Making a pig's ear of Orwell

'Animal Farm' was brazenly manipulated by the CIA to turn it into an anti-Soviet Cold War cartoon, Tony Shaw explains
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George Orwell's reputation for intellectual integrity was dealt a heavy blow a few years ago. Declassified documents revealed that before his death from tuberculosis in 1950, the author had had clandestine dealings with the Foreign Office's new Cold War propaganda unit, the Information Research Department. The paragon of political rectitude had not only enthusiastically approved of the IRD's "spin doctoring" techniques, he had also furnished the unit with a list of what he called "crypto-communists" in the arts, Fleet Street and Parliament.

Orwell's two masterpieces, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) continue to inform our reading of the Cold War. Less well-documented are the lengths the British and US governments went to in exploiting Orwell's work during the Cold War. Newly opened archives show that the IRD, the CIA and other Western propagandists brazenly manipulated the novels to turn them into explicitly anti-Soviet weapons. They even converted the books into feature films, "simplified" for the masses.

The first cinematic version of Animal Farm is a landmark in British animation history, yet its origins lie in the murky confines of the US secret services. In 1951, Orwell's young widow and fiercely protective literary executor, Sonia Blair, sold the animation film rights to the American producer Louis de Rochemont, a pioneering documentary-maker who had links with J Edgar Hoover's FBI.

Acting as a conduit and helping secretly to provide the cash for the deal was the colourful Carleton Alsop, who worked for an obscure organisation called the Operations Coordinating Board, a CIA offshoot that specialised in conducting unattributable anti-Soviet psychological warfare operations. De Rochemont then hired John Halas, who, with his wife Joy Batchelor, ran, in London, Europe's largest animation company.

Halas and Batchelor's Animal Farm was the first feature-length animation film to be made in Britain aimed at the general public. Batchelor, the scriptwriter, was oblivious to the US government's involvement in the project, and driven to despair by what she considered to be tampering outsiders including the publisher Fredric Warburg, who was treasurer of the British Society for Cultural Freedom, an intellectual body secretly financed from the headquarters of the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Billed as "the most controversial film of the year", Animal Farm was released in New York in December 1954 and opened in London a month later. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic recommended the movie as a highly entertaining and faithful interpretation of Orwell's critique of the Soviet Union. However, those who knew Orwell's narrative well and who watched the film closely might have spotted vital differences.

The film virtually does away with the book's human characters. In so doing, it diminishes Orwell's references to the iniquities of capitalism and the limitations of liberty. This line of interpretation is given a further twist in the film's final scene, which amounts to a wholesale inversion of Orwell's ending. Orwell's raucous farmhouse party was meant to satirise the cynicism that lay behind the meetings that took place between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt during the Second World War, and to predict their future conflict driven by self-aggrandisement.

The film changes this dénouement. The audience is not allowed to feel that the capitalist farmers and communist pigs are on the same debased level. The farmers are airbrushed from the scene altogether. The result is not only an uplifting ending that made commercial sense, but also one which shows that an apparently invincible force can be beaten.

'British Cinema and the Cold War', by Tony Shaw, is out now (IB Tauris, £14.99)