In the middle of the twentieth century, America’s Central Intelligence Agency saw art and culture as a weapon: they secretly funded not just abstract expressionist painting and a Russian-language printing and distribution campaign of Doctor Zhivago, but an animated adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Anybody could have seen the anti-Soviet propaganda value of George Orwell’s satirical, allegorical tale in which livestock overtake their farm from its human owners and turn, without hesitation, into illogical tyrants. Though widely read in novel form, a film version of Animal Farm would, so the CIA presumably hoped, get the message across more immediately and accessibly — especially after they’d demanded certain simplifications of the story. Taking pains not to reveal its identity, the CIA simply became in 1954 a set of somewhat demanding “financial backers” for the animated Animal Farm; to take on Orwell’s “memorable fable” (as the opening titles put it), the CIA went with the animation studio of John Halas and Joy Batchelor, resulting in the first British-made animated feature ever theatrically released, which you can watch at the top of the post.
The Guardian‘s Karl Cohen writes that “the production employed about 80 animators. In Halas’s book The Technique of Film Animation, 1959, he states that the film’s target audience was adults rather than children and that they needed to simplify the plot. Vivien Halas [Halas and Batchelor's daughter] adds that the film wasn’t shown in Paris until the 1990s as it was considered too anti-communist. When it finally premiered in Paris in about 1993, the mayor of Aubervilliers (a suburb of Paris) ‘introduced it as a tribute to communism! My father said no, this is not communist or anti-communist. It is a fable for all time. It is anti-totalitarian and it has a humanist message.’” Still, this aesthetically impressive piece of work ignores, at the CIA’s request, Orwell’s original ending, an indictment of not just animals, and not just the pigs who would memorably declare that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” but every living species, from humans on down. The then-concealed CIA had requested this change (along with a less sympathetic treatment of Trotsky figure Snowball) but Halas had a justification of his own for the happier conclusion: “You can not send home millions in the audience being puzzled.” Fair enough, though it hardly needs pointing out that, 60 years later, we remember not that ending, but the one Orwell wrote.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.