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Orwell's "Animal Farm" FBI File

George Orwell & Louis de Rochemont
Rock the Kremlin

Animal Farm

War, as a whole new generation of young Americans may soon discover, is no video game. It’s hell. The good guys and bad guys do not line up with Game-Boy simplicity. The enemy may look just like your neighbor, but the blood is real. People die. Deciding who to trust and who to distrust is, in a world of shifting national loyalties, a complex task made even more complex in times of war.

The 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 concept today. An "Orwellian" world conjures images of a society without privacy, sedated by fear and propaganda and ruled by an all- powerful Big Brother posing as a benevolent leader. The profile fits a Saddam or a Bin Laden to a tee.

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 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 representing 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 Mr. Jones.

George Orwell

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 death at just 47 in 1950.

Two years later an American producer living in New Hampshire, Louis de Rochemont , financed the first full-length British cartoon. Orwell’s "Animal Farm" was the unlikely topic. The film with its foreboding message intact, was released in 1953. Reviewers praised the full-length animated film which is still used in schools today and widely available on video and DVD. A report in a London newspaper said Orwell’s story "Rock the Kremlin".

So why, if George Orwell was so clearly opposed to the "Commie" threat after World War II, did J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI keep a secret file on the famous author? And why does that file, recently opened through the Freedom of Information Act, contain a wealth of material submitted by Louis de Rochemont?

Louis de Rochemont

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. Now the enemy 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 "We Are the Marines" is pure military propaganda and his documentary about the Naval destroyer "Fighting Lady" won an Academy Award. When the war ended, Louis 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 played a brief cameo appearance in de Rochemont’s productions.

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.

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 foiled by government agents. "SEE THE FBI CATCH SPIES" the bold movie 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. His film"Lost Boundaries" (1949) about an African-American New Hampshire family tackled the previously unspeakable issue of race in 1949. "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.

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."

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.

The 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. 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. 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. How Orwell would have reacted to the FBI, the CIA, Japanese-American War Internment Camps, Watergate or the new Department of Homeland Security is easy to guess.

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." Reading the file, it’s hard not to think of the rules written on the barn in "Animal Farm" that slowly changed as Napoleon the pig came to power or the governmental "doublespeak" in his last novel "1984".

After the publication of "1984" in 1950, according to notes in the Orwell file, a Russian propaganda campaign disseminated the rumor that the bleak tale – with Big Brother spying on his own people through their TV sets -- was really about America. An FBI agent read the book and concluded that Orwell was talking instead about Russia, and the book was no threat to national security. Ironically, American groups opposed to the "Gestapo" tactics of the American CIA suggest that the US government actually funded the distribution of de Rochemont’s film "Animal Farm" as a propaganda tactic in the 1960s.

To his credit, de Rochemont’s cartoon production is faithful to Orwell’s novel, certainly more faithful than a more recent adaptation for television using Muppet characters. But the animated "Animal Farm" remains, ultimately, a British project, directed by a husband and wife team Joy Batchelor and John Hahas. They went on to direct animated TV versions of The Lone Ranger, The Jackson Five, The Addams Family and the Osmonds. Two of the "Animal Farm" cartoonists later illustrated the animated rabbit classic "Watership Down" and the Beatles psychedelic "Yellow Submarine".

Maverick producer de Rochemont never stopped pushing the envelope. After the unlikely "Animal Farm" cartoon, he went on to experiment in a short-lived format called Cinerama that projected movies onto a 180-degree screen that wrapped around the audience. His later projects were as quirky as his earlier ones, and included a film starring a young Warren Beatty as an Italian gigolo, the tale of a Canadian beaver, the life of religious zealot Martin Luther.

De rochemont and Orwell never took the easy road. 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 after him. Perhaps he was.

By J. Dennis Robinson

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Father of the Docu-Drama 

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