Transferring Orwell's novel to the screen represented a major logistical challenge to Halas and Batchelor, and the film was a notable artistic achievement. Animal Farm became the first feature-length animation film made in Britain for the entertainment of the general public and the first ever made for politically conscious adults.38 Work by the eighty artists employed was split between Stroud in Gloucestershire and London, where the largest studio in Europe was developed for this kind of specialised production. John Reed, who had previously worked for Disney, was put in charge of animation; Matyas Seiber, who had worked on previous Halas and Batchelor projects, composed the score; and Maurice Denham, an experienced British stage actor who was just breaking into films, performed all the voices. In all, 300,000 man-hours were required to create 250,000 drawings and over 1,000 coloured backgrounds. Filmmaking was initially scheduled to take eighteen months at a cost of $270,000, but in the end stretched to three years and totalled roughly $500,000.39
Halas and Batchelor felt the heavy burden of converting into film one of the world's best-known and most sophisticated fables. The film's breakdown chart, showing all of the novel's characters in their various relationships to the plot and to each other, reveals an acute awareness of Animal Farm's political significance. Those incidents which strengthened the main dramatic form
Shades of grey: Budapest-born John Halas, with some of the preliminary sketches for Animal Farm (1954). Stills, Posters and Designs Division of the British Filim Institute.
were retained while other sections were discarded. Conveying the satirical element was particularly challenging given animation's emphasis on the visual rather than the spoken, but this was overcome by a naturalistic style, augmented by a stark rather than glossy presentation, which accurately captured Orwell's combination of humour and deep pessimism. The Swiftian irony was transmitted courtesy of the film's emphasis on the changing slogans. The end product was a film that reduced the storyline to essentials but still followed Orwell's narrative very closely.40
Halas and Batchelor normally worked autonomously, relying on their own skills to convert a commission to screen. This was not the case with Animal Farm. The contract drawn up between RD-DR and Halas and Batchelor, following the agreed treatment in the summer of 1951, gave the former significant scope in shaping the film.41 Input came from several interested parties. De Rochement was himself heavily involved, discussing alterations at the planning and timing stages in September 1952, and commenting specifically on when the pigs should take over the farmhouse and when the 'all animals are equal' slogan should come in. On viewing the early material, he insisted that Napoleon's demeanour and behaviour be modified to make him more authoritarian, and proposed changes to his keynote end speech. Lothar Wolff's supervisory role strengthened de Rochement's control and provided the unit with an expert Cold War propagandist familiar with European audiences.42
News of the production attracted the attention and advice of various literary luminaries in Britain, including the publishers Victor Gollancz and Lord Weidenfeld.43 Fredric Warburg, who in the mid-to-late 1940s had fought personally to publish Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and in the process had developed a close friendship with Orwell, took a particular interest. Between 1951 and 1953 Warburg was treasurer of the British Society for Cultural Freedom, a body financed from the Paris headquarters of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an organisation secretly funded by the CIA. Set up in 1950 with Frank Wisner's help, the CCF was the most prominent liberal intellectual and artistic movement to campaign against communism during the Cold War until newspaper revelations of CIA patronage led to its disappearance in the late 1960s.44 Both the honorary secretary and general secretary of the British Society, Michael Goodwin and John Clews respectively, were IRD contract employees.45 Warburg visited the Halas and Batchelor Studios on several occasions, principally in the autumn of 1952.46 It is impossible to tell what effect, if any, these visits had on the filmmaking, but it is significant that Warburg had misinterpreted Nineteen Eighty-Four as marking Orwell's break with socialism and as an attack on the left as a whole, which he perhaps felt ought to be conveyed in the filmic treatment of Orwell's other great novel.47
Despite reportedly having the authority to approve the script and storyboard in order to ensure that the film was 'a faithful adaptation of her husband's classic', Sonia Blair soon lost interest in the finer points of the production.48 Nevertheless, the company's experienced and gifted scriptwriter, Joy Batchelor, grew increasingly frustrated with what she saw as tampering outsiders. As producer, de Rochement, for one, unsurprisingly insisted on being kept up to date on the script.49 In early 1952, a draft script was also assessed by the US Psychological Strategy Board (PSB). Established in April 1951, the PSB was charged with uniting the whole of the American national security bureaucracy — State Department, CIA (which absorbed the OPC in 1951), military services and other government agencies — behind a campaign of psychological warfare in a grand effort to combat the Soviet Union.50 The organisation gave high priority to its Motion Picture Service, which worked through 135 USIS posts in 87 countries and in 1952 reached an estimated audience of over 300 million.51 The Motion Picture Service employed producer—directors who were given top security clearance and assigned to films that articulated 'the objectives which the United States is interested in obtaining' and that could best reach 'the pre-determined audience that we as a motion-picture medium must condition'.52 The PSB worked on the basis that if art was to be good propaganda it needed to be good art, a theory borne out by its cultivation of respected film directors like Frank Capra and studio executives such as Nicholas Schenck, President of MGM, Columbia's President Harry Cohn, and Walt Disney.53
The Animal Farm script crossed the desk of the PSB's deputy director, Tracy Barnes, in January 1952, courtesy of media executive Wallace Carroll. A consultant to the US government on psychological warfare throughout the 1950s, Carroll also formed a bridge between the CIA and the American press.54 The PSB's film experts were disappointed with the script's propaganda value and offered suggestions for improvement. '[T]he theme is somewhat confusing and the impact of the story as expressed in cartoon sequence is somewhat nebulous. Although the symbolism is apparently plain', the critique concluded, 'there is no great clarity of message.'55 One of the PSB's propaganda lines during this period was to accuse the Soviet regime of having perverted Marxism,56 and promoting a wider reception of Orwell's novel corresponded nicely with this. However, for the film to have its fullest impact - and contribute to the PSB's three-fold 'consolidate, impregnate and liberate' strategy - ease of understanding was considered essential. PSB officials argued, therefore, that it was far better to simplify, presumably even at the cost of modifying Orwell's meaning, rather than confuse the audience with an overly precious adherence to Orwell's text.57 Collaboration between the PSB and OPC in 1952 on political activism in Western Europe meant that there was ample scope for the former's views on Animal Farm to blend into those of the film production team.58
Despite going a year over schedule and through the debilitating process of nine different scripts, the film's message was ultimately evident. Several significant alterations were made to the book for quite normal commercial or artistic reasons. For instance, by having Old Major (Marx-Lenin) die immediately at the end of his revolutionary speech rather than days later created a more dramatic, heart-rending opening. Similarly, the ferocious chasing and killing of Snowball (Trotsky) in one scene a third of the way through precluded the latter's alleged attempts to overthrow the new regime while in exile, but made dramatic sense in terms of being more visual and shockingly violent. However, certain other changes are worthy of further comment given their cumulative political implications.
There can be no doubting Orwell's depiction of Napoleon (Stalin) as a despicable tyrant, or that de Rochement's desire to magnify the character's authoritarian nature made commercial sense. Yet the book states that during the seminal Battle of the Windmill (the Second World War) 'all the animals, except Napoleon, flung themselves flat on their bellies and hid their faces'.59 This represents Orwell's attempt to be fair to Stalin, who remained in Moscow after Hitler's launching of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, directing affairs from the rear. However, in the film Napoleon is singled out as the only animal (apart from Squealer) that does not fight, other than issuing a few orders from the safety of the farmhouse in cowardly response to direct attacks on him. Similarly, the book attributes Napoleon's trading with humans partly to the economic needs of the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, whereas in the film Napoleon's motives are reduced to pure greed, in the shape of jam for himself and the other pigs.
Related to this last point is the wider one of the way the film diminishes the book's human characters and, in the process, its references to the iniquities of capitalism and the limitations of liberty. Far less is made in the film of why the animals rebel in the first place; the 'tyranny of human beings' in Orwell's opening chapter is reduced on screen to Jones' drunken cruelty. The role that the humans play throughout the book in trying to stamp out the rebellion via black propaganda and the flogging of animals for singing the revolutionary anthem is cut. 'Sugarcandy Mountain', Orwell's reference to Christianity as the servile upholder of the status quo, is omitted altogether. Two of Orwell's central characters, Pilkington and Frederick (the British and German governing classes), are virtually elided. Other than Jones himself, the humans are reduced in the film to an indeterminate pub rabble. In the process, the film plays down the significance that the book attached to capitalist infighting, and Orwell's condemnation of Britain and Germany's strategic isolation of the USSR prior to the Second World War.
This line of interpretation is given a further twist in the final scene, which amounts to a wholesale inversion of Orwell's ending. The book concludes on a bleak note, with the now clothed pigs drinking, brawling and gambling with their human farmer neighbours, and agreeing they have a common interest in keeping the lower animals and lower classes subservient. The 'creatures outside', reads the last sentence, 'looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.'60 Orwell's suggestion is that there is no difference between old tyrannies and new, between capitalist exploiters and communist ones. Moreover, the raucous farmhouse party is meant to satirise the cynical power politics of the first wartime meeting between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt at Teheran in November 1943, and to predict their inevitable future conflict based on self-interest. This is why Pilkington and Napoleon draw the ace of spades together at the end of their card game. By participating in this future struggle, warns Orwell, the masses would once again be serving their oppressors'
The twist in the tail: with the humans airbrushedfrom the party, Napoleon (centre) and his 'comrades' celebrate their takeover of the farm. Moments later the beasts' revolt will begin. Animal Farm (1954). Columbia Pictures/Halas and Batchelor Ltd.
The film changes this dénouement in two ways. First, the audience is not allowed to feel that the capitalist farmers and communist pigs are on the same debased level. The farmers are excluded from the scene altogether. Consequently, the watching creatures see only pigs enjoying the fruits of exploitation — a sight which impels them to stage a successful counterrevolution by storming the farmhouse. John Halas years later explained this radical twist in terms of the filmmaker's conventional need to have an upbeat, active ending that sent audiences away happy. In fact, although the revolt scenario appeared in production records as early as March 1952, the ending was the source of a six-month dispute between de Rochement and the directors, especially Batchelor, who wanted to stick to the book's conclusion. It is unclear whether de Rochement's motives were commercially or politically grounded, but his insistence on the beasts mounting a fight back eventually prevailed.62 The result is not only an uplifting ending but also one which underlines the film's anti-Soviet message. In the context of the Eisenhower administration's strategy of 'liberating' those living under communist rule, the film's counter-revolutionary theme is particularly intriguing.
Billed as 'the most controversial film of the year', Animal Farm was released by RKO in New York in December 1954 and opened in London a fortnight later. It immediately attracted international coverage, helped by, as one newspaper put it, 'the sort of unexpected advance publicity for which Hollywood would sacrifice its last picture of a pin-up girl'.63 A gala reception at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York added to the film's already pregnant political overtones.64 When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill complained that Old Major's voice too closely resembled his own, conjuring an amusing image of the staunch Conservative exchanging places with the father of communism, the film's appeal grew further.65
Critical responses to Animal Farm stressed its technical expertise and innovation. Though a few critics thought the film too Disneyesque in places, it was instantly proclaimed a landmark in the history of British animation. Voicing the consensus, Kinematograph Weekly called it 'brilliant. At once thoughtful, controversial, challenging and witty, but never malicious, it should intrigue all classes and, except for tiny tots, all ages.'66 The film's paymasters would have been heartened by its reception politically. While notable reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, including one in the CCF's flagship journal, Encounter, criticised the film for having watered down the novel's anti-Soviet message,67 the majority recommended it as a faithful interpretation of Orwell's anti-communist classic. In labelling it 'a merciless commentary on the Slave State' and 'a sparkling satire on Kremlin madness' respectively, Britain's Catholic Herald and the New York Daily News indicated how keenly conservative newspapers exploited such 'respectable' opportunities for anti-Soviet propaganda. Other commentators felt the movie's political message was enhanced by animation's instant accessibility and apparent ideological innocence.68
The changed ending did not go unnoticed by British reviewers, testimony to the cultural importance of Orwell's work. Some were scathing, for political and artistic reasons. 'I wonder what sort of conferences led to this highhanded decision',69 protested one Catholic magazine, Tablet, without pressing the issue. The Glasgow Herald went further, complaining 'that even President Eisenhower has been constrained a little to damp the enthusiasm of those who call the sheep and goats and donkeys of Eastern Europe to rise in rebellion'.70 Other critics applauded the twist. 'Reading the book', Britain's most prestigious newspaper, The Times, stated, 'one felt with passionate conviction that the animals were right to rebel.'71 However, most ordinary viewers would probably have interpreted the film as a straight adaptation of an important book written by a revered radical. Those in the audience able to read the ideological metaphors would have been encouraged to think that the Soviet order was not only flawed but also either beatable or inherently self-destructive. 'At last an anti-Communist film has come along that is 100% effective artistically and hence is really telling as propaganda', declared one of Britain's best-selling Catholic newspapers, the Universe, '[showing that] Communism is an evil system that does not even make for material happiness.'72
The movie was eagerly promoted. The American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), the US offshoot of the CCF, went to great lengths to make Animal Farm's opening run at New York's prestigious Paris Theater a platform for domestic and international success. Media contacts spread word of 'one of the most important anti-Communist documents of our time'; discount rates were offered to students and labour unions; and strenuous efforts (ultimately unsuccessful) were made to persuade MGM to act as the film's distributors.73 The IRD also distributed the film among 'the slightly educated' in parts of the British empire and in other parts of the developing world such as Indochina.74 A cartoon strip drawn by one of the animators, Harold Whitaker, appeared in the British and international press; merchandising spin-offs, unusual for the period, included children's animal figurines.75 Despite this, the film was not a great success; its initial run in Britain's third city, Manchester, for example, lasted only a fortnight. 'It was a serious cartoon and the distributors didn't know what to do with it', said a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America.76 'One of British film's more honourable failures', claims film historian John Baxter, Animal Farm was arguably too serious a subject for a medium commonly thought of as suitable only for children.77
Whether the film still prospered in political terms is debatable. Few records exist relating to the reception outside Britain and the United States of this most international of films. However, being animated meant that Animal Farm was easily translatable and versions in Japanese, Swedish, German and other languages soon appeared.78 In France, where Napoleon was renamed Caesar, it was lauded as a powerful parody of the Soviet regime.79 The CIA helped to finance distribution, though it was powerless to circumvent bans imposed on the showing of the film behind the Iron Curtain.80 If the film's chief target was the potentially dissident element suffering under the communist yoke, it therefore failed. If, on the other hand, success is measured in terms of its broadening awareness of Animal Farm, previously confined largely to the literary-minded middle classes, a different picture emerges. The perspective changes again if the film is examined by way of its subtly contrived Cold War message, serving both as a warning to developing states and as a reminder to doubters in the West of the sordid Soviet record. Nor should the film's potential impact be restricted in time. By the late 1950s, Animal Farm (and Nineteen Eighty-Four) had become standard reading in British and American schools. In the decades ahead, the film became a popular pedagogical aid, helping in the process to provide a new generation with a tendentious grounding in the origins of the Cold War.81
Was this article helpful?
If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.