Karl F. Cohen investigates the CIA funding of animated propaganda during the Cold War, namely, in Part I of this two part series, the production of Halas and Batchelors Animal Farm.
Part One Halas and Batchelor's Animal Farm and the CIA.
Our countrys use of animated propaganda during WWII is fairly well known, but propaganda made after the Iron Curtain went up is rarely seen or discussed. Animation scholars have been aware of a few pieces of a strange looking puzzle, but nothing began to make much sense until Frances Stoner Saunders published The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters in 2000. (Published in England as Who Paid the Piper?) Even with the publication of her book, it wasnt clear that animation had much of a role in an organized effort to defeat Communism as she only discusses one animated film, Halas and Batchelors Animal Farm. It isnt a cute Disney product for kids, but a handsome intelligent dramatic feature for adults that includes a strong anti-Communist message.
While Saunders book received many favorable reviews and most mentioned the CIA having a hand in the creation of Animal Farm, the information seemed trivial compared to more sensational revelations including the CIA financing the publication of several fine art books, and their using Nelson Rockefeller and the Museum of Modern Art in New York to present art exhibits of Jackson Pollocks paintings and other abstract expressionists to counter the social realism being advanced by Moscow!
Saunders book is the result of six years of meticulous research using records made available to her through to the Freedom of Information Act, papers in private hands and interviews. The CIA did not cooperate with her research, but formerly classified documents were made available by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, John F. Kennedy Library and other private and public institutions with special collections.
It may seem odd that Hollywood movies, progressive magazines, books, modern paintings, jazz, pop music and other segments of American culture could somehow be used as tools of a secret CIA anti-Communist propaganda war. Saunders explains that as early as August 18, 1945 an intelligence officer with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the OSS was established during WWII and was the forerunner of the CIA) wrote, Without atomic weapons the Soviets would be using unconventional peaceful tactics to propagandize, subvert, sabotage and exertpressures upon us, and we ourselves shall be more willing to bear these affronts and ourselves to indulge such methods in our eagerness to avoid at all costs the tragedy of open war.
The report Saunders says, Offers a definition of the Cold War as a psychological contest, of the manufacturing of consent by peaceful methods, of the use of propaganda to erode hostile positions. And, as the opening sallies in Berlin amply demonstrated, the operational weapon was to be culture. The cultural Cold War was on. (The opening sallies included our government using German/Nazi entertainers for propaganda/cultural events in the mid-1940s.)
The CIAs Role in Producing Halas and Batchelors Animal Farm
By the late 1940s the CIA was spending our tax dollars creating culture as a secret weapon to combat Communism and to promote our way of life around the world. Their choice of George Orwells Animal Farm as an animated film to produce almost makes sense. Almost, because the books ending shows both the pigs and humans joined together as corrupt and evil powers. They probably bought the rights assuming that the ending could be changed to better serve their purposes.
To use Animal Farm for their purpose, the CIAs Office of Policy Coordination (they directed covert government operations) had two members of their Psychological Warfare Workshop staff obtain the screen rights to the novel. Howard Hunt, who became infamous as a member of the Watergate break-in team, is identified as head of the operation. His contact in Hollywood was Carleton Aesop, brother of writer Joseph Alsop, who was working undercover at Paramount. Working with Alsop was Finis Farr, a writer living in Los Angeles. It was Alsop and Farr who went to England to negotiate the rights to the property from Sonia Orwell. Mrs. Orwell probably knew Farr as she moved in literary and artistic circles as an assistant to the editor of Horizon magazine. This is well documented in The Girl From the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling (Hamish Hamilton, 2002). Mrs. Orwell signed after Alsop and Farr agreed to arrange for her to meet her hero, Clark Gable. As a measure of thanks a CIA official named Joe Bryan made the arrangements for the meeting according to The Paper Trail, edited by Jon Elliston.
Hunt selected Louis de Rochemont to be the films producer at Paramount. He had created The March of Time in 1935. It was a new form of screen journalism that combined the newsreel and documentary film into a 15 to 20 minute entertaining short that went behind the news to explain the significance of or reason for an event. The March of Time, sponsored by the Time-Life Company, was a popular monthly series for over a decade. The series ended in 1951.
Hunt probably chose De Rochemont because he had once worked for him on The March of Time series. De Rochemont had also worked on socially/politically sensitive films for many years. He produced the anti-Nazi spy film The House on 92nd Street (1945) and Lost Boundaries (1949), one of the first racially conscious films (it is about a black doctor who passes for white until he is unmasked by the black community).
A recently published book suggests De Rochemont chose Halas and Batchelor to animate the film as production costs were lower in England and because he questioned the loyalty of some American animators (British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus by Tony Shaw, 2001). The House Committee for Un-American Activities hearings on Communists in the film industry began in earnest in 1951 (Disney testified at short-lived hearings that were held in 1947) and as Ive shown in my book Forbidden Animation several people in the animation industry were blacklisted, careers were ruined or disrupted, Columbia forced UPA to purge suspected individuals from their ranks and a successful studio making animated TV commercials in New York had to close when conservative journalists identified the owners as two men denounced by Disney in 1947 as probable Communists.
While Shaw has proposed an interesting theory, Vivien Halas, daughter of the films co-directors John Halas and Joy Batchelor, suggests the real reason they got the contract is that Louis De Rochemont was a Navy buddy and good friend of screenwriters/producers Philip Stapp and Lothear Wolf. De Rochemont had worked with them in the Navys film unit and Viviens mother had worked closely with Stapp in 1949 on The Shoemaker and the Hatter, a Marshall Plan film produced by Halas and Batchelor. Eventually Stapp and Lothear would be hired to work on Animal Farm s script.
Although the decision on what firm to hire came at a bleak moment for some American animation companies (the film could have been produced in Los Angeles by a studio whose reputation was beyond reproach), I suspect Halas and Batchelors reputation, personal friendships and budgetary restraints were important factors in the decision to award them the contract.
Animal Farm was to be the first animated feature produced in England. John Halas (1912-1995) was born in Budapest and had worked as an animator before moving to Paris. He moved to England in 1936 to work on Music Man, the first British cartoon in Technicolor. In 1940 he formed Halas and Batchelor with Joy Batchelor (1914-1991), a British animator and scriptwriter. During the war they were kept busy with training, propaganda and other forms of government sponsored films. After the war they worked on films that explained NATO, the Marshall Plan and other changes in the post-war world.
The animation firm was awarded the contract to do the feature in November 1951 and it was completed in April 1954. It is logical to assume that before the contract was signed De Rochemont made it quite clear that the film would not be identical to the book and he may have had a rough script or other guidelines. Vivien says that during the production the script went through several changes before it was finalized.
The production employed about 80 animators. In Halas book The Technique of Film Animation, 1959, he has little to say about the production, but he does state the films target audience was adults rather than children and that they needed to simplify the plot. After reading a draft of this paper, Vivien Halas added that the film wasnt shown in Paris until the 1990s as it was considered too anti-Communist. When it finally premiered in Paris about 1993, the Mayor of Aubervilliers (a suburb of Paris) introduced it as a tribute to communism! My father said no, this is not communist or anti-communist. It is a fable for all time. It is anti-totalitarian and it has a humanist message. In a letter to the animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi in 1981, Joy Batchelor told him they wanted to make a film about freedom.
To meet the CIAs objectives, the ending was changed to show that only the pigs had become totally corrupt. The film ends with other animals mounting a successful revolt against their rulers. There is no mention of the humans in the films conclusion.
Vivien recalls, The changes came about as the film evolved. There were at least nine versions of the script and heated discussions about the end. My mother especially felt it was wrong to change the ending. She has a tape recording of her father saying that the ending they used offers a glimmer of hope for the future. In an interview on Granada TV (U.K.) in 1980, he defended the ending as being necessary to give the audience hope for the future. You can not send home millions of audience being puzzled.
Besides having Philip Stapp and Lothar Wolf working on the script with Joy Batchelor, De Rochemont had another friend from their days in the Navys film unit working on the project. Borden Mace became president of the company set up to produce Animal Farm by De Rochemont, his mentor. Mace told Vivien in an interview in 2002 that De Rochemont had the ultimate say about script changes. While it isnt clear who suggested the ending used, it was certainly what the CIA needed.
While the film was in production, Fredric Warburg, the books publisher, visited the studio several times and viewed the work-in-progress. Saunders thinks he may have suggested that old Major, the prophet of the Revolution, should be given the voice and appearance of Winston Churchill. More importantly, she reveals earlier in her book that Warburg had dealings with the British intelligence group M16. He fronted for them by taking their checks, depositing them and then writing personal checks that he gave to Encounter, an anti-Communist liberal literary publication. He may or may not have been a consultant helping to ensure that the film would be a successful propaganda tool.
In a recent e-mail from Howard Beckerman (animator and author of Animation, the Complete Story, 2001) he writes, About the ending in Animal Farm (1954). I saw it in its initial U.S. release in 1955. At that time the only reason for the upbeat ending seemed to be that the film was very dark and the negative ending of the book would have had the audience leaving the theaters in a depressed mood. Remember, this was a film with animals, at a time when Disney films were the accepted norm. Disney changed Bambi, leaving out much of the realism of animal life in the woods as shown in the book, even though Bambi's mother's death was the dramatic high point of the feature. The Disney live-action animal films like Seal Island purported to show life in the wild with all its harshness, but even here cartoon sentimentality intruded. Animation was expected to be pleasant and happy. Disney's Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp from the '50s reflected the pleasant, nostalgic qualities that had become the norm at that time. There seemed to be a concerted effort to avoid the darkness that had been very obvious in Snow White, Pinocchio and in Fantasia's Night on Bald Mountain sequence.
The team of Halas and Batchelor, backed by the American producer Louis De Rochement (The March of Time), had to compete in the world market with Disney, so a few cartoon gags were introduced into the film to lighten its heaviness, and I believe that whatever the CIA's influence might have been, the choice for an upbeat ending came out of the animator's wish to succeed with the audience. All this might seem naive now, what with the new information being presented. There were movies of the period like the live film, My Son John (1952), which attacked the menace of communism head-on in a contrived and obvious fashion, so I guess anything is possible. If Orwell had lived longer, I suspect he would have vetoed any effort to translate his work into such a film.
The film did well at the box office and the reviews were favorable, but some critics suggested people should read the book to learn what was left out. The film was later distributed around the world by the United States Information Agency (USIA) through their overseas libraries. An article in the Guardian (London, July 1996) suggests the film and book were excellent propaganda in Arab nations in view of the fact that both pigs and dogs are unclean animals to Muslims. On the other hand a French farmer told Vivien Halas pigs are the most intelligent animals in the farmyard.
If you havent seen Animal Farm, it is available on VHS and will soon exist on DVD by UAV in the U.S.A. In the U.K., a collector edition is scheduled for spring 2003 from Universal to mark the 100th birthday of George Orwell. A new restored master has been made from the original three strip Technicolor negative and Vivien Halas says it looks fantastic.
Animal Farm is a film experience you will remember. It is an intelligent work for adults with strong characters, powerful emotional moments and vivid images. It has a lighter side that includes some humor, but what I remember most about it is how well it captures the drama inspired by the book. Im not a purist and while I was aware it wasnt faithful to the book when I first saw it over 40 years ago, the changes didnt bother me. I look forward to seeing it again soon on DVD, now that I know why it is more upbeat than the book.
When asked if Viviens parents were aware of the CIAs involvement with the project she said, I dont believe that my parents were aware of any CIA involvement at the time. Frances reminded me that in the early '50s the CIA was not regarded with the same scorn as today. By the 1980s her parents had heard rumors concerning the CIAs involvement. She says, My father dismissed the idea, but my mother felt annoyed.
Before completing this article Vivien Halas read it again and responded with a very insightful comment that places the film in a historical perspective. She wrote, My own feeling about Animal Farm is that the influence was possibly as much commercial as political. That it was normal for the USA government to try to promote their point of view through culture/art and not as bad as some of the more blatant political interference that has gone on (is still going on). That they mostly put funds in the way of artists who would have done what they did anyway. That this is what has happened throughout history when monarchs, popes or other powerful institutions have patronized artists, composers, etc. This practice is good or bad depending which side you are on. No doubt there has always been bad behavior by people who want power/money/or are just plain megalomaniacs or zealots. Sometimes good things have come about as side effects. Recorded history is rarely accurate and even first hand accounts are not necessarily truthful as memory is notoriously unreliable.
On a few occasions the CIAs failures have been disclosed to us by the news media, but their successes are almost never made public. No matter how you feel about their meddling with feature films, it appears their involvement in the making of Animal Farm was a successful covert operation and it was kept a secret from the public for almost 50 years.
Other Declassified Government Propaganda Projects
On March 17, 1998 the United Kingdoms Public Record Office declassified documents revealing the British government funded a newspaper comic strip in the early 1950s based on Orwells Animal Farm. It ran in several countries including Brazil, Burma, Eritrea, India, Mexico, Thailand and Venezuela. There was also a strip produced by the studio that was drawn by Harold Whitaker to promote the release of the film in England. Vivien writes, This was not propaganda, but promotion (assuming that there is a difference between political and commercial manipulation).
Thanks to Saunders research we now know that Orwells 1984 was made into a live-action feature with funds from the CIA. Work on the British production began in 1954. Like the animated Animal Farm the ending was changed.
Saunders discusses the CIA influencing the content of other live-action projects, and says Carleton Alsop wrote regular movie reports from Hollywood to the CIA that detailed how specific pro-American propaganda themes were introduced into features. For example, he mentioned how well- dressed blacks were included in country club crowd scenes in The Caddy, a Jerry Lewis comedy from 1953. The scenes were to impress people who had been told by the Soviet propaganda ministry that we were a racist, segregated nation. Saunders notes that these images were extremely optimistic. In 1953 many blacks couldnt vote, and many schools and most country clubs were segregated.
Howard Beckerman recalls that, In 1962 I did animation for a largely live-action, stock footage, CBS production called The Road to the Wall. It was narrated by James Cagney and related to the history of Communism and how it led to the then new Berlin wallI naively enjoyed working on the film because of the historical research we had to do, but the director, Al Kouzel, who was more attuned to these things and unhappy with the assignment, helped me understand that we were working on a very biased presentationIt was a film made for propaganda that was passed off as a straight documentary.
When The Road to the Wall was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary short, CBS shared credit as co-producer with the Department of Defense. Apparently the press and public didnt look into the governments role in the production. I recall Bert B. Cohen (my father, a high school world history teacher) was upset that the film contained serious historical mistakes, but I doubt he and others who spotted them realized they were deliberate. Beckerman says, It was revealed about ten years later, in an exposés, how government agencies were creating such films as blatant anti-Russian or anti-Communist propaganda.
The purpose of propaganda is to influence mass attitudes and opinions. Deliberately distorting information and lying are among the acceptable methods used by propagandists to make their points. Unlike other forms of communication, the objective of propaganda is to manipulate and persuade people to accept the information being presented to them.
Today, propaganda is used by world governments and corporations to promote their points of view. We have become used to the media talking about spin doctors, experts who sometimes try and neutralize or make positive public opinion about potentially devastating facts. Contemplate for a few seconds the millions still being spent each year by the tobacco industry to put a positive spin on their image. Until commercials advertising tobacco products in the U.S. was outlawed, many animators benefited from that industrys annual propaganda (advertising) budgets.
The practice of secretly inserting government endorsed propaganda messages in TV shows is alive and well. For example the press disclosed in 2000 (Salon.com broke the story in Prime-Time Propaganda, January 14, 2000) that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was providing TV networks a financial incentive to have shows include anti-drug messages. Network censors (the Standards and Practices Department) review scripts before a show to avoid including anything that goes beyond their rules of acceptable content. The networks were (are? it isnt clear the practice has stopped) submitting scripts that might fit the governments needs. The government would suggest where a line or gesture could be inserted and what the actor might say or do. The anti-drug message could be as simple as a brief show of disgust at a drug related medical crisis. If things worked out, the network got credit that allowed it to run fewer Public Service Announcements (PSAs). Running a paid ad in place of giving a PSA free airtime is a worthwhile incentive. The shows tampered with included ER, Chicago Hope, Home Improvement, Beverly Hills 90210, Cosby, General Hospital and several others. The practice began in late 1997 when Congress passed a five-year, $1 billion project to put more anti-drug messages on television. Are the hidden anti-drug references in TV shows any more or less devious than advertisers paying movie producers to include their products on their sets? This sneaky practice is known as product placement.
For more information about Halas and Batchelor visit http://www.halasandbatchelor.com/. The Surrey Institute of Art and Design houses the Halas and Batchelor Collection in their Animation Research Center and can be found at http://www.surrart.ac.uk/arc.
The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders. New York, New York: The New Press, 2000. 528 pages with eight pages photographs. ISBN: 1-56584-664-8. (US$18.95)
Karl Cohen is a frequent contributor to Animation World Magazine and is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators (1997, McFarland). He teaches animation history at San Francisco State University and is president of ASIFA-SF.