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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: Scotland julian_craster's Avatar
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    The story behind Animal Farm [Halas and Batchelor, 1954]

    by J. Hoberman

    London Review of Books

    5 July 2007

    In the annals of American intelligence, the mid-1950s were the golden years:

    the CIA overthrew elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, conducted

    experiments with ESP and LSD (using its own operatives as unwitting guinea

    pigs), ran literary journals and produced the first general-release,

    feature-length animation ever made in the UK.

    It was Howard Hunt who broke the story that the CIA funded Animal Farm, John

    Halas and Joy Batchelor's 1954 version of George Orwell's political allegory

    of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, played out in a British

    farmyard. Cashing in on his Watergate notoriety, the rogue spook and

    sometime spy novelist took credit in Undercover: Memoirs of an American

    Secret Agent (1974) for initiating the project, shortly after Orwell's death

    in 1950. The self-aggrandising Hunt may have exaggerated his own importance

    in the operation - possibly inventing the juicy detail that Orwell's widow,

    Sonia, was wooed with the promise of meeting her favourite star, Clark

    Gable - but, as detailed by Daniel Leab in Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the

    Filming of 'Animal Farm' (Pennsylvania, $55), the operation was real.

    Leab is a historian who has done extensive research into the production of

    Hollywood's Cold War movies; the central figure in his account is Louis de

    Rochemont, the former newsreel cameraman who supervised Time magazine's

    innovative monthly release The March of Time and, beginning in 1945 with The

    House on 92nd Street, produced a number of so-called 'journalistic features'

    for 20th Century Fox (which were praised by James Agee, among others, for

    their extensive use of location shooting). De Rochemont was also well

    connected to various government agencies. The House on 92nd Street

    dramatised the FBI's role in arresting Nazi agents; its 1946 follow-up, 13

    Rue Madeleine, celebrated the wartime exploits of the Office of Strategic

    Services, the CIA's precursor, but a dispute between the studio and the OSS

    director, 'Wild Bill' Donovan, resulted in the organisation's being

    disguised as an intelligence outfit called '0-77'.

    De Rochemont subsequently became an independent producer affiliated with the

    Reader's Digest. In 1951, while preparing a new FBI collaboration, Walk East

    on Beacon (adapted from an article by J. Edgar Hoover originally published

    in the Digest), he was recruited by the CIA's blandly titled Office of

    Policy Co-Ordination to produce an animated Animal Farm. The CIA was already

    engaged in spreading the Orwellian gospel - as was the clandestine

    Information Research Department of the British Foreign Office. (Both

    agencies had been engaged in making translations and even comic-book

    versions of Animal Farm and 1984.) Nor were the CIA and the IRD the only

    interested parties: according to Leab, both the US Army and the producers of

    Woody Woodpecker cartoons also made inquiries as to the availability of

    Animal Farm's film rights.

    The trade press reported that de Rochemont financed Animal Farm with the

    frozen British box-office receipts from his racial 'passing' drama Lost

    Boundaries; in fact, Animal Farm was almost entirely underwritten by the

    CIA. De Rochemont hired Halas and Batchelor (they were less expensive and,

    given their experience making wartime propaganda cartoons, politically more

    reliable than American animators) in late 1951; well before that, his

    'investors' had furnished him with detailed dissections of his team's

    proposed treatment. Animal Farm was scheduled for completion in spring 1953,

    but the ambitious production, which made use of full cell animation, was

    delayed for more than a year, in part because of extensive discussion and

    continual revisions. Among other things, the investors pushed for a more

    aggressively 'political' voice-over narration and were concerned that

    Snowball (the pig who figures as Trotsky) would be perceived by audiences as

    too sympathetic.

    Most problematic, however, was Orwell's pessimistic ending, in which the

    pigs become indistinguishable from their human former masters. No matter how

    often the movie's screenplay was altered, it always concluded with a

    successful farmyard uprising in which the oppressed animals overthrew the

    dictatorial pigs. The Animal Farm project had been initiated when Harry

    Truman was president; Dwight Eisenhower took office in January 1953, with

    John Foster Dulles as his secretary of state and Allen Dulles heading the

    CIA. Leab notes that Animal Farm's mandated ending complemented the new

    Dulles policy, which - abandoning Truman's aim of containing Communism -

    planned a 'roll back', at least in Eastern Europe. As one of the script's

    many advisors put it, Animal Farm's ending should be one where the animals

    'get mad, ask for help from the outside, which they get, and which results

    in their (the Russian people) with the help of the free nations overthrowing

    their oppressors'.

    Animal Farm's world premiere was held at the Paris Theatre in December 1954,

    then as now Manhattan's poshest movie-house, and was followed by a gala

    reception at the United Nations. The movie received respectful reviews - as

    it did when it opened several months later in London - but performed poorly

    at the box office. (Its major precursor as a 'serious' animation, Disney's

    1943 collaboration with the aviator Alexander de Seversky, Victory through

    Air Power, was also a flop.) Halas and Batchelor did achieve a reasonable

    approximation of stretchy, rounded Disney-style character animation but, as

    the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther observed, 'the shock of straight

    and raw political satire is made more grotesque in the medium of cartoon.'

    This was a dark cuteness. While praising Animal Farm as 'technically

    first-rate', Crowther concluded his review by advising parents to not 'make

    the mistake of thinking it is for little children, just because it is a


    Actually, Animal Farm was ultimately seen mainly by schoolchildren -

    particularly in West Germany. Possibly the movie was perceived by this

    captive audience as an unaccountably dour and violent version of Walt

    Disney's Dumbo. But, however the CIA's fervent call for an anti-Soviet

    revolt (with

    'help from the outside') was received by the world, it was rendered moot

    some eighteen months after Animal Farm's European release by the much

    encouraged and subsequently abandoned Hungarian uprising.

    J. Hoberman is senior film critic for the Village Voice and the author of

    The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties.

  2. #2
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    Jul 2006
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    This was compulsory viewing in our household once we got hold of a video player back in 1982... my mother was always one for showing us that the world was not Disney-fied... hence us all being given the original versions of Snow White, Cinderella, Litte Red Riding Hood and the Three Pigs (TWO get eaten before the third eats the worlf) to read... this animated Animal Farm has remained ingrained in my mind... and helped somewhat with my English Literature O Level in 1986. It seems quite tame now... but as a child... talking pigs taking over and wearing clothes... Everyone is equal... but some are more equal than others...

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