Squealers & Spies: Cocktails, Galas & Secrets of the CIA-Backed Film Animal Farm

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CIA spies secretly funded the animated movie Animal Farm (1954) during the Cold War so they could manipulate the ending of George Orwell's book and promote their anti-communist agenda worldwide. The barnyard allegory seemed like an easy way to spread US propaganda, but the CIA wasn't prepared for the astonishing in-fighting that erupted over changes to Orwell's ending.

Animal Farm premiered at a chic Manhattan movie theater on December 29, 1954, with black tie glamor and a gala reception at New York's UN headquarters. A press party followed weeks later at a luxurious London hotel, The Dorchester, where the bar served Animal Farm cocktails - White Horse Scotch garnished with celery, cucumber, and carrots to burnish the farm theme.

Cart horses Boxer and Clover join Benjamin, the skeptical donkey

Animal Farm’s billing as ‘the most controversial film of the year’ assured its notoriety. The New York Daily News called it a "sparkling satire on Kremlin madness in which all animals are equal but some are more equal than others''. In George Orwell’s book, the farmyard animals revolt against their human owner only to slide into a cruel tyranny among themselves. But in the film version, the animals rise up against their corrupt leadership to show revolt against totalitarian regimes is possible and justifiable.

Old Major and Churchill: Separated at birth?

The changes to Orwell's ending caused a stir and not all of the reviews were positive, but when British PM Winston Churchill grumbled that wise Old Major's voice distinctly resembled his own, Animal Farm (1954) shot into the headlines worldwide.

The film was a triumph of artistry and propaganda - and no wonder. The CIA had secretly bought the film rights to Orwell’s classic novel and was calling the shots behind the scenes.

The CIA’s culture war

The film’s premiere had been a long time coming. Animal Farm was given a budget of £92,790 to be completed by May 15, 1953, but the final cost was three times that and it wasn't completed until late 1954.

British husband-and-wife animators John Halas and Joy Batchelor (H&B) decamped to St Tropez, France, in April 1951 to work on storyboards with US artist Philip Stapp. By September, production was underway in Britain but it was slow going. The directors endured nine script rewrites and delays - mainly because of arguments about whether to remain true to  Orwell’s ending or adopt the CIA’s preferred spin.

Unbeknown to H&B's animators, US spies - including future Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt - had bought the film rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s widow, Sonia, in 1950 and were silent partners. Arguing with maverick US film producer Louis de Rochemont proved futile. De Rochemont, who saw Nazis and Reds behind every bush, had a close working relationship with the US government and a long record of fighting totalitarianism with films at home (The House on 92nd Street) and abroad (Inside Nazi Germany and 13 Rue de Madeleine).

“Only John, Joy, and Louis were in the H&B London studio office when the decision to redo the ending [of Animal Farm] was finally agreed upon,” Borden Mace, the film’s producer, lawyer, and CIA liaison, wrote years later in a letter to Vivien Halas, the animators’ daughter.

“Since CIA core money had long been expended, de Rochemont had to come up with the additional funds from his pockets for any requested changes… I always assumed that the three of them hammered out ‘the final ending’ for the Animal Farm film then and there at your studio,” Mace wrote in his October 1960 letter. “Louis was unusually tight-lipped with me on that day, other than reporting that changes in the ending had been agreed upon and I was to find the money to pay for them.”

Squealers & Spies: Cocktails, Galas & Secrets of the CIA-Backed Film Animal Farm

BY
Caroline Byrne
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Click Here to Find Out How You Can Own a Piece of Cold War History!


CIA spies secretly funded the animated movie Animal Farm (1954) during the Cold War so they could manipulate the ending of George Orwell's book and promote their anti-communist agenda worldwide. The barnyard allegory seemed like an easy way to spread US propaganda, but the CIA wasn't prepared for the astonishing in-fighting that erupted over changes to Orwell's ending.

Animal Farm premiered at a chic Manhattan movie theater on December 29, 1954, with black tie glamor and a gala reception at New York's UN headquarters. A press party followed weeks later at a luxurious London hotel, The Dorchester, where the bar served Animal Farm cocktails - White Horse Scotch garnished with celery, cucumber, and carrots to burnish the farm theme.

Cart horses Boxer and Clover join Benjamin, the skeptical donkey

Animal Farm’s billing as ‘the most controversial film of the year’ assured its notoriety. The New York Daily News called it a "sparkling satire on Kremlin madness in which all animals are equal but some are more equal than others''. In George Orwell’s book, the farmyard animals revolt against their human owner only to slide into a cruel tyranny among themselves. But in the film version, the animals rise up against their corrupt leadership to show revolt against totalitarian regimes is possible and justifiable.

Old Major and Churchill: Separated at birth?

The changes to Orwell's ending caused a stir and not all of the reviews were positive, but when British PM Winston Churchill grumbled that wise Old Major's voice distinctly resembled his own, Animal Farm (1954) shot into the headlines worldwide.

The film was a triumph of artistry and propaganda - and no wonder. The CIA had secretly bought the film rights to Orwell’s classic novel and was calling the shots behind the scenes.

The CIA’s culture war

The film’s premiere had been a long time coming. Animal Farm was given a budget of £92,790 to be completed by May 15, 1953, but the final cost was three times that and it wasn't completed until late 1954.

British husband-and-wife animators John Halas and Joy Batchelor (H&B) decamped to St Tropez, France, in April 1951 to work on storyboards with US artist Philip Stapp. By September, production was underway in Britain but it was slow going. The directors endured nine script rewrites and delays - mainly because of arguments about whether to remain true to  Orwell’s ending or adopt the CIA’s preferred spin.

Unbeknown to H&B's animators, US spies - including future Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt - had bought the film rights to Animal Farm from Orwell’s widow, Sonia, in 1950 and were silent partners. Arguing with maverick US film producer Louis de Rochemont proved futile. De Rochemont, who saw Nazis and Reds behind every bush, had a close working relationship with the US government and a long record of fighting totalitarianism with films at home (The House on 92nd Street) and abroad (Inside Nazi Germany and 13 Rue de Madeleine).

“Only John, Joy, and Louis were in the H&B London studio office when the decision to redo the ending [of Animal Farm] was finally agreed upon,” Borden Mace, the film’s producer, lawyer, and CIA liaison, wrote years later in a letter to Vivien Halas, the animators’ daughter.

“Since CIA core money had long been expended, de Rochemont had to come up with the additional funds from his pockets for any requested changes… I always assumed that the three of them hammered out ‘the final ending’ for the Animal Farm film then and there at your studio,” Mace wrote in his October 1960 letter. “Louis was unusually tight-lipped with me on that day, other than reporting that changes in the ending had been agreed upon and I was to find the money to pay for them.”

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Orwell’s Animal Farm: Power Corrupts

Vivien, born in the UK, and John, born in Budapest, were newlyweds when they fled Hungary for Britain on the eve of WWII. They left everything behind and arrived on borrowed money. They made ends meet animating British government-backed films throughout the war and propaganda films afterward including The Shoemaker and the Hatter (1950), which mocks the idea of tariffs.

Halas, who was Jewish, had little choice. He could remain in Hungary and risk his life; he could move to Britain and be interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man; or he could make propaganda films for the British. As a result, H&B made 70 propaganda shorts in four years. The couple had connections in the European animation industry and money flowed in the aftermath of WWII through the US ‘Marshall Plan’.

Under the plan, billions of dollars in aid were distributed across Europe, including money earmarked for propaganda campaigns such as pamphlets, posters, radio broadcasts, traveling Judy and Punch puppet shows, and an estimated 250-300 films. 

Halas and Batchelor weren’t naive. They knew they were working for the US government during the making of Animal Farm but didn’t know the CIA was involved until the 1960s or even later, Vivien told SPYSCAPE. “They didn’t realize it until much, much later, and they felt a bit manipulated.”


Animal Farm: Changing Orwell’s Ending

Halas & Batchelor became the largest animation studio in Western Europe while making Animal Farm, with a creative and technical staff of almost 100. Although the film’s running time is only 75 minutes, Animal Farm required 300,000 staff hours to create 25,000 drawings and 1,800 colored backgrounds, according to Vivien’s book, Halas and Batchelor Cartoons.

Joy argued that the animated movie should stay true to Orwell’s vision: political power corrupts, no matter who has it and whatever ideology is used to justify it. But John thought the film’s new ending offered hope for the future.

Borden Mace, the lawyer and CIA liaison, said he didn’t have the nerve to ask Orwell’s widow, Sonia, what she thought of the CIA twist at the end. She’d inherited Orwell’s literary legacy when he died in 1950, shortly after they married.

Frankly my dear...

Sonia sold the film rights to Animal Farm for £5,000 (apx $14,000) in 1950 but the deal was reportedly conditional on another request: Sonia wanted an introduction to Hollywood heartthrob Clark Gable. (Mace later wondered if Sonia herself had started the rumor about her meeting with Clark Gable, given her self-deprecating sense of humor.)

US producer Louis De Rochemont was hands-on during the production of Animal Farm, commenting specifically on when the pigs should take over the farmhouse and when the 'all animals are equal' slogan should come in. De Rochemont was particularly interested in the character Napoleon, the pig modeled on Russian leader Joseph Stalin.

“On viewing the early material, he insisted that Napoleon's demeanor and behavior be modified to make him more authoritarian and proposed changes to his keynote end speech,” Tony Shaw writes in British Cinema and the Cold War.

Interestingly, Animal Farm - aimed at adults with a political sensibility rather than children - would eventually find its primary audience among schoolchildren, particularly in West Germany.

The animated film would also be recognized decades later as a Cold War propaganda masterpiece created in a complex era where many filmmakers and writers thought they were serving the interests of democracy rather than acting as political pawns.

It seems Animal Farm’s glittering premiere served as a toast to the ingenuity of filmmaking as well as clandestine intelligence.

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Own a Piece of Cold War Movie History! Dive into our collection of rare treasures from our film archives -
original, hand-painted movie cels, perfectly paired with their original drawings. These extraordinary artifacts were pivotal in creating the 1954 animated classic Animal Farm, a cinematic gem financed by the CIA as a propaganda tool to fight communism during the intense Cold War period.

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