I loved the film Watership Down as a kid. For many reasons, but I think because it was likely one of the first animated, aimed-at-children stories that had some serious life and death aspects to it. Characters got killed off. The scene where rabbits are trapped underground, struggling to breathe, remains fixed in my mind as a haunting scene. It was a big step up from Transformers and Thundercats and whatnot.
But I really loved the characters. Bigwig especially. He was this no-nonsense fighter, following the rest while standing between them and danger whenever needed. When he chokes to death I was distraught and it still gets me, although not as much as the elation when he is revealed to still be breathing. His first thought: payback.
However, if we’re going to talk about who stood out the most, it has to be the General. Woundwort. I never imagined a rabbit could be so intimidating. His ruthless belligerence was exciting to a kid who was used to cartoon villains set to be more of a joke than a threat. He ran a warren with terror and strength. I loved his declaration of revenge against Bigwig. “I’ll blind him!” Not to kill him, not to end him, but blind him. A vicious vengeance.
I loved other cartoon villains. Megatron and Stascream were fantastic. Often over the top, I admit, but they were still entertaining schemers. The problem with a lot of the cartoons back then, though, was that villains were set up to fail. Despite being a powerful warrior, Megatron would often retreat when the Autobots turned up. Mumm-Ra would flee back to his crypt. Venom in the Mask shows, Cobra in Action Force (GI Joe in the US), Tex Hex in Brave Star and Skeletor and his gang in He-Man. I always found the bad guys more interesting, entertaining and appealing. But they were designed to lose. Whatever they did, whatever they tried, it went wrong and they ran away.
So Woundwort was a revelation. “Dogs aren’t dangerous!” In the tv shows I watched, this would be played for comedy. Woundwort would shout this, turn and see the dog, then flee like the scared little bunny he really was.
But no. Not Woundwort. Not the General. He sees the dog, blood foaming at its mouth, the limp body of one of Woundwort’s followers held between its teeth. He sees it. He stands and glares. The dog drops the rabbit and goes for him. Woundwort lunges for it. Both leap at each other, ready to kill, and then the movie cuts away.
I loved that. I had never seen a cartoon villain stand and fight against the stronger foe. I also loved how we can’t say for sure if he died then. His body was never found. His life became a legend, a tale to tell young rabbits.
I have the book as well as the film on dvd. The book is just as good. Perhaps better. I liked delving into the warren of Woundwort more. Learning about Campion, the loyal captain who followed his beast of a general. It is a fine work. But a movie like that, seen when young, has an impact that can’t be matched. I admire the book as well as enjoy it. But that film is something I love.
General Woundwort is a great villain. A tyrant but driven to be one. Rabbits are preyed upon so he has forged a strong group, led by his own brute strength. His fighters revere him while his people fear him. He is a complicated individual yet still a baddie, with his ferociously unforgiving attitude and willingness to rend those who anger him. But most of all, he doesn’t back down. His fight with Bigwig is one of will as well as muscle. Two individuals fighting tooth and claw, refusing to concede, giving no quarter. Woundwort would have won. He forces Bigwig to back, although he would never have surrendered to the General. Bigwig was ready to lay down his life for the rest, at some cost if he could, and that’s why I love him. But the General was ready to take care of business himself, even when faced by Bigwig. Even when faced by the dog. That’s why he’s a badass bunny rabbit.