The Plague Dogs
While I’ve seen Watership Down many times over the years, this is my first visit to Martin Rosen’s follow-up to Richard Adams’ follow-up. I can see why it passed me by, since it misses out on almost everything that makes its predecessor a confirmed classic. Where Watership Down casually observes the destructiveness of man through the prism of the rabbits’ infrequent encounters, The Plague Dogs wears his essential cruelty on its sleeve. This might have worked if there was a story to tell, or a glimmer of hope, but the circular, doom-laden narrative, set amid a grimly unwelcoming Lake District, offers no respite, making for an over-extended, laborious picture.
As such, The Plague Dogs is part of the tide of despair informing British cinema during the 1980s, faced by the intertwining spectres of Thatcherism and Armageddon. It’s noticeably there in the decade’s animations (not that there were many UK animated features, but the ones that were, the same year’s Pink Floyd – The Wall, the wailing misery and gnashing of teeth (in a very restrained, conservative manner) of Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, were fortified with unremitting bleakness.
The Plague Dogs carries that brooding dread throughout, most starkly in its permanently overcast Lake District setting. The premise may suggest the kind of escape to freedom from laboratory testing seen in Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (The Plague Dogs came out the same year as the considerably lighter and more magically orientated adaptation The Secret of NIMH) but what it leads to is closer to the futility of Edge of Darkness. If parents wonder how Watership Down escaped with a U certificate, there can be no doubt why The Plague Dogs received a PG; with its swearing, bloody carnage (a man gets shot in the face at one point) and unalleviated despondency, it might even have warranted a 15.
The chief problem is not this gloom, but the complete lack of narrative propulsion once Snitter (a fox terrier voiced by John Hurt) and Rowf (a Labrador voiced by Christopher Benjamin, perhaps best known as Henry Gordon Jago in the 1977 Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang) have fled to the wilds. They embark on an endurance exercise of sheep-killing, being chased, and chatting to a particularly unpleasantly-rendered fox (James Bolam relishing his Geordie Reynard). Mostly, though, the duo wander listlessly, oblivious to their inevitable demise.
Unlike Watership Down, where the animal perspective and singular understanding of the world created a uniquely cohesive vision, The Plague Dogs is punctuated by voice-overs of the human side of the equation, searching for the two dogs amid fears they may be carrying plague (they aren’t, but that’s to no avail when it comes to the “necessity” of dispatching them). It’s disruptive, a reminder that there’s no fuel in the main plot’s tanks, with the canines unmotivated aside from their next meal. The counter of the days clicking by is a further unwelcome reminder that the picture lacks focus.
Apart from its overriding theme, of course. The animal testing is presented quite clearly as an unnecessary cruelty (Martin Rosen may have said it wasn’t anti-vivisection, but it would be nigh-impossible to come away thinking that). At one point, a scientist comments of the experiment on Snitter that it is based on “confusing subjective with objective in the animal’s mind”, but he sounds unclear himself, other than seeing the loss of the animals, and with them precious results, as a waste. Rowf, meanwhile, is shown being drowned and resuscitated in the opening scenes, evidently a regular sufferance. Then there’s the monkey in the “pit of despair” cut to at various points with see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil poses.
The picture certainly doesn’t make things easy, offering no respite, and its verbalising of the contradictions within a dog’s psyche is perhaps less successful than in it was in the land of lapins. A hound acting an idiot one moment (dutifully approaching humans who may wish to harm it), then articulating the dangers of the environment the next, creates something of a schism. There’s also a sense that the unrelieved fatalism of their lot is compounded by every incident; of course Snitter accidentally puts his paw on the kindly gentry’s shotgun trigger. As for their eating the corpse of the gunman, it’s presented as a pure horror punchline, with no attempt on Snitter’s part to admit they know it would be a very bad thing to do (but needs must).
Snitter, his brain augmented, is very much the Fiver-esque visionary of the tale. Fox The Tod (“Just a proposal, bonny lads“) is the Keehar and Rowf effectively a Bigwig type; it’s surely no coincidence that a leader and guide to safety, a Moses-Hazel figure, is absent. Imagine if Keehar had been killed off in Watership Down? Imagine if there was no comfort of a hereafter embracing these creatures when they shuffle off?
The Tod may not be as winning, but the casual sight of his corpse retrieved when the hunt is on for the dogs marks out starkly that there can be no happy ending here. Apparently the final scene, in which the two hounds swim through the misty sea towards “an island” (one does actually appear in the credits), suggesting they are fated to drown out there, is closer to the one first envisaged by Adams (in the book the dogs are taken in by Snittter’s original owner). Whether or not that island is an intentional glimmer of hope, the general tone of the picture tends to the negative, and it would be difficult to conclude they make it to shore.
Rosen imbues his picture with moments of tension (escaping the furnace, various pursuits and escapes) but the film as a whole is unfortunately weighed down by its heroes’ inertia. I commented that a two-and-a-half hour Watership Down could easily have been made from the source material. The same could not be said of The Plague Dogs, which is overlong at 100 minutes. The film undoubtedly reverberates in terms of atmosphere and tone, leaving the viewer with a sense of profound hopelessness and despair at the idle machinations of man, but it ought to have been compelling with it.