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Watership Down (1978) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Based upon Richard Adam's novel of the same title, this animated feature delves into the surprisingly violent world of a warren of rabbits as they seek to establish a new colony free of tyranny and human intervention. Frightening and bloody in some scenes. Not recommended for young children.

  • In the Sandleford warren, Fiver, a young runt rabbit who is a seer, receives a frightening vision of his warren's immenient destruction. When he and his loving brother, Hazel, fail to convince their chief of the need to evacuate; they set out on their own with a small band of others who heeded the warning and barely manage to elude the Warren's military caste. What follows is a perilous journey in which the band faces dangers of all varieties like predators, humans and even their own kind. While they eventually find a peaceful new home at Watership Down, they have new problems that will lead to a deadly conflict with the neighbouring Warren called Efrafa, which is a police state by the powerful and insane General Woundwart.

  • A group of rabbits flee their doomed warren and face many dangers to find and protect their new home.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • The story begins with a prologue, narrated by Michael Hordern, establishing the Lapine culture and mythology and describing the creation of the world and its animals by Lord Frith, the sun god. All the animals co-exist peacefully and eat grass together but the rabbits, led by Prince El-ahrairah, quickly multiply and overwhelm the other animals with their insatiable hunger. When Frith warns El-ahrairah to control his people, the prince scoffs at him, claiming that his are the strongest people in the land. In retaliation, Frith gives to each of the other animals a gift, turning them into predators, or 'elil' that hunt and feed on the rabbits. However, Frith also bestows upon the rabbits the gifts of speed and cunning, enabling them a fighting chance against their enemies. All creatures may seek to kill El-ahrairah and his descendants but, with their wits and quickness, the rabbits may survive.

    The film then transitions to realistic animation and brings us to the English countryside of Sandleford. Fiver (Richard Briers), a young runt rabbit with prophetic abilities, foresees the end of his peaceful rabbit warren during an afternoon grazing, or 'silflay'. He exclaims to his older brother, Hazel (John Hurt), that the field they live on is covered in blood, but Hazel acknowledges the image as a trickery of the sunset. Regardless, he agrees to take Fiver to the Chief Rabbit to see if they can have the warren evacuated. However, the Chief Rabbit (Ralph Richardson) dismisses them, saying that leaving the warren in the height of the mating season is preposterous enough without it being based on a young rabbit's prophecy. Knowing that his brother's visions have always come to light in the past, Hazel helps Fiver gather any rabbits willing to leave the warren and they all sneak away during the night. They are briefly stopped by Captain Holly (John Bennett) of the Owsla, the rabbit police force, but they manage to fight past him. As they leave the safety of the warren, they pass a sign clearly stating that the lands of their home is due for residential development.

    In all, eight rabbits successfully defect: Fiver, Hazel, ex-Owsla officer Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), cunning Blackberry (Simon Cadell), small Pipkin (Roy Kinnear), storyteller and runner Dandelion (Richard O'Callaghan), old Silver (Terence Rigby), and the only female, Violet. They travel into the woods and through the night, encountering dangers such as owls and a large badger, or 'lendri'. Their curiosity is aroused when they stumble upon a road and Blackberry explains that 'hrududu' travel on it but have no interest in rabbits. He proves this by sitting still as one of them, a car, approaches and speeds on by. However, the threat of being killed by such wayward creatures is made apparent when Blackberry is nearly hit by another. A bean field provides some shelter and the rabbits are able to rest. Come morning, Fiver wakes to see Violet leave the safety of the plants to feed on grass and watches in horror as a hawk swoops down and carries her off.

    One less, they move along and come to a creek in time to hear that there's a dog loose in the woods. With the dog on their scent, and Fiver and Pipkin unable to swim, the larger rabbits use a plank of wood to float them across, swimming alongside. They find refuge that night within a crypt in an old cemetery but are set upon by a band of black rats which draws the attention of an owl. The rabbits escape. The following day they meet a friendly, but odd, rabbit named Cowslip (Denholm Elliott) who offers them food and shelter at his warren. The group is grateful for the hospitality they receive and all but Fiver consider remaining at the warren permanently. He senses something terribly wrong and tries to warn the others of it but they refuse to listen. He leaves in a fit, followed by Bigwig who taunts him before suddenly being caught in a snare trap. Bigwig collapses and begins to choke as the others frantically try to dig out the post the snare is attached to. He coughs blood and appears to stop breathing just as the post is removed. The rabbits mourn their loss as Fiver admonishes them: the warren is given food and protection from a nearby farmer who has laid numerous deadly snares throughout the warren as his price. After this terrifying revelation, Bigwig miraculously recovers and, on Fiver's advice, the band moves on with a new found respect for the seer's wisdom.

    Eventually, the rabbits come to Nuthanger Farm where Hazel discovers a hutch of female rabbits. Knowing that does will be needed to start a new warren, but deterred by the farm's dog and cat, he promises a young doe named Clover (Mary Maddox) that he will return. As the rabbits move alongside a field, they spot a fox, or 'homba', sniffing out their trail. Bigwig runs out to draw its attention away to the shelter of the woods nearby. The others hear a cry and think Bigwig has been caught but he soon returns and hurries them on, explaining that he ran into a couple of rabbits that tried to stop him despite his warning of the fox. It was presumably one of the rabbits that cried out when the fox caught up.

    The band continues onward until they find Captain Holly, badly injured and at the brink of death. He briefly recounts the destruction of the Sandleford warren as Fiver predicted, witnessing as the ground was turned up and how he was forced to leave his fellow rabbits within their burrows to suffocate to death by noxious fumes. He mentions a warren called Efrafa before he collapses. Once rested, Fiver leads the group to the place he envisioned, a hill called Watership Down where the rabbits discover empty burrows suitable to live in beneath the shelter of a great tree. They all settle in with Hazel informally recognized as Chief Rabbit. One day, an acerbic seagull crash lands on the warren, his wing injured and leaving him unable to fly. Hazel, seeing the potential of using the gull's skills of flight, offers to help him despite the gull's stubborn pride. Kehaar (Zero Mostel) is allowed to rest at the warren and, as Hazel hoped, notices with disdain the lack of female rabbits and 'chicks'. He berates the rabbits for not keeping a better warren but eagerly agrees to survey the area for females once his wing heals. When he manages to take flight, Hazel opts to return to Nuthanger Farm with two other rabbits to try and free the caged does.

    Hazel and Blackberry make it to the barn and start chewing away at the hinges to the doe's crate while Dandelion keeps watch. However, he inadvertently alerts the dog and farmer to their presence just as the crate door is broken open. The farmer wrangles up the does as the other rabbits try to escape. Hazel is hit in his hindquarter by shotgun pellets as they flee and Blackberry and Dandelion are forced to leave him behind. They return to the warren to tell Fiver of his brother's demise, sentimentally stating that the Black Rabbit of Inle, 'death', does no more than his appointed task. However, seeing a vision of the Black Rabbit, Fiver claims his brother is not dead and follows the vision to an old pipe where a trail of blood leads to Hazel, his heart still beating.

    Kehaar returns to Watership Down and helps remove the buckshot pellets from Hazel's hindquarters, using his beak. He speaks of the Efrafa warren nearby which houses many rabbits. Holly pipes up and warns the other rabbits not to go there; it is a dangerous warren ruled tyrannically by a chief named General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). It was Woundwort's Owsla that injured Holly and, were it not for the brave actions of a doe named Hyzenthlay (Hannah Gordon) and the appearance of one of Frith's 'messengers' (a train that cuts down pursuing Owsla), he would never have escaped. Bigwig offers to infiltrate the warren. Arriving at Efrafa as a newcomer wishing to join, he impresses General Woundwort and is offered a familiar spot on the warren's Owsla as an officer with the option of choosing a female for himself. He meets with Hyzenthlay and tells her of his free warren. In time, they recruit other defectors including Blackavar, a rabbit with several bodily scars and bitten ears, severely maimed for his many escape attempts.

    After meeting with Kehaar and relaying his plans to leave that very night, Bigwig is confronted by General Woundwort who overheard Kehaar's loud calls. Bigwig manages to convince him that their talk was of no concern, though Woundwort remains suspicious. That night, as a thunderstorm approaches, Bigwig takes his band of Efrafans and escapes. However, the ever-vigilant Efrafan Owsla gives chase, led by General Woundwort. A timed attack by Kehaar keeps the General at bay while the rabbits make way for the river. Echoing their earlier use of driftwood, the rabbits leap into a small boat and break off the moor just as the Owsla arrive at the banks. Bigwig and the other defectors safely drift downstream and make their way to Watership Down.

    However, several days later, their trail is picked up again by Efrafan trackers and General Woundwort vows vengeance on Bigwig. As an unknown to Woundwort, Hazel approaches the Efrafans to negotiate. He offers an alliance of free and independent warrens living peacefully together, but Woundwort casts his intrigue aside and dismisses Hazel, ordering him to tell Bigwig to surrender the defectors. Hazel returns to his warren and instructs all the rabbits to hole up inside their burrows and block the entrances as the Efrafans begin their assault. Panic-stricken, Fiver falls into a trance, moaning as he envisions a 'dog loose in the woods'. His sounds briefly scare the Efrafans and inspires Hazel to formulate a plan. He brings with him the fastest runners; Hyzenthlay, Blackberry, and Dandelion, and they escape the warren. Woundwort orders his Owsla to ignore them, intent on finding Bigwig whom he believes to be the chief rabbit.

    On their way, Hazel prays to Frith and offers his life in return for the safety of the warren, but Frith replies that it is a bargain he cannot honor. Along the way, he positions each of the rabbits at different intervals until he and Dandelion arrive at Nuthanger Farm. Dandelion exclaims that, if they succeed, theirs will be the greatest story ever told. Hazel assures him that he will be the one to tell it as he makes his way towards the farmer's dog, sleeping in its dog house. Hazel chews away at the dog's leash as Dandelion draws its attention. The dog chases after Dandelion as Hazel is pounced upon by the farmer's cat (Lynn Farleigh). However, the farmer's daughter, Lucy (Michelle Price), orders her cat to let the rabbit alone and Hazel is freed.

    The dog, meanwhile, is led by the rabbits in relay fashion back to Watership Down as General Woundwort makes his way inside the burrows, fiercely killing Blackavar after he attacks Woundwort in a delaying tactic. In a last ditch effort to protect the warren, Bigwig buries himself beneath the dirt of one of the tunnels and, as Woundwort approaches, lunges out in surprise and attacks him. The rabbits ferociously bite and scratch at each other until they are both bloodied. Woundwort asks why Bigwig won't simply surrender and Bigwig responds that his chief ordered him to protect the warren. Woundwort hesitates, surprised that Bigwig is not chief and imagines that he now has a larger rabbit to reckon with. At that moment, the dog arrives at the warren and begins tearing the Efrafan Owsla apart. They all scream and scatter as Woundwort emerges out of the warren and curses them for their cowardice, claiming that dogs aren't dangerous. He then sees the dog come out from behind the tree, dropping a dead Efrafan from its mouth before it charges towards him. Woundwort fearlessly leaps to confront the dog and it is said that, after this encounter, his body was never found and he wasn't heard from again. His legacy lives on as a story that does tell to their kittens as a way to keep them obedient; that if they misbehave, General Woundwort will get them.

    In epilogue, an elderly Hazel settles in to silflay when he is visited by a shadowy phantom, revealed as Prince El-ahrairah in the form of the Black Rabbit of Inle. El-ahrairah suggests that Hazel has been feeling tired of late and offers him a place with his Owsla. When Hazel looks back warily on his family at the warren, El-ahrairah assures him that they, and future generations, will be safe. Reassured, Hazel lays down in the grass and peacefully passes away. His spirit leaves his body and follows El-ahrairah through the woodland and into the afterlife.

    "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever 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."

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