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
My first viewing of Salò is one of those memorable experiences that I’ll never forget. It was shocking, disgusting, disturbing, and at times even humorous. I did not go in expecting an artistic statement on politics or society. I expected something so shocking that it would be difficult to watch. It was a test of my stomach rather than my intellect. While I could not say that I “liked” the film, I did find myself impressed with it. Having seen it once, I never expected or wanted to revisit, much less write about it.
As I embarked on this project, Salò lurked in the back of my mind. I purchased it when working to complete my collection, and promptly stuffed it under a number of other discs. Even though the Criterion arrived in a nice Digipak case, this was not one I wanted to explain to visitors.
The decision to revisit it came when I saw that The Wrong Reel (link) did a live commentary track. These are guys that I’ve vibed with on Twitter, partly because of their sense of humor, and partly because of their film taste and knowledge. Since I knew I was going to revisit someday, I figured I would take the plunge with some company, so to speak. We made a few jokes after I decided to try it, yet I still dreaded revisiting and was not expecting to change my opinion. That said, I approached this with an open mind and a willingness to reconsider it as a work of art.
In case you are not in the know, Salò is a fictional story of some Italian fascists who, toward the end of the Second World War incarcerate a group of young men and women. They play sadistic games with the children, some sexual, some violent, and some flat out cruel. They exhibit absolute power over their prisoners and this gave them pleasure. In case you have not seen it, be warned that there is nudity, violence, torture, homosexuality, sadism, etc. If you can think of something terrible, there’s a good chance it is in this film. Salò is not for the faint of heart or stomach.
The Wrong Reel commentary was exactly what I needed to take the edge off. They approached it with humor, yet they also took it seriously in many instances and brought up some thought provoking questions. I’m going to springboard off of some of their points before delving into my own analysis.
Early on in the movie, just when the children are being rounded up and we introduce their captors, The Wrong Reel guys have a discussion about how these Fascists arrived at such a place of depravity. The answer is in the question. These people had been through the war, seen and probably already done terrible, inexplicable things, far worse than they would force on their subjects over these 120 days. One of these sick individuals references his “frustrated desire.” He has been through so much that it takes atrocities in order for him to get aroused. He is just as much a product of the war as his victims. While he and his cohorts may appear to take pleasure in these acts, there are moments of weakness where they show hints of incredulity and shame at what is taking place.
Another point that impressed me was that many of the jokes (which included references to Woody Allen, South Park, and many others) were either sexual or toilet humor. They were funny, and that made it easier to endure the film again, but the guys pontificated as they were joking as to what that says about our culture. The fact that we can laugh at something this provocative and gruesome through infantile jokes speaks to our own immaturity and the puritanical nature of America. I’m not indicting the Wrong Reel guys because I laughed right along with them. They were more than aware of this double standard and wondered whether their reaction is a product of their own culture and upbringing, acknowledging that they cannot take consciously distance themselves from their background. Since sexual topics are taboo, a graphic film from the 1970s still allows us to get the giggles in a playful, embarrassing way. While the film was seen as graphic across the globe, it is telling that it was banned in Italy for the political themes, whereas it was banned in NYC for the adult content. They and I were not offended, but instead looked for humor within the taboo.
Another interesting topic was the contrast of James and Mikhail. James is close to my age, so we grew up at a time when nude magazines were rare and taboo. Mikhail is the “token millennial,” as they called him, so he has grown up with access to pornography throughout most of his life. This was his first time viewing the movie, and a recurring question was whether growing up in the Internet age would desensitize him to the sexual decadence. Surprisingly, he was not as fazed by some of the content that James and the others were. Sure, there were some scenes that got to him. There was a certain “circle” where they all pretty much lost it and the ending is hard for anyone to watch. In other scenes, the desensitization was apparent. During some of the sex scenes, he was the one to point out when things were obviously fake, like with prosthetics and sexual positioning. The illusion was shattered for him, whereas even with the second viewing, I was still disturbed and not as discerning.
The overarching theme of Salò is the mad, damning influence of abject power. The class in power has the ability to subject a lower class to whatever behavior they desire, and they derive pleasure from their supremacy. The response of their subjects is of mostly that of submission. There is some rebellion, some collaboration, and even some romanticism, but they are for the most part mortified as they are subjected to horrific acts against their will. The same is true of a tyrannical government and their subjects. A repressed population has no human rights and has scant options. In the case of Salò, it was basically to submit or die.
The most powerful scene is unquestionably that of absolute rebellion. Someone is caught breaking one of the rules, and rather than protest or plead for his life, he uses his final moments on this earth to make a statement. His oppressors have humiliated him, but he still has his honor. His final action against them, however futile, is powerful, tense, and one of the few optimistic moments of the movie. His captors even react to it, hesitating before they take his life away.
One technique that Pasolini uses frequently is the use of space and long shots. In many respects, this puts the audience in the perspective of the captors, on board with those in power. He turns the tables on us and makes us the voyeurs that are visually engaged with the terrible things happening onscreen. The most notable example is in one of the final scenes, when the Fascists are outside torturing their prisoners, but the view is from upstairs and inside the house. We even see it through binoculars within the camera. While this is the most overt example, there are other similar vantage points throughout the film. We are often placed inside the eyes of the Fascists. During the long shots of large rooms, we see what they see, and by extension, are party to it.
From a filmmaking perspective, Salò is a masterwork. The shot selections, cinematography, performances, and locations are all top-notch. The Wrong Reel guys notice this as well, and they are correct when they say that if this were an amateurish film, then it would be dismissed as yet another 1970s porno. Pasolino, having already completed many well-done movies, like The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which made my top 10 of 1964.
On a second viewing, with or without the commentary, Salò is an easier film to stomach. With the shock value minimized, it is easier to understand the message and appreciate the film, even if it is not something that can be easily “enjoyed.” I came into this film expecting to be disgusted yet again. When it ended, I was impressed by such a provocative and startling political allegory. I still cannot rank it among films I like, yet I now have a greater understanding and respect for it as a piece of art.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
Salo: Yesterday and Today: This is a short documentary that shows some behind the scenes interviews intercut with interviews, including some with Pasolini.
In a grainy black and white, they show the overhead shooting of the final torture scenes with Pasolini interacting with the actors. One of the fascists asks: “do you have anything nasty for me to do?” Pasolini responds to “wait until next scene,” which we later find out is the candle burning scene.
Pasolini talks about the genesis of the project. He gave it a Dante-esque structure when working on the screenplay for another director, Sergio Citti. This was the division of the story into circles. Citti became lost interest while Pasolini became more engaged with the project, and wanted to use to to bring Marquis de Sade to 1944-45.
Pasolini says that the sado-masochism “reduces the human body to a commodity.” It is about the anarchy of power and the nonexistence of history. All of the schools of thought do not exist in the world of Salo. It is a metaphor of power to the people subjected to it, while also is a statement about capitalism. Man is a conformist, and we see that Pasolini indicts people who join forces in the subjugation of others. They do this out of self preservation, but it is not noble or right.
Pasolini was murdered right before setting up the French dubbing of the film. This of course was a shock and frightened everyone. It is still very much a mystery, with some believing that he was murdered because of Salo.
Fade to Black: This is a 2001 Nigel Algar documentary that disputes that Salo is pornography. By the time it was released, nobody had ever seen a film like Salo. Bertolucci saw it just after Pasolini was murdered, and couldn’t bear the film because of the tragedy. He hated the film initially, but it came to him that “there was something sublime in the nightmare.” It was considered by many to be pornography because there was no other way it could be categorized. The key difference is there is nothing pleasurable or sexually stimulating when watching the movie. In many ways it is an “anti-pornographic” and political film, which continues the traditions of Rome Open City, The Night Porter, and The Conformist.
The End of Salò: This is a 40-minute documentary, mostly interviews with people involved with the project. It begins with them talking about the “Circle of Shit” scenes. The substance was made of chocolate, and the actors ate it with gusto. “The greater the gusto, the more shocking the scene,” says one of the actors playing Fascist royalty.
They had long meetings with the script, de Sade’s text, and Baudelaire, so there was quite a bit of sadistic material to work with. They pitched terrible ideas to each other and they formulated the film. One shot that was cut was a dance sequence with an ensemble that was to be the ending. Personally, I think the true ending is far more appropriate.
Dante Ferretti: – This is a 12-minute interview with the Production designer about Pasolini’s films and their relationship. Talks about his origins in film and how he met Pasolini, worked with him first on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew., which was Ferretti’s second film. He really respected Pasolini after Accatone. With Salo they were going for minimalism. He said it should not be pursued as a painting, but as a graphical way of highlighting symbols. He intentionally did not move the camera much.
Jean-Pierre Gorin: Interview with film scholar. He talks about how the film is not realist, but an adaptation of Sade to the Italian republic. Pasolini was using the past to reflect his present, the end of the 1960s.
The story, while grotesque, is deliberately meant to incite laughter. He does not mean this in an infantile sense, or out of fear or terror, but someone who sees these “elements of the machine so exposed, and see that it is never going to stop.”
Gorin compares it to In the Realm of the Senses because they both reflected the ideals of the 1960s. Both can be considered pornographic films that question society, yet they both have a historical perspective.
Lastly, he says that there is a lot of love in Pasolini’s films. They are tougher to find in Salo, but there are moments of tenderness, especially the ending.
Even though Salo is a polarizing and difficult film, the story behind it is fascinating. Criterion did a fantastic job with the project, with a wealth of supplements and a booklet with several essays. Even though the film is disturbing, the release is recommended.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10