Watership Down has so many thematic textures that I felt this was a good opportunity to mix things up. Rather than review the film based on quality (spoiler alert: I loved it), I have instead isolated a few major themes that I’ll flesh out in detail.
Keep in mind that this is not a children’s film, and even if the images resemble the hand-drawn animation of old Disney, the subject matter is far darker.
I will be spoiling the entirety of the film both in the text below and the screenshots. I would recommend that anyone reading this piece have already seen the film or at least read the book.
There are several themes that are pertinent to the film that I chose not to cover. One of the major ones is environmentalism and man’s impact on the plan. This message is crystal clear and hard to miss. There are others that I studied and decided to cut, such as Leadership (Hazel) and the sense of Community. These also are easy to pick up on. Instead I chose to focus on political oppression, the use of violence, spirituality and religion, and of course, mortality.
Politics and Oppression
“There is something oppressive in the air, like thunder,” Fiver says near the beginning of the film.
There are three major political groups in the film. The first Owsla is where the main characters originate. The Watership Down group is the protagonists and their quest for a homeland. The Efrafa is the group that they meet in the third act of the film.
It is clear early that while the protagonists are under the rule of the Owsla that they are oppressed. There is some sort of class or caste system that is not defined in detail, but it dictates access to materials (food, does, etc.). Only those in the upper echelon are privileged, whereas those in the lower class, like Fiver and Hazel, are oppressed. Another major character, Bigwig, is an officer for the Owsla, but he is sympathetic to those who are being subjugated. The form of government closely resembles fascism or any totalitarian rule where the leaders have unfettered control.
Oppression breeds dissension. Fiver has a psychic premonition that doom is upon them, and he and Hazel plead for audience with the chief. Bigwig facilitates their meeting and is later reprimanded for it. Fiver’s pleas fall on deaf ears, but he and Hazel are believers. After being rebuffed, they decide to flee the warren. When word gets around, others want to leave with them. The reasoning does not seem to be due to Fiver’s premonition. As we will see later, they don’t always believe him. The primary motivation for leaving is because they are being oppressed and lack basic freedoms.
When they try to leave, one officer tries to arrest all of them for “spreading dissension, inciting to mutiny.” This is again similar to fascism or totalitarian rule because those in power want to shut down any opposition. We know that Fiver’s vision is apolitical, but that is irrelevant to those in power. They require subjects in order to maintain their privileged status.
After they escape, the crew of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and others becomes a leftist and nearly communist role. They are interested in free living, community and collective harmony, which I will touch on in more detail later.
After they escape and reach Watership Down, they learn of the Owsla’s downfall from Captain Holly. Most importantly for the final act, through Captain Holly, we learn of the third group, the Efrafan. It is clear from Holly’s condition that this is not a pleasant bunch. They capture him, rough him up, and rip his ear in order to mark him. We then see inside their burrow. They look evil and menacing. Through this portrayal, it is clear that they are the antagonists that will threaten the harmony of Watership Down.
While doing some reading about this film, I’ve found some comparisons to Nazy Germany. Whether this is intended or not, there are several similarities. We first learn that they are overcrowded and cannot produce more litters. This reminds us of the tragic overcrowding of Jews in the ghettos and later the Holocaust. They mark their victims, just like they marked Captain Holly, and just like the Nazis marked the Jews.
Chief Woundwort is the leader and he is a beast. He is large of stature and for that reason he is not identical to Hitler, but he is unquestionably a dictator that rules with an iron fist. He sends out patrols that take stray rabbits to a council to mete out punishment, most of which is of a violent nature.
The Efrafans say that “everything out of the ordinary is to be reported.” Their methods are to annihilate opposition, and follow anyone under suspicion, as they do with Bigwig. Parallels could be made with virtually every totalitarian government, again including Nazi Germany, but also Stalin’s Russia, or any of the African, Asian or Arab despots.
When Hazel tries to negotiate terms with the Efrafa during their war, he suggests having independent, autonomous and free warrens. It is categorically rejected by the Efrafa. This proposal is close to communism, which of course is fundamentally opposed to fascism. Rather than negotiation, they rely on crushing, absolute destruction and refuse to stop or negotiate. In this manner, they are like Nazi Germany focused on total war to subjugate the opposition.
Violence is a major theme of Watership Down. The characters may be cute and cuddly rabbits, but they are ruthless and vicious. Even the “good guys” resort to violence in order to achieve their escape. In fact, the film’s violence begins with the Watership group threatening to kill a Captain of the Owsla if he stands in their way. That is the first fight scene, where Bigwig joins the group by standing up for the rebels, tethering himself to their cause and isolating himself from the Owsla in the process.
There are several instances of violence scattered throughout the film. There is the brutal sequence where the Owlans meet their end, or when the farmers shoot Hazel, and of course when Bigwig gets caught in a rabbit trap and nearly meets his end. The ultra-violence is near the end when they are at war with the Efrafans.
“You don’t know the Efrafans. They’ll never give up!”
The ending is war, total war — the same type of ferocity and bloodlust that drove World War Two to staggering levels of destruction. Even prior to the war, the Efrafa are bent on obliterating their opponents, as they prepare to murderously charge at the Watership group when cornered at river’s edge. If not for the crafty rescue, the Watership group would have likely all been killed.
As the Efrafans try to penetrate the burrows at Watership Down, they do so with a bloodlust. This is not about strategy, but about death. They want to destroy those who harmed them and, in their minds, stole their property.
The most violent scene is the fight to the death between Woundwort and Bigwig. At least it is intended to be a fight to the death, and neither side would have given up if not for other circumstances.
The freedom fighters use a secret weapon, a dog, in order to achieve victory. This could be seen as a deus ex machine plot device, or it could be seen as a weapon of mass destruction. An analogy could be made that the dog’s onslaught and end to the Efrafans is tantamount to the US dropping the atomic bomb in order to win the war. Both could be seen as atrocities depending on your perspective, but they both achieved the same result. They both saved lives for the winning side.
Spirituality, religion and even mythology play a central role in Watership Down. The introduction tells the creation story of how The Great Frith made the world and all the stars. The Prince of Rabbits had many friends that ate grass together. Just like the Hebrew creation story, the rabbit makes a hubristic misstep and loses his honored status. The rabbits (or Children of El-Haraira) are hunted by other creatures and have to meet the “Black Rabbit of Death.” As a way to offset against these grave threats, Frith gives his rabbits a white tail and makes them faster than any creature in the world.
Addition to the religious elements, there are also psychic phenomena that go unexplained. This is specifically the case with Fiver, who has a sort of precognition and foresight of things to come. He sees fields of blood that foresee the destruction of Owsla, the dangers inside the burrow of men, where Bigwig ends up snagged, and finally he senses the lurking evil of the Efrafa before they attack Watership Down. While he is not always believed, he turn out to be correct.
Fiver also has connections to the religious world. He can see the Black Rabbit, and during the memorable playing of Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes,” he sees and perhaps participates in an adventure with the otherworldly being. Religion, mythology and the supernatural are all connected with death, as is the case with most human religions and a lot of supernatural phenomena. Christians believe in a Heaven, whereas mediums believe they can speak with the dead.
The rabbits are providential as opposed to secular. They refer to their religious world often, by saying “thank Frith,” “for Frith’s sake” or other phrases that humans would replace with the name of their God.
Their departure from Owsla is similar to the Hebrew’s Exodus from Egypt, and Hazel in many ways resembles a Moses type of savior character. He does not perform any miracles. Access to the supernatural is solely Fiver’s territory. Hazel, through his leadership, does encourage those who would otherwise be lower class, or even worse, slaves, to follow him to the Promised Land. He does call upon Frith once, offering his life for the safety of his people. Frith does not take this offer, responding “There is no bargain. What is must be.” With or without Frith’s intervention, Hazel (or Hazel-Ra as they call him when he becomes chief) leads his people to salvation.
When the film ends, they have achieved the harmony that Hazel, Fiver and the rest hoped for. They have reached their holy land. They are the chosen ones and are at peace in their version of paradise.
“Whenever they catch you, they will kill you.”
Death is ubiquitous in Watership Down, beginning with the Creation and origin story at the very beginning, where the rabbit is warned to “be cunning and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”
The first actual death on screen happens during the departure from the Owsla before they reach Watership Down. Their way is full of obstacles, and they learn of the danger when a vulture swoops down and snatches a rabbit named Violet right in front of Fiver. In an instant she is living and free, and then the next, she is gone, facing imminent death.
Death rears its ugly head again when Bigwig is caught in a snare near the suspicious place with the “man smell.” Bigwig struggles as they try to figure out how to free him from the wire. He bleeds incessantly, and the process is slow for the rabbits to figure out how to remove him from the trap. He is slowly choking. After he is freed, he is close to death. He gags and the camera changes to his perspective, where his fading eyes look up and only sees the dark silhouettes of his companions. At this point, his friends and the audience assume he is dead. Fiver says, “Please don’t die. We got you out.” The group collectively utters, “My heart has joined The Thousand, for my friend has stopped running today.” They think he is dead, but in a refreshing moment, he comes to. This is one of the most disturbing scenes in the film. Not only is it the first time we see a graphic wound, but we fear we have lost a main character. This will not be the last time.
“We go by the way of the black rabbit. When he calls, we must go.”
The ending is foreshadowed with Fiver’s exposure to death during the “Bright Eyes” montage. This scene celebrates death, allows a major character to come to terms with it as an inevitable reality, and it prepares the audience for the final scene.
”Bright Eyes, How can you close and fail?
How can the light that burns so brightly, suddenly burn so pale? Bright Eyes.”
At the end, after years have passed and his people have long since settled, the Black Rabbit calls Hazel. His work on this earth has been done. He has delivered his people. His end is presented as a peaceful journey
The Black Rabbit says “I have come to ask if you would like to join my Owsla. We would love to have you. You’ve been feeling tired. If you’re ready, you can come now.” The Rabbit assures Hazel that his people will be fine. Hazel briefly hesitates and looks upon his people, at peace. They are fine and he has been tired. Hazel falls to the ground at that very moment, at first slumping and taking a couple of deep breaths before resting for good. The spirit leaves his body and he follows the Black Rabbit to a new Owsla.
The ending is a challenge. It is both somber and uplifting, and people react to it differently. We see death as tragic, but it is intended to be happy ending. Hazel’s life goals were achieved and he is ready to move on to the next phase, to join Frith. To me, the ending is extremely touching, affecting, and not manipulative. Death is a part of life, and a beautiful thing when a life has been fulfilled. Hopefully after death there is another promised land waiting. For Hazel, he has somewhere to go. He follows the Rabbit to what appears as the sun, and he joins his creator. However heartbreaking for many, it is a beautiful ending.
Film Rating: 9/10
Passion Project: 2014 interview with Martin Rosen. He loved the book without thinking how difficult it would be. It was tough to get the rights. Richard Adams wanted nothing to do with the project simply because he was not a film lover.
The process was painstaking. All of the locations in the book were based on real locations that Adams knew. Rosen scouted these places and had them drawn as close as possible. He discusses at length the animation process, the voice casting and acting. He was fortunate to have a talented stable of actors, none of whom said no to the role, and they put their stamp on the performances.
The song is a key piece of the finished film. It was a financial requirement to have three songs in the film, yet Rosen was initially reluctant. “Bright Eyes” just fit with the theme.
A Movie Miracle: Guillermo Del Toro: People mistakenly think of animation as a genre and not a medium. Del Toro realized this from seeing this film. It created a world with socio-political and adult concerns. Watership Down is not an animation marvel, but people put the work in as best as they can while preserving narrative. It has a handmade feel that contributes to its quality.
Defining a Style: This is a series of interviews with a number of the animators that worked on the film. They all had positive experiences. They discuss the different styles they had an how they came together to form the final film. They also respect the film and how it broke ground.
Storyboards: The film can be watched with storyboards that appear in the upper right hand corner. This is partly a novelty, as it is difficult to seriously watch the movie with them on. However intrusive, they are interesting to see in small doses.
Criterion Rating: 8/10