WATERSHIP DOWN (Martin Rosen, 1978, UK)
A prophecy of blood inspires a small group of survivors to flee their oppressive warren and search for a new life. Richard Adams’ anthropomorphic odyssey is transposed to the silver screen, a larger-than-life reproduction that captures the essence of imagination in two dimensions. This violent adventure is composed of shadow and light, fear and laughter, birth and mournful death, to create a suspenseful travelogue that doesn’t condescend to the child or adult.
Fiver suffers from prophetic visions, a small scared rabbit who sees the writing in the sky, and convinces his brother to search for a new home. Hazel is skeptical, but after being scolded by the aged Chief Rabbit, a taciturn curmudgeon stuck in the old ways, convinces others to join the exodus. They must fight their way past Capt. Holly of the repressive Owsla (police force) and continue on their many adventures. The small band of survivors must use their wits and strength to survive this cruel journey, and above all work together, each utilizing his unique talent. They encounter a den of complacent rabbits, whose existential dread poisons Fiver’s dreams, and soon realize that the warren is a gluttonous snare. Their exploits take them across the open fields where fear is always chasing them like a hungry elil, but they are fast and cunning. Safe upon the verdant down, the irascible bucks divine their situation: without does, their new society cannot prosper. With the help of a friendly seagull named Kehaar, they seek out mates to expand the warren. But General Woundwort and his fascist Owsla stand in the way.
WATERSHIP DOWN is an epic tale of heroism and sacrifice, of friendship and leadership, of love and duty that becomes life-affirming even though the Black Rabbit of Inle ever stalks the protagonists. It is also a tale of blood and woe, a fight against tyranny, and the film doesn’t shy away from the fierceness of war: Bigwig stuck in a snare as blood froths at his mouth, the horrible injuries of Capt. Holly, or the final battle between Woundwort and Bigwig are shown in viscous detail. Death is part of every great adventure story, a nuclear element that sustains the narrative frisson.
The introduction imparts the wonderful myth of Frith and his gift to El-ahrairah, as the angry god blesses El-ahrairah’s posterior and gives him supple strength, intelligence and speed to outrun his enemies…but Frith makes everything the enemy of rabbits. The abstract animation captures the whimsical nature of Leporidae mythology while the vivid watercolors of the main story represent a pristine natural beauty.
The film’s conclusion is both sad and joyous, as Hazel finally joins the great Owsla in the sky, his blood preserved in the young kits grazing in the field. Final Grade: (B)