I’m going to be straight with you: Watership Down is not a kid’s movie. And it has no pretensions of being a kid’s movie, in part because it has no pretensions of being a movie for anyone. It just exists, for no obvious reason, and it’s animated because training live rabbits to talk and hit their marks is something of a challenge. It’s a heart-breaking saga comprised of many frightening moments and much gory violence, and I’ve seen it probably 10 times or more since my first viewing at age 6. For this piece, I chose to re-watch it in the daylight. I took multiple breaks.
We open with the rabbit creation myth—rabbits have a very sophisticated folklore tradition—and two minutes in, there are corpses. We’re introduced to “the black rabbit of death” aka the Bunny Grim Reaper as well as the Creator, who either is or lives in the sun, and who tells the myth’s Ur-rabbit: “the whole world will be your enemy.” I distinctly
remember watching this for the first time, and how much the animation blew my mind. It’s vaguely primitive and elemental, with an earthy palate. The corpses of the bunnies eaten by predators turn entirely red, like little vessels of nothing but blood. This movie loves blood. And hey, check out this guy. He figured “if I’ve got to have it tattooed in my brain, might as well have it tattooed on my arm.”
We’re then transported to real life (sort of) and introduced to Fiver and Hazel, our leporid protagonists. Fiver is a runty oracle who sees things before they happen and Hazel is his pragmatic brother. They’re just minding their own business, eating in a field and getting bullied by the rabbit police (called “Owsla” in rabbit language) when suddenly Fiver backs into a sign, and he’s cast in a red glow. The field is full of blood, blood that’s spilling out of the sun and seeping down into the dirt as evil violin bows saw back and forth over the strings. The music in this film is especially demonic.
It seems something bad is going to happen soon. Fiver starts raising the alarm to all the grazing rabbits, and we see some precious baby bunnies hiding behind their mother as he warns everyone they need to leave the warren. OH MY GOD ARE BABY BUNNIES GOING TO DIE?! I want nothing more to do with this movie. Recap over.
But no, we must soldier on. Just as Hazel and Fiver soldier on, bringing their warning to the chief rabbit in spite of a surly guard rabbit munching on something, who tells them to piss off. Aw, cute—the bunny police are like our police: mean and always eating. Fiver and Hazel make it inside anyway with the help of Officer Bigwig, who looks a right bully but seems to have a soft spot for our Chicken Little-ish pair. The burrow where the chief rabbit lives looks like it’s made of mangled ghosts. The walls are white, ropey, and giving off a strong air of malevolence. I know they’re supposed to be tree roots, but really, I’m coming away with the impression that rabbits are the work of the devil. The red, blood-spilling sun they call their god? Yeah, it’s Satan.
The chief rabbit waddles around eating his floor salad, clearly not taking Fiver’s warnings seriously. Maybe he should get his fat butt out of the ghostly horror hole and see the blood field for himself. But no, better to just kick them out and get their names wrong. “Thanks for coming, Walnut,” he says. What an ass. We’re going to cheer when the humans gas you, Chief!
At night, about 30 easily spooked rabbits take off for greener pastures but the Owsla corner 20 of them and yes, I did pause the scene to count. Spoiler alert—Fiver is right about the incipient genocide, which will be enacted in the most gruesome way possible: tractors tearing up the ground and the rabbits’ bodies along with it. So to be perfectly clear about what’s happening, the rabbit police, by preventing the migration of the civilians, have condemned them to a imminent and unthinkably grisly death, like the wood chipper scene in Fargo, but if your entire body were thrown in while you’re still alive. Babies are among the escapees who are forcibly detained by the Owsla. Those babies will soon be bodies. (God, this is sick. I mean, pardon my language, but this is some fucking sick shit.) Amidst the other police being fascist a-holes, Bigwig defects and joins the group.
Our motely crew runs through the night. In the morning, they narrowly avoid being eaten by a dog by figuring out that wooden planks can be used as a transport on water. One of them says: “we should remember this; it might come in handy later.” Really piss poor foreshadowing, in terms of nuance, but then again they are only rabbits.
They continue onward until they come to their first roadway, where there’s a vividly rendered piece of bloody road-kill on the pavement. Bigwig plays in traffic to show that cars aren’t predators—which they aren’t, exactly, but please, any rabbits reading this, take note: playing chicken with them is not advisable. Later, while they’re sleeping in a corn field, one of the travelers hops out for some grass and is picked off by a hawk—which Fiver has a premonition about and then physically sees in advance, without doing anything to warn the victim. Is the whole movie going to be like this? A slow procession illustrating all the various ways rabbits can meet their doom? Yes. It is.
Now the rabbits encounter a rusty brownish bunny who offers them shelter in his warren, which is unusual because normally rabbits stick to their own communities and are hostile to outsiders. The rusty rabbit’s name is Cowslip and we need to address something here, which is that he’s animated like an old queen. He’s preening, somewhat feminine, and has a limp whatever-a-rabbit’s-equivalent-of-a-wrist is which he uses liberally to gesture about nothing and to stroke back his ears. Which of the creative directors was a raging homophobe? We may never know. But I’m ruining the surprise now by telling you Cowslip is a villain.
Through a combination of machismo and fatigue, our rabbit heroes agree to go into the gay rabbit’s warren. MISTAKE ONE, RABBITS. Though they’re greeted with a sweet lay out of carrots, Fiver resists: “There’s something unnatural and evil and twisted about this place.” Thanks for that, Michele Bachmann. He decides he’s had enough of the gay den
of inequity and runs out, where Bigwig follows him and throws a tantrum, saying he’s through tolerating Fiver’s weirdness and that he and the others are staying with Cowslip, effeminate mannerisms be damned.
Bigwig dashes off, makes a funny noise while in the distance, and that foreboding, high-pitched string music starts up. Fiver and Hazel find him caught in a snare with flies already gathering. Blood streams from his mouth. It’s fluorescent and frothy and horrible. Blackberry, who is my favorite, figures out that they need to loosen the peg of the snare since it’s made of wood and they can’t chew through wire. They do so, bloodying their own noses in the process, and eventually releasing the noose, but it seems to be too late.
The big reveal is that Cowslip and all of his buddies live in the warren in spite of knowing that they might be snared any day; they prefer the reliability of the food the man sets out to taking the chance of finding grub on their own. And they probably wanted to take on our rabbits to lower their own odds of being a man’s dinner. Online, someone hilariously refers to this as “Cowslip’s Warren of Complicity” which is not its official name in the movie or the book, but makes sense. There are lots of political statements embedded in this film, but we have to ignore them because we have more murders to talk about. Oh yeah, and Bigwig isn’t dead. Like a true alpha rabbit, he just walks it off.
After leaving the “Warren of Complicity,” our rabbits encounter another escapee from their former home. It’s the Owsla captain, Holly, whose body is bloody and boneless-seeming. “Dead, all dead,” he moans as he slumps in a ditch. He confirms Fiver’s vision: men filled in the burrows with dirt and then gassed the tunnels until “runs were blocked with dead bodies.” Rabbits that didn’t asphyxiate were then churned up by the tractor. The animation here is somewhat abstract, but not so abstract that there isn’t plentiful blood, and a few rabbit bodies flung wildly into the air.
Holly also mentions the “Efrafans” and we see a cut away of a very dark warren (both literally and figuratively) where the ideas and movements of the citizens are severely suppressed. This is where Holly got his wounds. When I was little, two things made me too scared to get out of my bed at night to answer nature’s call: one was reading Lord of
The Flies, and the other was simply conjuring up the image of General Woundwort, chief of Efrafa. Yes, it’s true: a cartoon rabbit kept me from walking four feet in the dark to use the toilet. You probably think I’m exaggerating, as usual, but I’m not. There are few pieces of culture that can compete with the peerless hellscape of Efrafa.
Anyway, the rabbits finally reach a high, uninhabited hill where they can set up a warren and be safe. But something’s wrong: Hazel’s horny. He recalls a farm they passed where some lady rabbits were locked up in a shed, and decides he’ll go on a mission to set them free. (Lady rabbits are kept by the farmer but not eaten because they lay eggs…?) During this attempt, the farmer’s dog starts barking, and two men emerge from the house with shotguns. Hey I thought this was set in England not the United States! Stand your ground against those rabbits, men. They shoot Hazel, but Blackberry and Dandelion escape, and tell Fiver of what happened once they’re back on the hill.
Upon receiving this news, Fiver drifts off into one of his trances and begins following the black flashing face of what we assume is the Rabbit of Death. He reminisces about playing with his big brother as a rabbit pup while Art Garfunkel sings, and we also see a (bizarrely placed) flashback of the sun soaking the fields of his home with blood. Then it’s back to playing with Hazel as youngsters, and the Black Rabbit of death is frolicking with them.
“Bright eyes, burning like fire,” warbles Art. I start crying. (No, not as a child, as a grown woman still in her pajamas at 2pm on a weekday.) Lana Del Rey said it best: we were born to die. Fiver finds the sound of a heartbeat at the end of large pipe with blood trickling out of it. Aaaand, scene.
Hazel is alive, and he’s still sex-crazed. He wants to do a raid on Efrafa, where at least there are no guns. Holly relates Efrafa’s evilness, and we see our first proper shot of General Woundwort, who is repulsive and dead eyed and I can’t even, and a slow motion scene of the mauling of Blackavar, a male who tried to escape. It all sounds great to Hazel, who’s practically salivating with the thought of how many lady rabbits the General hoards. He declares they’re going to execute a plan to get those damsels out of there. Holly reiterates that they’ll probably all be killed. Hazel’s like, “there is literally no risk too great to stop me from trying to hump, even now while I’ve got buckshot in my ass.” I admire his commitment. The most timeless story of all: male risks life and limb to screw.
Bigwig infiltrates the Effrafan Owsla, where he meets the General himself and is told he gets his choice of the females because he’s an officer. Woundwort chuckles as he delivers this news, so proud of his rape initiative. Woundwort, you are a visionary. Seriously though, his face is so disgusting. Like a rotten potato. It’s going to be even worse when it’s covered in blood. (Speaking of which, hasn’t it been a while since we’ve seen a rabbit being mauled to near death? MOAR BLOOD! Step it up, WsD.)
Bigwig rallies some discontent Efrafan bunnies, including Blackavar, and they escape with the help of a boat. (Remember those wooden planks from before!) Our original rabbits now have girlies to do it with, a safe place to live, and everything is perfect. But NOT SO FAST. The General organizes his Owsla to strike out and recover their missing female property.
Once our rabbits are alerted to the General being mere hops away, they decide they’ll barricade themselves inside their warren by backfilling the openings. They do a terrible job of it. Fiver starts having one of his moaning and twitching fits. “There’s a dog loose in the wood,” he repeats 3 times. Then, it echoes in Hazel’s mind three times: “There’s a dog loose in the woods.” Guys, do you ever get the feeing something is going to happen with this dog?
Hazel gathers the three fastest runners and they slip out of the burrow. Woundwort isn’t concerned about them because he only has a hare-on for Bigwig for double crossing him. As they’re running, Hazel offers his life to the rabbit god in exchange for keeping the others safe. I burst into tears. (Yes, Grown Me.) I fucking hate this movie.
Back in the warren, Woundwort has broken through their impenetrable, loosely-packed dirt defense. Blackavar hid himself in the first main room, and now he jumps out at the General, attempting (but failing) an attack. It takes Woundwort only seconds to literally rip out his throat, which we witness, and the blood-soaked body is tossed to the ground as the Owsla dash further into the warren in pursuit of the others.
Sorry to interrupt the climax momentum, but I gotta tell you something about Blackavar. He’s one of the top 10 heroes of all time, fictional or real, rabbit or human. It’s clear that even before the Owsla mutilated him in punishment for his first escape attempt, his body did not live up to the fortitude of his determined heart. He’s the type of person—I
mean, rabbit—who would always have been a little runty, a little nervous, a little bit of an unattractive mess who isn’t all that pleasant to hang out with and makes normal people rabbits uncomfortable. Who cares? They’ll never have an ounce of the integrity that he did.
Even as a 6 year old, I knew Blackavar had only one fate, which was to be handily killed by his greatest enemy and the epitome of all the evil, because Blackavar’s one gift in this life was recognizing and standing up against that evil in spite of how utterly weak and ineffectual he was. It wasn’t about sacrificing himself for the other rabbits, or trying to defend them. It was about holding his ground against something that was, without a doubt, going to overwhelm and crush him, and he did it for himself, to prove that he is free, that they can take his life but they’ll never take his soul. Hero, I say. HERO FOR REAL.
Down by the farm, Hazel has finished setting up his relay team of rabbit runners designed to lead the dog to Woundwort. He chews through the dog’s rope leash, but inadvertently gets tossed to the ground in the process, where his bad leg delays him long enough for the cat to trap him. She has not forgotten his taunting of her during a previous farm visit, and she is enjoying his terror. Rip his face off, I say! I’m tired of this anti-cat propaganda.
First with The Secret of NIMH and now this? But one of the humans heard the ruckus and comes outside to scold the cat until it lets Hazel go.
Back in the warren, Woundwort and Bigwig are fighting. Bigwig is the last line of defense for the rest of the gang, and he scratches at the flabby old general admirably. “Why throw away your life?” Woundwort asks during a momentary lull. Blood’s everywhere and his mouth is foaming. Bigwig answers, “My chief told me to defend this warren.” “Your…chief?” Woundwort responds, completely thrown off kilter. He can’t conceive of a world in which the biggest and meanest rabbit isn’t in charge but it’s Hazel; Hazel’s their chief. They all love each other, and they all love Hazel! Oh boy, here come the waterworks again.
Outside, the dog has finally arrived, and he’s mowing down rabbits left and right. He shakes and throws one that lands dead, with a giant gash in its belly leaking blood. He does the same to another, and another. Was this dog not fed while living on the farm or something? Woundwort emerges from the warren to see what all the shouting and noise is about. “Dogs aren’t dangerous!” he bellows encouragingly as his minions, putting his gross, damaged body where his mouth is by lunging to meet the dog as the dog lunges to eat him. The screen fades to white. We’re told: “Woundwort’s body was never found.” Great note to end on, Narrator. Thank you. That must have made it a bitch for the Owsla to fill out their paperwork .
Now we see an old Hazel, wandering away from the other rabbits snacking around the base of their hilltop tree. I don’t know how long rabbits live, but I’m guessing maybe 3 years have passed, at most. He looks ancient and exhausted but dignified in an old British man’s way. A black, ghostly rabbit appears flashing different faces of himself as he asks Hazel to join his Owsla, if he’s ready.
He reassures Hazel that the others will be fine without him. A muted version of the triumphant rabbit theme song plays while Hazel lies down in the grass and dies, leaving his soul to slip away and run lithely in the beautiful sky. I weep shamelessly in the broad daylight in front of my laptop. I really hate this movie. It’s one of my all-time favorites.