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Watership Down is a 1978 British animated adventure-thriller drama film written, produced, and directed by Martin Rosen. It is based on Richard Adams' novel of the same name and financed by a consortium of British financial institutions.

Originally released on 19 October 1978, the film was an immediate success and it became the sixth most popular film of 1979 at the British box office.[4] It was the first animated feature film to be presented in Dolby surround sound.

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 prologue, which establishes the Lapine culture and mythological history. It describes the rabbit version of creation, in which the sun god "Lord Frith" creates the world, and in a mixed blessing, deems the mischievous rabbit prince El-ahrairah and his descendants to be forever hunted but also to forever survive by their speed and cunning.

In the present, in the English countryside of Sandleford, Fiver, a rabbit seer has an apocalyptic vision and goes with his older brother Hazel to beg the chief to have the warren evacuated, but they are dismissed and attempt to make an exodus themselves. The group meets resistance from the warren's police force called the Owsla, but eight manage to fight and escape: Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, Silver and Violet. As Fiver had foreseen, the warren is wiped out by human developers. The group travels through the dangerous woods and makes it to a bean field to rest. In the morning, Violet is snatched away by a hawk, leaving the group without a female.

After several dangerous situations, they meet the enigmatic rabbit Cowslip, who invites them to his warren. They are grateful, but Fiver senses something unsettling in the atmosphere, as well as the resident rabbits' overly resigned attitudes, and leaves. An irked Bigwig follows, and chastises Fiver for supposedly causing senseless tension with his instincts. Moments later, however, he is caught in a snare trap. Fiver attempts to get help from their hosts, but is ignored. Bigwig is freed after nearly dying. As Fiver reveals, the warren is fed by a farmer who snares rabbits in return for his food and protection from predators. After Bigwig's narrow escape, the other rabbits willingly follow Fiver's and Hazel's advice and set out once more.

The rabbits discover Nuthanger farm, which contains a hutch of female rabbits, necessary for a new warren. However, they do not manage to free them, on account of the territorial farm cat and dog. Later, they are found by the maimed Owsla Captain Holly, who recounts the destruction of Sandleford by humans, and a mysterious group called the "Efrafrans" before falling unconscious. After he recovers, Fiver finally leads the group to the hill he envisioned, Watership Down, where the rabbits settle in, with Hazel as chief.

They befriend an acerbic injured seagull, Kehaar, who offers to survey the local area for does. The rabbits return to Nuthanger Farm to free the does; Hazel is shot by a farmer and presumed dead, but Fiver has a vision and follows the apparition of the Black Rabbit of Inlé (a rabbit version of the Grim Reaper) to his injured brother. Kehaar returns and while removing buckshot pellets from Hazel's leg, reports of Efrafa, a large warren with many females. Holly, who encountered Efrafa, begs them not to go there, describing it as a totalitarian state, run by vicious and heavily territorial rabbits. Hazel feels they have no choice but to go there. Bigwig infiltrates the enemy warren and is made an Owsla officer by the cruel chief, General Woundwort. Bigwig recruits several potential escapees to his cause, including Hyzenthlay, an idealistic doe and Blackavar, a scarred attempted escapee. They flee, and using a boat to float down the river, they evade capture, helped by Kehaar. That night, Kehaar leaves for his homeland, with the gratitude of the warren.

Several days later, Efrafan trackers discover their trail and follow them to Watership Down. Hazel offers a treaty with Woundwort, who dismisses Hazel, telling him to turn over Bigwig and all the deserters or he will kill the entire warren. The Watership rabbits barricade their warren and are besieged by the Efrafans. Fiver slips into a trance, in which he envisions a dog loose in the woods. His moans inspire Hazel to free the dog from Nuthanger Farm and lead him to the Efrafans. He escapes with Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay.

Hazel prays to Frith, offering his life for that of those in the warren, a bargain Frith acknowledges, but does not accept. Hazel releases the dog while his companions bait it into following them to Watership Down; Hazel is attacked by the cat, but saved by Lucy (the owner of the hutch rabbits). When the Efrafans break through the warren's defences, Woundwort goes in alone; Blackavar attacks him, but Woundwort slays him easily. Bigwig ambushes Woundwort and they fight to exhaustion. The dog arrives and attacks the Efrafan soldiers. Hearing the commotion, Woundwort abandons Bigwig and fearlessly confronts the dog. No trace of Woundwort is found, leaving his fate ambiguous.

Several years later, the warren is thriving. An elderly Hazel is visited by a strange rabbit who invites him to "join his Owsla", assuring him of Watership Down's perpetual safety. Reassured, Hazel accepts and dies peacefully. Hazel's spirit follows the visitor through the woodland and trees towards the Sun, which metamorphoses into Frith, and the afterlife. (The visitor, voiced by Joss Ackland, is called "The Black Rabbit" in the film's credits, though the corresponding passage in the novel clearly identifies him as El-Ahrairah.)



The film was originally to be directed by John Hubley, who died in 1977. His work can still be found in the film, including the "fable" scene. He was replaced by the film's producer Martin Rosen, his directorial debut.

After the genesis story, which was rendered in a narrated simple cartoon fashion, the animation style changes to a detailed, naturalistic one. There are concessions to render the animals anthropomorphic only to suggest that they have human voices and minds, some facial expressions for emotion, and paw gestures. The animation backgrounds are watercolors. Only one of the predators, the farm cat Tab, is given a few lines, the rest remaining mute.

The backgrounds and locations, especially Efrafa and the nearby railway, are based on the diagrams and maps in Richard Adams's original novel. Most of the locations in the movie either exist or were based on real spots in Hampshire and surrounding areas.

Although the film is fairly faithful to the novel, several changes were made to the storyline, mainly to decrease overly detailed complexity and improve the pace and flow of the plot. In addition, the order in which some events occur is re-arranged.


The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson, Morley replacing Williamson after the composer had fallen behind and only composed the prelude and main title theme in sketch form.[5] A list of the musical cues for the film can be found on the composer's website, which also gives information about the different composers working on the project.[6]

The soundtrack includes Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", which was written by the British singer and songwriter Mike Batt.


Script error: No such module "Unsubst". The film was an immediate success at the UK box office and has received a mostly positive critical reception, with an 82% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[7] The film won the inaugural Saturn Award for Best Animated Film and was nominated for Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1979. In 2004, the magazine Total Film named Watership Down the 47th greatest British film of all time and it was also ranked 15th in the "100 Greatest Tearjerkers".

Investors in the film reportedly received a return of 5,000% on their investment.[8]

Despite its success at the UK box office, the film underperformed at the US box office, earning only US$3 million.

BBFC certification

Unlike many animated features, the film faithfully emulated the dark and violent sophistication of its source material. As a result, at the first release of the film in 1978, many reviewers took to warning parents that children might find the content disturbing. When the film was first submitted, the British Board of Film Censors passed the film with a 'U' certificate (suitable for all ages), deciding that "whilst the film may move children emotionally during the film's duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story is broken and a 'U' certificate was therefore quite appropriate".[9] However, in 2012, the BBFC admitted that it had "received complaints about the suitability of Watership Down at 'U' almost every year since its classification".[10]

Some marketers in the U.S. also worried that the main promotional poster appeared too dark and might scare some children. The poster is actually showing Bigwig in a snare (his distinctive fur is clearly visible), yet the image on the poster does not appear in the film, which contains a far bloodier depiction of the scene.

After a British television screening at Easter 2016, David Austin, the head of the BBFC said the film would receive a 'PG' (Parental Guidance) rating under current standards, if it was re-released. According to Austin, the use of an expletive would be "unacceptable" under the current criteria for language in a film rated 'U', and the film's violence was "arguably too strong" for such a rating.[11]


Picture book

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.Script error: No such module "Unsubst".

Home releases

  • Watership Down (region 1, USA, currently out of print) (2002)
  • Watership Down 25th Anniversary Edition (region 4, Australia) (2003) (Big Sky Video)
  • Watership Down (Australia, 2005, Umbrella Entertainment)
  • Watership Down Deluxe Edition (region 1, USA) (7 October 2008)
  • Watership Down The Criterion Collection (region 1, USA) (24 February 2015)[12]

Watership Down was originally scheduled to be released on Blu-ray in the UK in October 2010 but this release was postponed for reasons unknown. The Blu-ray release, however, was released in Germany. The UK release was eventually released on 28 October 2013, not by Warner Home Video, but by its original domestic rights holder, Universal Pictures, with a higher quality restoration and a 1.78:1 widescreen presentation.[13]

International distribution


TV series

Almost twenty years after the film was released, a TV series with the same title was created. It has thirty-nine episodes and was loosely based on the events of the film, albeit the storyline is more child-friendly. This version was marketed with the producers making an effort to reassure parents that the violence had been softened and that the main characters would not be permanently harmed in their adventures. However, the third season took a slightly darker turn than the first two seasons.


On 10 March 2015, the BBC and Netflix announced plans for an animated television miniseries based on the novel for a 2017 release.[14]


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  2. FILM CLIPS: 'Rabbit Test' a Rivers Conception Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 23 May 1977: e9.
  3. "Would You Believe an Industry Could Die?" Sunday Times [London, England] 15 June 1980: 63. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
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  8. Alexander Walker, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984-2000, Orion Books, 2005 p6
  9. BBFC Examiners Report 15 February 1978 http://www.bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/Watership-Down-report.pdf
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External links

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