I am nine, and my family have just been to see Watership Down, an animated movie about rabbits which, going by the elegant and haunting music video accompanying its related single Bright Eyes, will be just the sort of wholesome, non-threatening entertainment the three youngest of us (fourteen, twelve and nine) should enjoy. The actual result, if you are unfamiliar with the story of Watership Down, is quite a different thing. I stay through to the end, and bedsheets go unbothered for nights afterward, but even now it’s clear to me that this was probably the first great instance of cinematic trauma I endured in my childhood. Added to the list of shorter snippets from the later Sea Gypsies (a shock shot of a skeleton in an abandoned cabin), the earlier The Mouse and his Child (a living doll decapitated under a cartwheel), Watership Down’s tooth-and-claw lapine warfare, scenes of mauling animals and warren gassing by farmers, plus the nightmarish and ever-present spectre of the Black Rabbit of death are the top of the list, an experience so vivid that even as an adult I recently recall genuinely hovering with hesitation over bargain bins with the DVD among the cheap offers. Google “Watership Down trauma” and you’ll see page after page of the same story. Previous generations may have had Bambi’s mother being shot, and later generations the Hamlet-on-the-veldt of The Lion King, but neither can compare to the relentless wholesale and, above all, matter of fact natural slaughter of the lapine characters of Watership Down.
I’ve long been puzzled as to why the movie and the song were soon after chosen as ripe for lampoon, and can only conclude that in part satire was a natural reaction for a large adult population stunned or offended by the movie’s shock factor and the incongruous longevity of its otherwise unassuming single. Even today there are plenty around who would dismiss Bright Eyes as ‘that song about cartoon rabbits’. The truth is of course that the song is a mediation on dying, one’s “following the river of death downstream’; a curious subject for a number one single, and the video bears this out too, with its odd combination of family-friendly bunny rabbits and dreamlike bounding shadow of the rabbit spirit. Art Garfunkel’s vocals are distant, offering questions that can never be answered: “is it a kind of a dream?” “a shadow?” And as in life there are no answers: “Nobody seems to know where you go”, a line reworked later, as I hear it, by Coldplay in God Put a Smile on Your Face. There’s spirituality in Richard Adams’ rabbit world, but an animal one – no salvation, no resurrection, just oblivion. The dying rabbit of the video's close leaves his lifeless corpse to join the Black Rabbit of Inle in a flight over the land, one with the 'fog along the horizon', the 'high wind in the trees', and no longer one among the living.
Batt’s lyrics reflected the death of his father from cancer, supposedly the starting point for the song. The composition would be covered by others later to varying degrees – one of the more affecting I’ve come across is a self-conscious solo with guitar by James Dean Bradfield on the nights of Richey James’ last ever appearances with Manic Street Preachers. At the time the song was dedicated to the band’s late manager Phillip Hall, but naturally grew in fans’ minds to take in a broader picture. But for a nine year old me in a darkened cinema, the world of Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig was a very small thing indeed, subject to the cruelty and injustice of the wilds, occasionally visited by the brutal hands of men. You age and mature, and life’s lessons and lack of fairness become less surprising, some you can even prepare for. But life’s final phase, unseen, little-expected, unfamiliar and unyielding is still a mystery.