George Orwell Makes CIA Movie
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Animal Farm Film image/

New Hampshire filmmaker Louis de Rochemont had a crazy idea at the dawn of the Cold War. He would animate George Orwell’s classic fable "Animal Farm". Turn a barnyard novel about totalitarianism into a cartoon? Yes, and he did – but not without a lot of help from the CIA. Read the backstory.





READ ABOUT: Father of the Docudrama 

SEE PHOTOS: Australian Animal Farm Film Collection

"Animal Farm" Film has New Hampshire Connection

War, as a whole new generation of young Americans have discovered, is hell. The bad guys do not line up with Game-Boy simplicity. People die. Reality shifts. Friends become enemies and trust is in short supply.

Animal Farm Video / DVD CoverThe enemies, according to British author George Orwell (1903-1950), are any leaders who usurp the rights of their people. Orwell’s powerful literary vision of the evils of totalitarian rule are fleshed out in his two famous novels, "1984" and "Animal Farm", still popular more than a half century after publication. His vision of "thought crime" and "doublespeak" are familiar concepts today. An "Orwellian" world conjures images of a society without privacy, forever at war, sedated by fear and propaganda and ruled by an all- powerful Big Brother posing as a benevolent leader on a crusade for peace.

That may sound like the latest news from CNN, but the topic here is the Cold War. In 1953 a New Hampshire film director worked with the CIA to spread American cultural propaganda throughout Communist countries. The link between novelist George Orwell and filmmaker Louis de Rochemont is as sneaky as a wiretap and rarely told.

With "Animal Farm" published in 1945, Orwell used the allegory of a barnyard society to satirize the dangers of Communist Russia following the 1917 Revolution. Beaten and starved by an abusive farmer, the animals are lead by the intelligent pigs to take over the farm and drive the evil Mr. Jones away. They set up a socialist society in which all animals are equal and define a clear code – four legs good, two legs bad. But factions soon form. Napoleon, a pig caricature of Joseph Stalin, uses fierce farm dogs to drive out the more benevolent pig leader Snowball, representing Leon Trotsky. In the end, Napoleon and his fascist pigs move into the farmhouse and become as evil as the two-legged Mr. Jones. One evil replaces another.


DE ROCHEMONT & THE FBI (continued)


Orwell had a great deal of trouble getting "Animal Farm" published. His scathing attack on the Soviet regime finally appeared in 1946 when Britain was actually allied to Russia. Many British and American liberals were attracted to the writings of Karl Marx right after the war and Orwell rumpled lots of Leftist feathers. The story, which could be read as a fable to children and as political satire by adults, was an immediate success both in Britain and the USA. In his youth Orwell had even fought fascism as a British volunteer in Spain, and for his efforts had been shot through the throat. The wound possibly contributed to his early death at age 47 in 1950.

Goerge Orwell and Louis de Rochemont create Animal Farm film /

Not long after Orwell’s death an American producer living in New Hampshire, Louis de Rochemont , financed the first full-length British cartoon version of Animal Farm. But the secret source of de Rochemont’s funding was not known until the 21st century. The film with its foreboding message intact, was released in 1953. Reviewers praised the full-length animated film that is still used in schools today and is widely available on video and DVD. A report in a London newspaper said the Orwell cartoon might "Rock the Kremlin". Because it included no dialogue, the film could be seen by people in any country, which was exactly the plan.

Recently, through the Freedom of Information Act, researchers discovered that George Orwell had his own FBI file. Since Orwell was so strongly opposed to the "Commie" threat after World War II, one wonders why J. Edgar Hoover needed to keep a secret file on the famous author. And in the Orwell file we find material submitted by Louis de Rochemont himself.  

De Rochemont was no stranger to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As producer of the monthly newsreel series "March of Time" he had tracked the history of the FBI for millions of theatergoers through the 1930s and 40s. Created to root out domestic criminals, the FBI found its true calling when Nazi spies were discovered stealing government secrets on American soil. Suddenly the enemies of America had a face, and "March of Time" crews were the first to document the agency’s high-tech and costly counter espionage techniques. In the pre-television era Americans went to the movies weekly and de Rochemonts’s 20-minute "March of Time" episodes were their window on world news.

Urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt into war with his film "The Ramparts We Watch", Louis de Rochemont had done his bit to promote the American effort. His film "We Are the Marines" was pure military propaganda and his documentary about the Naval destroyer "Fighting Lady" won an Academy Award. By the end of WWII, Louis de Rochemont of Newington, NH, was as American as apple pie.

After the war de Rochemont turned to independent filmmaking. Shunning the artificial techniques of Hollywood studios, the maverick producer demanded realism. For material he reprised popular FBI cases, transforming true crime tales into gritty "film noir" stories shot on location. Two of de Rochemont’s maverick productions were ripped from the pages of FBI files, as the movie posters implied. "The House on 92nd" Street" (1945) and "13 Rue Madeleine" praised the nation’s under cover agencies for their war efforts. In the latter, James Cagney, famous for his portrayal of deadly gangsters, now played a heroic OSS double-agent cracking a ruthless spy ring. J. Edgar Hoover himself made a rare cameo appearance in de Rochemont’s film.

For the FBI, bloated by a wartime budget, the end of the Nazi and Japanese threats might have meant a reduction in force and power. Then Hoover discovered the Red Menace of Soviet Russia, and the Cold War was on. Communists, as Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon warned the nation, were everywhere, especially among the liberal-leaning "pinko" Left that often included many writers, entertainers and filmmakers.


DE ROCHEMONT & THE FBI (continued)


Thinking like an individual was politically incorrect following the war. De Rochemont jumped on the Cold War bandwagon, making points with the FBI in his 1952 cold war thriller "Walk East on Beacon Street", much of it shot on the Boston and New Hampshire seacoast. The plot involved another real life case in which spies attempted to snatch the secret to the A-bomb, only to be foiled by government agents. "SEE THE FBI CATCH SPIES" the six-foot tall movie poster headline announced in large red letters. To add more realism, de Rochemont even used real FBI agents in his films.

But the independent-minded producer had also risked Hoover’s wrath. De Rochemont’s film "Lost Boundaries" (1949) focused on an African-American family from New Hampshire. Tackling the previously unspeakable issue of racism, using a largely Black cast, certainly did not endear de Rochemont to J. Edgar Hoover. "Whistle at Eaton Falls" (1950) tried to show both sides of a wildcat labor strike in a New Hampshire plastics factory. Both were dangerously liberal topics.

Film still from the 1954 Animal Farm film produced by Louise de Rochemont /

De Rochemont always kept an eye out for a good film idea, the more controversial, the better. On August 26, 1953 the producer sent a memo to FBI administrator Louis B. Nichols that reads simply, "Nick, This is the story that I think will be of great interest to you and your friends."

That memo comes from the FBI file on George Orwell, kept even after the author’s death. We can assume de Rochemont was giving advance notice of his upcoming film version of Orwell’s book. When "Animal Farm" opened at the Paris Theater in New York City in December 1954, de Rochemont sent a number of upbeat film reviews to the FBI on his company stationery. One headline reads, "A Brave New Cartoon Movie Based on the Fable That Rocked the Kremlin." A month later in January 1955, Nichols sent an inter-office memo saying that Louis de Rochemont had apparently "hit the jackpot again" with his cartoon version of Orwell’s novel. At the bottom of the memo the FBI administrator noted, "This, incidentally, is the first I’ve heard from him for ages." He then deposited the note in Orwell’s secret file.

But the idea to convert Orwell into cartoon propaganda did not come from de Rochemont himself. It came from the CIA. According to a report in the New York Times, the CIA purchased the film rights to Orwell’s novel from his widow soon after his death. The agent of the CIA’s Psychological Warfare Workshop who made the deal, E. Howard Hunt, eventually gained fame for his secretive role in the Watergate burglary that brought down President Richard Nixon. According to author Karl Cohen, an expert on the film, it was Hunt who selected Louis de Rochemont to produce the film based on his work with March of Time. Film historian Tony Shaw, suggests that de Rochemont then picked a British couple, John Halas and Joy Batchelor, to animate the film because they were cheaper and because a number of American animators had recently been blacklisted, and therefore could not be trusted.


DE ROCHEMONT & THE FBI (continued)


Orwell certainly did not see Animal Farm as a work of American propaganda. Orwell’s contempt was not directed only at Soviets or Communists, but at all governments that seek, even in times of war, to stomp on the rights and freedoms of its citizens. His message is more moral than political and his life and work show an inherent distrust of people with power. Eventually, he implies, those with power, abuse it. It isn’t hard to guess how Orwell would have reacted to Hoover’s FBI, to the CIA, to McCarthyism, Japanese-American Internment Camps, to Watergate to "insurgents" jailed at Guantanamo Bay or to the new Department of Homeland Security.

Animal Farm video cover 1954The FBI never officially investigated George Orwell, whose real name was actually Eric Blair. Despite his status as a Cold Warrior, Orwell certainly must have been a confusing, if not threatening personality to Hoover’s FBI. One note in the Orwell file from 1950 suggests that the author might have been referring to the United States when he wrote about "Big Brother" in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four. But the FBI concluded that rumor was just Russian propaganda.

Orwell was dead set against fascism, but as a British democratic socialist, he was also no fan of capitalism. While it is easy to decode the Russian leaders satirized in "Animal Farm", the allegory names no names.

While most of the 90 pages in Orwell’s FBI File #62-6917 have been released to the public through the Freedom of Information Act, 11 pages have not. And much of the text has been blacked out with a heavy marker, leaving the content unreadable. In an irony that Orwell might have enjoyed, a number of the censored pages contain the following hand-written message: "There is no mention of or reference to George Orwell on this page."

To his credit, de Rochemont’s cartoon production is largely faithful to Orwell’s novel, except for the ending. Thanks to a CIA revision, Farmer Jones joins with the evil pigs at the end of the cartoon. British animators Batchelor and Halas went on to direct less controversial cartoons, including animated TV versions of The Lone Ranger, The Jackson Five, The Addams Family and the Osmonds. De Rochemont went on to make more maverick films, but each was increasingly less political.

As his movie career waned, Louis de Rochemont and his wife Virginia Shaler moved from their 400-acre Blueberry Hill Farm in Newington, NH to the Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth. In his final years, witnesses say, the producer became increasingly fearful that he was being spied on by the FBI, his rooms bugged and his phone tapped. Hoover, he feared, was coming after him. Perhaps he was.

MORE SeacoastNH Films

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. Robinson is owner of the popular regional web site that posts new content daily. His latest book is Rich with Children: The Birth of an Italian Family in America.