Voicing the voiceless: The films of martin rosen
‘Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals.’ Richard Adams’s prophetic introspection hits a poignant nerve today as we look dismally at the catastrophe that is us. In the 1970s Adams penned two very critical novels focusing on humanity’s impact on the natural world, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, both of which were adapted into animated features by Martin Rosen. Using allegory and animal points-of-views, these films are mature and artistically nuanced in their probing of ethics and violence. Although Adams’s work has lived on in classrooms and lecture theatres (receiving well-deserved attention since his death in 2015), Rosen’s realisations have consistently instilled both terror and sympathy in audiences.
To depict the graphic nature of Adams’s novels, animation works practically and aesthetically to convey his horrific subject matter. Both 1978’s Watership Down and 1982’s The Plague Dogs are notorious for their lack of squeamishness when it comes to depicting violence, from warring rabbits to animal testing. As mature alternatives to Disney, which meticulously omits visual references to blood, these films incorporate some British realism. As productions of Rosen’s small company, Nepenthe, they can be considered independent. Rosen’s own background as co-producer on Ken Russell’s Women in Love shows his interest in adaptation and socio-political themes. Remarkably, Watership Down gained a U rating at the time of release, but the British Board of Film Classification has stated that it would be PG today, marking out a proportion of its original audience. In 2016 a Channel 5 screening on Easter Sunday compelled tweeting parents to complain. It’s no Bambi or The Fox and the Hound, which similarly deal with the consequences of hunting and human encroachment. But what distinguishes both of Rosen’s films from the rest? And why should we care?
Watership Down is a story of displacement, the subsequent migration and challenges entailed, and the creation of a new home. The main narrative follows Fiver and his brother, Hazel, (voiced by John Hurt, before his sympathetic portrayal in The Elephant Man). Fiver’s seeing powers allow him to predict their warren’s destruction by human developers, thus urging several rabbits to join him and Hazel in finding a new warren in the seemingly idyllic English countryside.
The novel and film are seen as allegorical for their parallels with our society, exploring aspects of totalitarianism and freedom. With appendices and a developed ‘Lapine’ language spoken by its protagonists, Adams’s mythologizing echoes Tolkien’s. The origin story passed down by rabbits has a biblical feel, although its folktale protagonists are El-ahrairah (‘Prince with a Thousand Enemies’) and the grim reaper-like Black Rabbit of Inlé, illustrated like children’s drawings. The animation style quickly transitions from expressionistic artwork to watercolour realism, as the first image of a rabbit is of its detailed eye, revealing the film’s perspective and subjectivity. Despite its subdued, pastel simplicity, it doesn’t shy away from Adams’s message and the film is nightmarishly surreal at times.
Along their travels, the group faces predators and other rabbits, including a nihilistic death cult straight out of David Lynch’s mind. Most infamously perhaps is the cruelty of General Woundwort, the obese one-eyed dictator of the Efrafa warren. Efrafa’s militarised system of subordinating females for reproduction, curfews and caste system is hard to ignore as reflections of humanity’s relationship with punishment and discipline. Woundwort’s killing of other rabbits for pleasure makes him eerily more human. Perhaps Donnie Darko, who read the book in class, wasn’t delusional in thinking that rabbits weren’t so innocuous? The film depicts nature in all its horribleness, teaching death as a fact of living and something to be accepted. Grim? Yes. And Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bright Eyes’ doesn’t make it easier. Last year the BBC churned out a new adaptation whose look quite frankly oscillates between uncanny valley and mediocre video-game. What was ultimately missing from this attempt was genuine pathos and existentialism which Rosen’s film effortlessly evokes.
Rosen’s lesser-known adaptation elaborates on the violent realism of Watership Down. As an adult animated film concerning vivisection, The Plague Dogs is a harrowing insight into procedures which go on behind closed doors. The film memorably opens under water, depicting Rowf, a Labrador-type struggling for air in a submergence tank. When he eventually drowns he is hoisted out by men in lab coats and revived. The following conversation suggests that Rowf’s drowning and revival is a daily experiment in stamina. The Plague Dogs is cinematically more mature than Rosen’s former film, with pensive dissolves and panning ‘shots’ of monkeys and rabbits in painful contraptions. It is recognisably Japanese in style, preceding the line-drawing and colours of Akira or even Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (a young Bird was in fact part of its animation team). It also plays with genre in its apocalyptic, science-fiction feel. The brilliantly named ARSE military research lab in England’s Lake District provides its initial setting. As the title implies, it’s revealed that the bubonic plague is being developed as a military weapon, calling into question the cost of technological progression at the expense of animal welfare.
Like Watership Down, the exodus of the animals and their journey to a better place is the fundamental premise of The Plague Dogs. It is, however, more pessimistic in its trajectory, and hope is continuously discarded for violent realisations. Rowf and Snitter (a fox terrier with a cranial vivisection device, again voiced by Hurt), escape from the lab and struggle to orientate the moors. One cannot help but think of the horrible murders which had occurred there in recent history. The dogs cannot understand their predicament or comprehend why they are being pursued. The Island of Dogs represents Rowf and Snitter’s ideal home, though its existence is questionable.
The Plague Dogs does PETA’s job for them, depicting humanised animals in a Dante-esque hellhole of suffering. Public knowledge of animal testing is generally very limited, despite its international role in our educational institutions and the products we use daily. The Plague Dogs is a must-see as a complex companion to Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and to Watership Down. Rosen’s films differ from the regular animated canon of the time because they don’t treat their viewers as mindless. These films are even more important today, as Adams’s vision of man-made destruction firmly resonates.