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George Orwell Makes CIA Movie

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.


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