Being an Australian, it's rather difficult to sympathise with the plight of rabbits. Following their introduction to our continent in 1859, the European Rabbit population has multiplied at an absolutely phenomenal rate, destroying the natural environment and helping to drive numerous native marsupial species to extinction. They've survived countless attempts to eradicate their numbers, and are now largely resistant to both Myxomatosis and calicivirus. At home, I'm always sure to congratulate my pet dog, Cassie, whenever she trots into the backyard with a rabbit clutched between her teeth. You'll forgive me for launching into a tirade about a troublesome Australian pest, but I'm just trying to convey my general abhorrence towards the species. It would have taken a mighty piece of film-making to make me forget that I hate rabbits, and yet 'Watership Down (1978)' had me utterly engaged from the opening moments. Not only did I care about Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig, but I genuinely fell in love with them, and for 100 minutes I was completely absorbed in their strenuous but noble struggle for survival.
The film is based upon the 1972 novel of the same name by Richard Adams, and was both adapted and directed by Martin Rosen. What struck me most was how incredibly rich the story was, with Adams having created not only a wealth of multi-layered characters, but also an entire rabbit culture and mythology. 'Watership Down' opens with a fascinating Creation story, as the God-like deity Frith (symbolised by the Sun) creates planet Earth and every creature within it. In a double-edged blessing, Frith condemns the mischievous rabbit prince El-ahrairah to forever be hunted, but also to always have the skill and agility to survive: "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." The events take place in the English countryside, with the title stemming from a hill at Ecchinswell in the county of Hampshire; despite my initial preconceptions, 'Watership Down' was certainly not the story of a sinking ocean liner!
Hazel the rabbit (voiced by John Hurt) may not be physically-imposing, but he is selfless, intelligent and mature, and this makes him a fine leader. His younger brother, Fiver (Richard Briers), is runtish and neurotic, yet he possesses a sort of mystic flair that means his peculiar "feelings" almost always prove significant. After Fiver foresees danger approaching their warren, a small group of rabbits including the brutish but noble Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) flee their home in search of a safer locale. Their journey is certainly not a walk in the park, and allow me to be the one millionth reviewer to warn parents that many scenes in this film are not suitable for young children. As the group trudge across the English countryside, they are greeted with an assortment of creatures who would be more than happy to make a dinner out of them, including hawks, dogs, cats and humans. However, the rabbits' greatest obstacle before happiness is the nasty, tyrannical Chief-Rabbit, General Woundwort (Harry Andrews), a bloated, domineering lump of a villain who is both reminiscent of George Orwell's Napolean and, oddly enough, Orson Welles' Police Captain Hank Quinlan.
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