In less than a year, a certain film by a certain director will turn 40 years old, and it is one of those films that has received the banned bandwagon since its release. Is it Rated R? No. It’s Rated G and it’s a little movie called “Watership Down”, it was directed by Martin Rosen and it came out in 1978. Starring John Hurt and Michael Graham-Cox, this British animated film, based on the novel of the same name by Richard Adams, tells the story of a group of rabbits looking to find a new home when they discover that their current one is going to be destroyed. It’s a story of environmentalism, extremist government, and has been charged with being too violent and graphic for children. In recent history, the film has gained news in its home country of Great Britain due to Channel 5 playing the film on Easter Sunday. Twitter exploded with negative response and the Head of the BBFC responded by saying that the film would be rated PG in the current climate. Still, despite this, the film is still rarely seen and is largely censored, and, according to The Independent: “Watership Down earned positive reviews from critics upon its release and features the number one song “Bright Eyes” by Art Garfunkel” (Shepherd 2016). If the film was once received positively and is now seen by some as a negative, what precisely changed? Is it incorrect to pin animation as a “children’s medium” and if it’s not, why is it unacceptable for films like “Watership Down”, which showcase more realistic themes of life, death, dealing with tyranny, and so on, to be shown to children? Through various case studies, I shall attempt to vindicate “Watership” as a good children’s movie that is often given a poor reputation as being “overly violent” as well as examine the current state of animation from 1995 – present and the issues and comparing it with the current climate from 1978.
This will be published in parts. This is part one.
The Watership Down Case Study
November – December 2016
Our story begins with the creation of the rabbit kind, which foretells the unjust decision of Frith, the rabbit god of the sun, to curse the rabbits, but this was only because The Prince of Rabbits overpopulated the world with his kin who were eating all of the grass. For in the beginning, all of the animals were herbivores, but because of the rabbit population, Frith made all of the other animals different, and thus, carnivores with the urge to kill rabbits are born: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies and when they catch you, they will kill you; but first they much catch you, digger, listener, runner, Prince with a Swift Warning, be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed.” The notion of a god punishing mortals is nothing new – every religion from Christianity to Hinduism and back has these stories, often times, they include death in great numbers, Watership Down is no different; the story includes a massacre of rabbits and this injustice of cursing an entire people based on the actions of one person is the basis for the story’s trajectory: characters are going to die, characters are going to get hurt, this is not a happy story. This is not about talking bunny rabbits anymore. This is a story about everything wanting to kill you.
As we fade from the creation story, we are greeted to pastorals of the English countryside on a lovely May evening at Sandleford Warren, where we first meet two of our many principle characters: Hazel and his brother Fiver. It is here where we are introduced to our first society and our first injustice- the intrusion of humanity on a semi-coherent democracy. It is rather difficult to pin-point precisely what Richard Adams’ world is, mostly because the world is governed by an egalitarian-democracy but, it is important to stress the idea that these societies do not have a concept of government because government in strictly a human invention. We are dealing with animals in their own world. I am going to stress this again- humanity does not matter here. It does not work here. You cannot point exactly to a form of government, but if you had to, for the purposes of argument only, Watership Down and the societies that exist in it, are closer to egalitarian-democracy that acts like authoritarianism than anything else. Everyone has food, but only certain people can eat certain food – there is a class system, but not really. This is not caste India or so called patriarchy, but simply people being stubborn and wanting to uphold the status quo. Something to keep in mind here is Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French philosopher, wrote in his seminal work, Democracy in America: “In aristocracies, rulers sometimes endeavor to corrupt the people. In democracies rulers frequently show themselves to be corrupt. In the former their vices are directly prejudicial to the morality of the people – In the latter their indirect influence is still more pernicious” (226). When the group leaves due to human development, they venture through the forest, ultimately arriving at field in which we encounter the first glimpse of horror that these characters will face and a second injustice that will repeat itself again and again. The injustice of Nature, what I mean is, the Injustice that is the Nature Order of Things. Violet, the character depicted here, is the only female in the group and her survival is rather imperative. Rabbits need to reproduce, and they obviously need females to do so. Her death is something that is a warren and perhaps a reality check to the film’s prologue. All the world will be your enemy, and when they catch you they will kill you.
The next society is one based on fear and psychological repression- Cowslip’s Warren. As the rabbits rest under a tree to cover themselves from rain, another rabbit appears, telling them to come inside his home and rest. Some of the rabbits pick up a strange smell, something similar to man and as they eat food, which Cowslip says is leftovers that “the Man throws out”, Fiver becomes suspicious. Cowslip comes out and realizing that Fiver is catching on what is happening, suggests that they tell a story. When Hazel suggests the story of Ela-herrah, Cowslip rejects the notion, instead telling of a dark poem. This rejection of what is in essence, a biblical story, is the rejection of the truth- a form of psychological repression and fear. Columbia University’s Lauren E. Young wrote “The Psychology of Repression and Dissent in Autocracy” (2016), a thesis on psychological repression using participants in Zimbabwe as a case study, found an interesting pattern that will be important in understanding the rest of this film.
One important determinant of vulnerability to fear or anxiety is self-efficacy, or the perception of one’s ability to cope with threats or challenges (Bandura, 1977, 1988). People who perceive themselves as less efficacious are more likely to react fearfully to a threatening stimuli (Bandura et al., 1982; Gamson, 1968). Those with high internal efficacy, on the other hand, are more likely to assess that they have the capacity to face a challenge and therefore react with anger and action (Bandura, 1977) (18).
In Cowslip’s case, he has a low internal efficacy, believing that if you simply ignore the reality of your surroundings, then you will survive. Such is the case when Cowslip ignores perhaps one of the most disturbing scenes in animation, known simply as, “The Snare scene”. The Snare, a force of eradication brought on by the always seen and always present but never focused on, human society, is an injustice of humanity on nature. Later on, we discover warren was destroyed by urban development. Since this is set in reality from a rabbit’s perspective, and like much of Guillermo del Toro’s work, has a sense of fantasy, it should come to no surprise that in 2011, the area of the story’s events came under the same threat that it did in the fictitious story. After all, “Men have always hated us… they destroyed the warren because we were in their way.” Richard Adams, who lives near the area, decided to comment and take action in an article for The Telegraph entitled “Hands Off Our Land”:
“…It is my firm belief, then, that to build on the quiet meadows of Sandleford Warren would be an ugly invasion, a nasty wound to one of the loveliest retreats in all Berkshire and Hampshire. A residential development here would destroy the area’s character, and, in planning terms, I must say, would constitute an ugly addition, sticking out rather nastily from the rest of Newbury…” (Adams 2011).
This injustice of humanity on nature is seen elsewhere too, specifically with Nuthanger Farm, where Hazel and the group try to free domesticated rabbits. This fails miserably thanks to human intervention.
Efrafa, the source of the story’s main antagonist, General Woundwort, has the biggest case for this film’s incorrectly put analogy: World War II and The Holocaust. It is not about World War II, The Holocaust, nor is it an analogy to anything. At all. A lot of people, whenever they see this film for the first time, equate Efrafa to the Nazi Regime. This makes sense, people are watched, coerced, given identification in a militant state, but they are not fascistic. They are an extreme egalitarian-authoritarian government. Stalin, Hitler, Potts, Mao, Castro, all of those dictators, were communist, fascist, or egalitarian-authoritarian-dictatorship. The notion that this film is an allegory or an analogy to the Nazi or Cold War Regimes are false. I wanted to prove this, so I looked into it. To set the groundwork, I set out to find out what fascism precisely was, the most I have ever learned about it was that it was predominately used the middle of the last century during the 1930’s-1940’s leading up to and during World War II during the Axis Powers. I did not exactly know what it was. Dr. Wilhelm Reich, the Austrian Freudian psychiatrist who published his seminal, controversial, and radical work, “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” in 1933 during the rise of the Nazi Regime, spoke of fascism in a controversial but an analytical way; diagnosing the the term and ideology behind it in a single book (it should be noted that Reich’s views on sexuality and his basis for sexuality being involved in the Nazi ideology are largely incorrect). Over the course of his life, he revised this to update his readers, but his work was universally lost due to controversial practices preformed in the 1950’s. In 1970 his work resurfaced, a few twelve years after his death in the United States. In the preface of the third edition (the first edition published in the English language), he writes:
“The case for fascism, in contrast to liberalism and genuine revolution, is quite different. Its essence embodies neither the surface nor the depth, but by and large the second, intermediate character layer of secondary drives…. The result of erroneous political thinking is that even today, fascism is conceived as a specific national characteristic of the Germans or the Japanese. All further erroneous interpretations follow from this initial erroneous conception.… A sharp distinction must be made between ordinary militarism and fascism. Wilhelmian Germany was militaristic, but not fascistic…. In its purest form fascism is the sum total of all the irrational reactions to the average human character…. Fascist mentality is the mentality of the “little man”, who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious. It is no coincidence that all fascist dictators stem from the reactionary milieu of the little man… The fascist is the drill Sergeant in the colossal army of our deeply sick, highly industrialized civilization” (xiii-xv).
General Woundwort is close to a fascist character, he is certainly the closest thing we will ever get to fascism in this world, BUT, he is not advocating for a rebellion, he is not supported by a group of people who are disenfranchised, or “the little man”. He already has power by story events. He already has coerced others to follow him. The difference between fascism and egalitarian-authoritarianism is this: fascism deals specifically with ideology and the spreading of it. . Wilhelm Reich continues:
“Fascism can be crushed only if it is countered objectively and practically, with well-grounded knowledge of life’s processes…. When a fascist character, regardless of hue, is heard sermonizing about “the honor of the nation” (instead of talking about the honor of man) or the “salvation of the sacred family and the race” (instead of the community toiling mankind)… [He lists various questions to the effect of: what are you doing to benefit humanity? What are you doing to combat disease? What are you doing to erase poverty? What are you doing to benefit us? And so forth] Let’s have no more of your chatter. Give us a straightforward answer or shut up!” (xvi).
None of this discourse occurs in Woundworth’s personality nor the government he represents. Therefore, if none of this occurs, then it can be logically concluded that this last society is not fascistic. If it’s not fascistic, then how is it egalitarian-authoritarian? To answer this question, let us return to Young.
Woundwort is an egotistical autocrat who follows egalitarian-authoritarianism, who oppresses his people for his own personal gain, and destroys the notion of civil liberty in this universe along with the rest of the societies that do not include our main characters. What this means is that in Efarfa, there is no free speech, no press, no sense of voice that is allowed. Similar to fascism, but not exactly; remember, a fascist is someone “who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious.” Woundwort is the status quo. Hazel and his friends are not democracy. These characters have no concept of government, but if they were to have one, it would still be egalitarian-authoritarianism, at least with democratic leanings. In short, all of this is purely hypothetical and putting this film in human terms.
To sum up everything this film has to offer in one paragraph, turn to the introduction of Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way’s book, “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War”:
In democracies, civil liberties – including the rights of free speech, press, and association – are protected. Although these rights may be violated periodically, such violations are infrequent and do not seriously hinder the oppositions capacity to challenge incumbents. In fully authoritarian regimes, basic civil liberties are often violated so systematically that opposition parties, civic groups, and the media are not even minimally protected (e.g. Egypt and Uzbekistan). As a result, much opposition takes place underground or in exile (8).
I believe that this film paints an example of a progression of a similar style of government slowly descending into madness. As they journey into the world, they come across a worse version of the proceeding, ultimately coming across the ultimate extreme that they themselves could become.
Currently, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) rates Watership Down as U (Universal) which is the MPAA equivalent for G. On the film’s page on the BBFC, the film is rated U for Violence, Threat, and Language, with descriptors such as:
- (Violence) Occasionally rabbits are attacked and shot at, or fight. One rabbit is caught in a snare, a dog picks up several rabbits and tosses them about, and there are scenes in which rabbits fight each other using their teeth and claws. Some of these moments result in bloody injuries.
- (Threat) The rabbits are chased by cats, dogs, and foxes. A rabbit describes how human construction workers destroyed his warren, causing some rabbits to panic and die. A larger, tougher rabbit threatens to hurt those who disobey him.
- (Language) There is a single use of ‘piss off’ squawked by a loud-mouthed seagull, as well as use of ‘damn’.
According to the BBFC website in a 2010 article appropriately titled, “What Are You Complaining About Now?”, the organization highlights its woes and reasoning behind the rating:
We also regularly receive complaints about classification decisions made years, sometimes decades earlier. Watership Down was rated U for film in 1978 and for video in 1987 reflecting our classification system and standards at those times. There were a few complaints from parents at the time who felt the film was too upsetting for very young children. The category has not changed since then, and we continue to receive one or two complaints about the film each year (more when a new edition of the DVD is released [i.e. the 2015 Criterion Collection release]) despite the widespread familiarity with it over the past 30 years.
So what does this say about animation specificity? It says that animation can be violent, it can be dark, it can be intriguing and ask the big questions. Because life is not all about sunshine and rainbows. The film says exactly what it is in the opening: “All the world will be your enemy, and when they catch you, they will kill you.” Not if they catch you. When. Not if they kill you. They will. This film is meant for families, not just children, but adults and children, to discuss and talk about. It’s a discussion piece. A life lesson piece if there ever was one. It is this precise reason that complaints arise – parents do not want violence in animated films, because they have companies like Walt Disney and DreamWorks. While those companies are fantastic and do amazing work, this film is not of those people. It is of the likes of a different era of animation – a type of experimentalism that was common in 1970’s animation. An example is Ralph Bahski’s “Wizards” (1977), which is perhaps one of the greatest animated films of all time that no one has heard of.
No government is perfect, no society will ever be, but what Watership Down tried to get families to look at is to examine the extremes of both. It’s a film that begs to ask what we are willing to accept in our own government and what we can do to change it and make it better. There has not been a film like this before and there has not been one since.
In terms of British culture, Watership Down is celebrated in the area that it takes place in, there is a bar on the downs called The Watership Down, there is a plaque commemorating Richard Adams, Nuthanger Farm is Nuthanger Farm, Sandleford Warren exists. It is one of the best-selling novels in the English language and is as literary significant as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter. From a World Cinema standpoint, the film expresses animation and what it was doing at the time. Ralph Bahski’s “Lord of the Rings”, which was released the same year as Watership Down, also features John Hurt and Michael Graham Cox, but in terms of lasting significance, Watership Down surpasses the American film. The reason is because it is the only film adaptation of the work and is the best adaptation overall (the 1990’s television show toned the violence down, cleaned up the animation and made it brighter for younger children). Even today, Watership Down is still being talked about. Netflix and BBC are in talks to have the story adapted into a miniseries sometime in 2017 with Ben Kingsley expected to be involved.
In conclusion, “Watership Down” is not about talking bunny rabbits. There is no clear way to speak of this film in human terms but we touched upon the surface of authoritarianism, looked at the fascist argument and tried to prove that any government is not immune to extremism. We spoke of the significance of the film and current impact the film has.