Saturday, 18 April 2015

Postcards from Airstrip One

"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four 

It's a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks are striking thirteen. This started as a Twitter conversation, but my meanderings this morning have felt more like a blog post, so here it is.

It began with a review of the 1954 cartoon version of Animal Farm by History Scientist, in which he laments the liberties taken with the text, in particular turning the ending from Orwell's satirical observation that the animals can no longer tell pig from human, to one where the enraged animals overthrow their new oppressors. I remarked that - talking of Orwell travesties - I had heard of a version of 1984 with a happy ending. However, it proved to be very hard to find it. But then it turned out, rather spookily, that both of these things had a common cause. More on that later.

So - Nineteen Eighty-Four. Written in 1948, published in 1949. Orwell himself died in 1950, and the rights to his works passed to his widow, Sonia. Film adaptations there have been three; a 1954 TV movie by the BBC, adapted by Nigel 'Quatermass' Kneale and starring Peter Cushing - I haven't seen that, but I can imagine how bleak it was! Then there was a 1956 Hollywood version, with Edmond O'Brien and Michael Redgrave, and finally the celebrated 1984 version with John Hurt and Ri-chardd Bur-tonnnn. I remembered the 1984 version - it defnitely doesn't have a happy ending, so it seemed clear which one must have done, and indeed I remembered reading just that in a book on cinema some time during the late 1980s. Indeed, the 1956 film had reportedly been suppressed at the request of Sonia Orwell, and had become almost impossible to find until very recently. So imagine my surprise to find it on YouTube. You can watch the ending, like I did, and like me can be puzzled that it appears to be entirely conventional - Winston meets Julia at the Chestnut Tree cafe and then declares his love for Big Brother. The end - followed by a totally unnecessary moralising voiceover just in case you were too stupid to grasp the point.
So what about this fabled happy ending then? Was it just a rumour? Chinese whispers about a rejected early draft? The absence of the film from circulation generating urban legends? And besides, what could a happy ending of 1984 possibly even look like? I started digging on the web to see what I could find. 
The first thing I found was a page from New Scientist in, appropriately, 1984, talking about the upcoming movie version and the travesty of the 1956 happy ending. So I wasn't imagining it then. Someone on a forum had a similar memory - they had actually even seen it, but were beginning to feel like they'd made it up. I began to feel a bit like Winston Smith as he burned the old newspaper clipping, having changed the electronic record. Had the happy ending been 'disappeared', airbrushed from history as a momentary embarrassment? Finally I found a New York Times review of a book on the Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders, and that not only confirmed the story, but also - amazingly - laid the blame at the feet of the CIA, who had also been responsible for tweaking the version of Animal Farm that we started with. 
If this seems a bit far-fetched, it's wise to remember that the 1950s were a time of full-scale Red Panic - Reds Under the Bed, Duck And Cover and the Missile Gap - of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Commission. Of a time when, in order to try and protect the American way of life, elements of the establishment had almost ended up destroying it. Morally ambiguous fables by a disillusioned British socialist were unlikely to find a warm reception in 50s Hollywood. So the CIA had bought the rights and tried to twist them into Cold War propaganda pieces, where the baddies are overthrown at the end by the indomitable spirit of Liberty. In addition to the different ending to Animal Farm, it appears that there must have been two endings shot for the 1956 movie version of 1984; a conventional one - the one that appears on YouTube today - but also a CIA approved one, where Winston overthrows his brainwashing, shouts "Down With Big Brother!", and although he is gunned down, the voices of thousands more begin to take up the chant. Possibly one version was for US release, the other for global distribution - a common enough tactic both then and now.

But all of this still begs the question as to where the version of the 1956 movie with that ending is. Presumably it is out there somewhere. While the version true to the book is clearly the better one dramatically, my own feeling is that it's actually even more important that the "happy ending" version is found and put out there too, if only to demonstrate the supreme irony of trying to take a work about the editing of history to serve the state, and editing it to serve the state. I would dearly love to think that we can ultimately reclaim the past from the swivel-eyed Red-baiters, and perhaps remind those today who want to trample on our freedoms in the name of 'security' that it didn't work the previous time either.

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