Friday, 24 July 2015

Animal Farm (1954)

Kammerat Napoleon

”All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”

Ain’t that the truth…

More and more frequently do I now encounter movies that I not only know of, but have also seen. “Animal Farm” is another one of those. I saw it back in high school in an English class and I figure that though it was an easier treat than George Orwell’s novel, it did make a big impression on me back then. The thing is this movies plays a very nasty trick. It lures you into thinking this is a classic Disney-ish feel-good cartoon and then turns the whole lot very dark and bad. Even as an adolescent you are not above feeling that hammer slamming you to the ground. Oh, I think that English teacher enjoyed that very much, he did have a wicked sense of humor.

“Animal Farm” is a British cartoon feature from the Halas and Batchelor studio about how the animals at Manor Farm kicks out the farmer and takes over the farm for themselves as a commune. This part is very happy and uplifting with Disney elements like the little clumsy duckling and the animals farming in their own quirky ways. Halfway in however the pigs who led the rebellion form a new ruling class, which is at first kind of sweet, but soon turn sinister and menacing when the pig Napoleon takes control using loyal dogs as power leverage and send them off to chase down and kill the rival Snowball. Goodbye Disney and goodbye kiddies, I do not think this is a movie for you.

As Napoleon’s rule turn more and more oppressive colors become dark and grayish and gone is any vestige of the previous optimism. This reaches a climax when the big horse Boxer, who was instrumental in practically all physical labor on the farm is sold to a glue factory for whiskey to the pigs. When the other animals thus learns that the pigs have become essentially human and more equal than others they rebel, but this time not in happy optimism, but in furious anger.

It is no secret that Orwell’s story is about the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalin. The movie was even intentionally funded as propaganda against the East bloc. The interesting thing here is how detailed and honest it is. A pure propaganda stunt would be very black and white with no redeeming elements to the opposition. Animal Farm is certainly painting a dark picture of Stalin, but it is actually all for the revolution itself. Farmer Jones (the tsar) had it coming with his mismanagement and brutality. The communist manifest is celebrated as a solution and Lenin as the old hog Old Major is a benign character. When the animal fight off the farmers trying to take the farm back (the White alliance) the animal are heroic, even the pigs, and the animals vigor in farming reflect the creative burst the Soviet union went through in the twenties, symbolized by Snowball (Trotsky). This is all very impressive of a film against communism to say that the people are all right and the idea is good.

Then the page turn and we see the two main points of the movie:

  1.   That such an egalitarian society is a fantasy, that someone will eventually rise to dominate the rest, but by claiming to represent the people effectively gag the opposition
  2.  That Stalin is an evil power monger who used his tools of strength to secure a power base to exploit his people.

When the farmers attack again (the German invasion in 41) the animals are still heroic, but lead not by joy and optimism but by the force of a tyrant. 

One by one all the things the animals fought for are gone. There is little food and no protection. Their ideals written on the barn disappears or ring more and more hollow the same way as communism devolved into an oppressive system to support the power elite. 

Although this is a blatant propaganda piece it is also scary how spot on it is. In 54 this may have felt like an exaggeration, but with our advantage of hindsight we can tell that the producers were not far off the mark. Halas was a Hungarian and he would therefore have some first or second hand experience with Stalinism and while the upbeat ending can be interpreted as a last ditch effort at crowd pleasing, it is also likely that Halas and sponsors hoped that the people of the East bloc would find inspiration to rebel. The Hungarians did indeed do so a few years later and the Czech again in 68, but it would take 35 before the prediction of the movie became reality with a literal breaking of the wall. Incidentally this may have been why our English teacher made us watch it back in 1990. 

While “Animal Farm” is decidedly not a children’s movie I do consider it both an important film and a very clever one. It grabs the attention of the audience and then twitches you around and forces you to see the awful truth as the producers sees it. It has an uncanny ability to force home its points and even if you disagree with those you have to admit that it is effective.



  1. Even though reading Animal Farm was almost required when I went to high school somehow the specific English teachers I had never assigned it. I had never read the book before seeing this movie, so while I knew the basics ("some animals are more equal than others") the rest of the story was new to me. I liked the film quite a bit.

    1. Maybe it was a good idea to wait watching it until adulthood. For an adolecent this can be tough fare. I know it was for me.

  2. I love the novel more than the movie but it's definitely a good movie.

    1. I actually never read it but I think I should. I believe it is on my book list if I ever get that far. Those old Japanese books are tough to get through.