Weekend Film Recommendation: Watership Down

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Watership Down”

  1. Don’t we need rather more movies where the rabbits decide to move based on science ,logic, and reason; and rather fewer where they move based on visions and prophecy?
    I’m sorry but encouraging this sort of movie is just the sort of idiocy that has us living in an age of unenlightenment and headed for a new dark age.
    What, after all, is the difference between Fiver+Hazel and red calfers, or Mayan prophecy nuts?

    1. If we can suspend disbelief far enough to accept talking rabits with organised political systems, can’t we just go the extra couple of yards? In for a penny in for a pound.
      This story is the quintessential myth. As they say: Mythos over logos. All of our rational thought is resting on a foundation of myth. We can examine that foundation, analyze and even ridicule it but we ignore it at our peril. Our myths are the root of our society, our thinking and our sanity. Without myth we are aimless. Even myths like “Watership Down” that seem modern invention are tapped into that root.
      Science is a powerful tool but not the only tool. Science can’t tell us what we want. Sometimes we need to listen to that small voice within. Sometimes we find the dark truth in our dreams.

    2. So what you’re saying is, dump all of the imagination of this story? I’m guessing you also have a problem with the idea of Frith and El-Ahrairah being in the story as well, even though they flavor the story like none other. It’s atheists like you who make me sick, assimilate anyone who has beliefs!!! Change a beloved novel to have no prophecies or even mention a WORD about visions. Oh yes, a remake of Watership Down is going to take us into an entire new Dark Age because one character has premonitions. So your horrid version of Watership Down will be like this: There’s this warren of rabbits, they all die because of land development. No survivors, no story. This is a discussion about a classic film if it were remade, not another chance for atheists to bash on religion.

  2. Never saw the movie, but I did read the book. His middle school made it required summer reading for all students who would be entering sixth grade. He was ten, and he hated it. So I read it aloud, and the only way I could keep him from tuning out was that every time the word rabbit came up, I would delete the “t.” That added a small bit of levity to a book he otherwise found utterly dreary. But given the subject matter, it’s surprising how seldom Adams uses the R-word.

  3. We borrowed the DVD from the library to show my daughters (aged 10 and 12) and my wife, who had never seen it. It’s a great film. I saw it at about my daughters’ age and have never frogotten it, and how it made (some) rabbits *scary*.

  4. Even today I will preface some foolhardy action by declaring “Dogs aren’t dangerous!”

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