robert Benton, with uncredited help from Robert Towne. (The latter two of these men, like so many of the people associated with the film, soon became major figures in American cinema). The writers tried unsuccessfully to recruit a French New Wave director to make the movie, but none of them were ultimately interested. Fortunately, Warren Beatty saw the potential of the story and bought production rights, eventually signing Penn as the director. As a sign of how out of touch studio executives were with 1960s audiences, the suits at Warner Brothers were so sure it would bomb that they were comfortable promising Beatty 40% of the gross receipts. They barely released and minimally promoted the picture, and were not surprised when establishment movie critics sneered at it. But it hit audiences like a thunderbolt, becoming a massive box office hit. Remarkably, some chastened film critics went so far as to publicly apologize for their dismissive reviews and to write new reviews praising the movie (except for the New York Times’ insufferable Bosley Crowther, who campaigned against the film so vigorously that his bosses finally realized that it was time to find a more discerning critic). Many years later, this initially unwanted, disregarded and disrespected film became one of the first movies selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.
p.s. If any film prefigures Bonnie and Clyde in American cinema, I think it’s Joseph Lewis’ extraordinary 1950 movie Gun Crazy. If you have time for a double feature, that’s the film to pair with this one. And if you have time for a triple feature, throw in Lewis’ My Name is Julia Ross to appreciate the incredible range of cinematographer Burnett Guffey.
…The second-most-astonishing aspect of this film is even sadder. I tuned in expecting to see the usual diverting reality-TV real-estate porn. Yet the wealth generated and consumed in this film just provides very little value or real enjoyment to anyone.
David Siegel runs Westgate Resorts. He made his money by selling people timeshares they really canâ€™t afford. For a time, Westgate generates great opulence for the Siegel family. But what comes of that wealth? Unlike (say) Steve Jobs, David Siegel doesnâ€™t create beautiful and useful innovations that make our lives noticeably better. Unlike Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, Siegel has no philanthropic vision to channel his wealth for worthy purposes.
Unlike millions of prosperous, albeit less cosmically-wealthy Americans, the Siegels donâ€™t seem to use their wealth to make people close to them safe and happy. David Siegelâ€™s checkered history with his adult son exemplifies things. Their relationship is strictly business. Then there is Jackieâ€™s high school best friend. Sheâ€™s a single mom who ends up in foreclosure. Jackie sends her $5,000 in an apparently unsuccessful effort to forestall the foreclosure. If I had the cash to construct a $100 million mansion, my best friend wouldnâ€™t lose her modest home.
The Siegel familyâ€™s spiritual emptinessâ€”I donâ€™t know how else to say itâ€“ is rather heartbreaking. The Siegel children donâ€™t seem to be turning out very well â€“except perhaps for his teenage daughter who in one scene rightly and righteously chews Siegel out for being a jerk to the rest of the family.Â [Heartbreaking post-script: This young woman subsequently died of an accidental drug overdose.] Itâ€™s hardly surprising that the kids are irresponsible and bratty, given their fatherâ€™s narcissism and plain meanness.
Jackie Siegel is a beautiful, sweet, and vacuous trophy wife. She accumulates warehouses full of expensive junk for what is expected to be Americaâ€™s biggest mansion. She has too many kids, too many toys, too many rooms, animals, too many nannies and servants. She even has too many inches on her bustline after (what I assume to be) ludicrous surgical enlargement shown off through her correspondingly ridiculous cleavage-displaying wardrobe.
Her husband treats her with blatant disrespect. When she turns forty, he jokes that he will replace her with two twenty-year-olds. Or maybe when sheâ€™s sixty he will replace her with three twenty-year-olds. He comments on camera that being married to her is like having another child.
Westgate teeters on the edge of collapse when itâ€™s hit by the financial crisis. Both Siegel and his adult son protest that the banks got them hooked on cheap credit and are now trying to take over the jewels of their empire. Truthfully, though, everyone seems to lose in this story. The banks donâ€™t get their principal back. The huge mansion is last seen as an unfinished and unsold construction project. Westgate teeters on the edge of ruin. Employees are laid off. Timeshare owners are foreclosed or left holding the bag for an over-valued properties.
We get to know two responsible adults in the entire film. The first is the limo driver (himself a failed real estate speculator). We also watch a heartrending interview with their Philippine nanny who relaxes in a big former playhouse of the Siegel children and who sends money back to her real family overseas.
I take it from later news that Siegel eventually landed on his feet. I guess thatâ€™s good. During the 2012 campaign, he got public attention as one of those crazy entitled CEOs who threatened to fire his workforce if Obama won reelection. In the end, Siegel didnâ€™t go through with it.
I take it that heâ€™s back on top again. Heâ€™s restarting construction on his 90,000 square-foot palace. Itâ€™s an old story, though. This man remains a pitiful figure.
It’s Sunday afternoon and the weather is bad for many of you out there, so just for fun I re-up this matinee B-movie suggestion from 5 years ago.
“Invasion of the Giant-Sized X” films were almost their own genre in the 1950s. Many of them were wretched (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman being generally considered the nadir), but some of them stand the test of time. If forced to choose my favorite giant insect film I would go with Them!, but since spiders are not insects I feel I have the right to also have a favorite giant spider movie, and it’s this week’s film recommendation: 1955’s Tarantula.
I preface this recommendation by expressing an opinion about B-movies, which is no one should be ashamed of making one as long as they know that is what they are doing. B-movies that pretend to be A-movies are typically an agony to view, but films that use a modest budget to achieve modest ambitions can be highly satisfying for the audience. The Frightened City, which I recommended a few months back, is one such worthy B-movie, and Tarantula is another. The makers’ goal was to tell an entertaining, scary monster story, and they pulled it off.
Like most of the giant critter films, this one begins with science gone awry, in the person of reclusive Professor Gerald Deemer (the wily old pro, Leo J. Carroll). He is concerned about the world’s food supply because he projects that by the year 2000, the Earth’s population will be — wait for it — 3.6 billion! Injections of a radioactive nutrient seem like a sensible alternative to traditional food: just look at how quickly Deemer’s test animals are growing. In the meantime, no one is trying the nutrient on humans, are they? Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Tarantula”
All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. 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.
These words are uttered by an unseen narrator (well-voiced by Sir Michael Hordern) in the magical opening sequence of 1978’s Watership Down. The opening presents a creation myth centered on a god called Frith and a prince of rabbits named El-ahrairah. The movie then turns to the story of some of the descendants of the Rabbit Prince, who live in modern day Sandleford and are about to embark on a perilous journey to find a new home.
A cartoon movie about bunny rabbits doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would hold the interest of a thoughtful adult. But give this movie a chance. Like the Richard Adams book upon which it is based, the film is dark, dramatic, and in parts, engagingly philosophical. Although older children will probably like it, Watership Down is really an animated movie for grown-ups.
The story centers on a warren in which all the rabbits seem happy and safe. Yet a rabbit named Fiver has a prophetic vision of blood and destruction. He and his older brother Hazel cannot get the local rabbit chief to believe them about the danger; indeed the warren’s police (the Owsla) try to suppress their dissent. With a group of fellow rebels, including a powerful former Owsla member named Bigwig, Fiver and Hazel fight their way out of their warren to seek a new home.
Their journey is filled with hazards and some of the rabbits come to bloody ends. They encounter different warrens with different sociologies and politics, eventually establishing their own independent warren at Watership Down, which Fiver had seen in a vision. But they soon come into conflict with another, imperialistic warren run by the menacing General Woundwart (as scary a villain as one could ask for in a movie about rabbits).
Watership Down is I think the best animated film ever produced in the UK. The rabbits’ faces are expressive and their movements realistic. The story is exciting and contains moments of serious drama. And the voice actors, especially John Hurt, are outstanding. My only complaint is the presence of a comic relief bird character voiced by Zero Mostel (it was his final film performance). I suppose that was put in to make the film more kid-friendly…I think it would have better to just go for it and target the film at adults, but YMMV. Even if you don’t like the bird, it’s a small annoyance in what is overall a very good movie.
The trailer is a bit long, but gives a flavour of the film:
p.s. to Art Garfunkel fans: The song for this film was “Bright Eyes”, which is accompanied here by an appealing animated sequence.