On the surface, Watership Down doesn’t appear to have anything the survival community would be interested in. Told from the perspective of several rabbits that are trying to find a new home, the cartoon is filled with silly characters, and a lot of the same themes you would see in any kids movie. If you get around to watching it though, you’ll see it is a gut wrenching story of survival in a savage world that most modern viewers can’t believe is rated PG.
Based on the novel by Richard Adams, the author wrote the rabbit characters as surrogates for humans and our behaviors. The rabbits have their own social structures, culture, language, religion, and even a mythology that attempts to explain why they are near the bottom of the food chain. Just like any good science fiction or fantasy story, by changing the setting so drastically the author can tell a very human story about modern society, without the viewers being clouded by their own ideologies and cultural norms.
You may still be wondering what this film has to do with preparedness. With a movie about rabbits living in vastly different circumstances than us, there really aren’t any survival tips to be gleaned from the story, but bear with me. The movie is about these rabbits escaping the destruction of their warren (rabbit colony), setting out into a world filled with traps, predators, and conditions that they have very little control over.
They often face as much danger from members of their own species as they do from their environment (sound familiar?). It’s one of the most apocalyptic films I’ve ever seen, and I’m surprised it has never been categorized under the “Post-Apocalyptic” genre.
What it lacks in survival advice, it makes up for with human advice. The diverse set of characters that we see in the film are really just stand-ins for different human personalities, and there’s a lot to be learned about the kinds of human behaviors that surface in dire situations. Below are the seven characters you are bound to run into when the SHTF. Spoilers ahead.
Fiver is one of the stranger characters in the movie. He has the gift of second sight, and it’s his frightening visions that serve to warn the rest of the rabbits in the warren, of the impending disaster that is coming. Most of the rabbits don’t believe him, but he manages to convince a few to flee with him. Of course, his vision eventually does come to fruition and almost none of the rabbits that stayed behind managed to survive.
While you probably don’t receive visions of the future, for all intents and purposes, preppers would be considered the prophets of their society after any major collapse. Most preparedness minded folks have a firm pulse on current events, a thorough grasp of reasonable deduction, and some gut instincts for good measure. Altogether, this gives them an often overwhelming awareness of events that may threaten society.
If you take a look at any group of people, whether it’s the workplace, a family, or a group of friends, there’s probably one member that doesn’t stand out in any way, but is crucial to the success of that group. This person is well rounded, but usually doesn’t have any special ability. They are always working quietly to settle disputes, allay fears, and pick up the slack that others leave behind. They’re usually very good at bringing out the best of every person in the group.
In this case, Hazel would have to be considered the mediator. He’s the main character of the story, and often serves as the middleman between his strange brother Fiver, and the rest of the rabbits who don’t understand him. His ability to bring a diverse set of personalities together under such stressful circumstances, eventually brings him into a leadership position in the group.
Known only as the Chief Rabbit in the movie, he is the leader of the warren that the main characters flee from. He’s really only concerned with maintaining the status quo, even in the face of certain death. You could say he suffers from denial and normalcy bias. I was tempted to call him a tyrant, but I think he still wants what’s best for the warren, even though he should be in no position to lead them. When Hazel first tells the Chief of his brother’s prophecy, and speaks of how often his brother’s visions turn out to be accurate, he is snubbed instead. Their disagreement doesn’t end there though. Like all good lemmings, they not only don’t accept minority opinions, they often attack them. Anything that threatens the status quo must be punished, even if it means their own demise.
As the rabbits try to quietly flee the warren under the cover of darkness, he sends one of his goons to stop them. They’re told “You’re all under arrest, for spreading dissension, and inciting mutiny”. They manage to get past him anyway and flee, and the rest of the rabbits that decided to stay with the Chief meet a rather gruesome end. I should also mention that he shares a characteristic with the leaders of the other two warrens shown in the movie. He is, shall we say, “well fed”. I’ll let you decipher the political symbolism behind that.
There’s certain people who have a wonderful knack for thinking on their feet. For some reason they are always able to distance themselves from the urgency of any situation, and have a clarity of thought that allows them to solve problems while others are panicking. If you ever have the rare opportunity to see someone pull this off, you’ll never forget it. Some people aren’t even aware they have this ability if they’ve never been in a dangerous situation.
In this case, Blackberry saves his fellow rabbits several times with his quick thinking. As they flee the warren, some of their members become exhausted and can’t swim across a stream that is in their way. Suddenly they hear a dog approaching, and their fear and urgency tempts the group to leave the weaker members behind. He soon discovers a piece of wood that will help them float across before the dog can catch them. Later on he manages to figure out how to disable a snare that has trapped one of their friends, and he just barely escapes with his life.
The Sell Out
Eventually, Hazel and his companions are too exhausted to continue, and are lucky enough to stumble upon another warren of rabbits. Their “leader” is named Cowslip, and he offers them shelter in his home, assuring them that they have plenty of empty burrows at their disposal. As Fiver points out, something isn’t right about this place. The warren is almost completely empty, and the remaining residents never give a reasonable explanation for it.
Despite their small population, they always have an abundance of food to give to their new guests. Cowslip himself reeks of decadence and domestication. In the book he is described as “princely”. In the movie he is obviously well fed and pampered. He loves to wax poetic in an effeminate, blasé voice, and appears to be a bit of a nihilist. Their surplus of food has left them with all the time in the world to appreciate art and culture, but has left them with poor survival skills (I can’t think of a better way to describe mainstream America).
When Bigwig is caught in a snare, Cowslip refuses to help. After he is rescued by Blackberry, the others figure out the true nature of this warren. The humans from a nearby farm are feeding the rabbits to fatten them up and maintain their numbers, followed by trapping and eating them on an ‘as needed’ basis. Cowslip and his companions begrudgingly accept their controlled lives, in exchange for the food that is provided by the humans. Their warren only has the illusion of being a wild and free place, when in reality, the rabbits living there are so domesticated by human hands, they don’t need even need cages to imprison them. They march to their deaths willingly, if it means they’ll receive a free ride along the way. This is why Hazel and his friends were allowed to stay in their warren. Having unwitting rabbits around gives them lower odds of being snared.
One of the last warrens that is encountered in the movie, is led by a character that is only referred to as “The General”. The book describes his history in detail. He was at one time, caged by humans, and eventually escaped before finding a new warren. There he managed to kill their leaders, and take over the warren for himself. He has turned it into a brutal, militaristic society that eventually went on to conquer several other warrens nearby.
He treats the female members like second class citizens, and the men are sent out on military patrols to maintain his rule, protect the warren, and keep anyone from escaping. The movie shows in graphic detail what happened to one member named Blackavar, who attempted escape. After he was caught, The General had him “marked” by being clawed, bitten, and having his ears chewed to pieces. He’s never allowed to see the surface of the burrow, and has been cowed into submission.
You’ll meet your fair share of petty, delusional tyrants after the collapse. Heck, there’s enough of them roaming around now to clog a sewer. They’re shrewd and dangerous, and are only concerned with advancing their own goals. They’ll hurt you in any way they can if you get in their way, and if they fall, they’ll take all of their followers down with them. And sometimes, there’s only one way to stop a tyrant…
Originally a faithful lieutenant of the Chief Rabbit, Bigwig decided to flee the warren with Hazel and the others. Ultimately he helps them escape. Time and again he survives situations that would be fatal to most, including being trapped in the snare at Cowslip’s warren. He never fails to put his life on the line for the rest of the group, and uses his cunning to fight foes that are far stronger than him.
By the end of the movie he manages to infiltrate The General’s warren, and free several of their members, including Blackavar. The General then leads a raid against Hazel’s group, hoping to kill Bigwig and punish the rabbits he freed. After barricading all of the weaker rabbits together, he takes a final stand against The General by placing himself between the tyrant and the rest of the rabbits. He hides himself under a layer of dirt and manages to surprise The General, engaging in a bloody fight to protect his friends. He eventually defeats him, and drives him and his lackeys out of their burrow.
This buys enough time for Hazel and his pals to reach a nearby farm, and chew off the leash of a vicious dog. They flee back home and let the dog chase them straight into The General’s forces. This leads to a final climactic battle that ends with the dog savagely killing The General and his minions.
It was a pretty horrendous scene.
Overall, Watership Down is a remarkable story of survival that reveals quite a bit about the human condition. Despite being a cartoon, the story doesn’t pander or insult the intelligence of adult audiences, and the plot seems to line up with the kinds of scenarios that many survivalists believe we will soon be facing.
At its root, it’s really a story about refugees fleeing the total destruction of their society. The characters aren’t just trying to find a new home and avoid the traps and predators that are found along the way. They’re trying to escape from the tyranny and temptations of a broken world, and they manage to find freedom and decency in a place that is isolated from the rest of that world.
I doubt any major studio would have the guts to make such a graphic and principled cartoon for kids today. If you’d like you or your family to see it, there’s a free version on Veoh.com, and some outrageously expensive dvd’s on Amazon. Though I wouldn’t show it any children unless you feel they are mature enough to handle the content.
As a final warning, if you watch this movie, you’ll never be able to listen to “Bright Eyes” again without tearing up. I’m a real tough guy, I swear.
images provided by Watership Down Wiki