We do need an education: Teaching Pink Floyd: The Wall
Libi Sundermann and Joshua Scullin
Having recently passed its thirty-fifth anniversary, Pink Floyd's film Pink Floyd: The Wall has established itself both as a cult classic and historical source.1 Its age allows scholars the necessary hindsight to examine the film in its historical context: a film that uses live action, graphic art, and progressive rock music to depict the post-World War II twentieth century through the eyes of disillusioned postwar Anglo-American youth.2 At the same time, the film provides multiple entry points for discussions of global post-World War II youth angst, social movements, and political challenges marked by the immediate postwar decades (1945 through the fifties), the progressive "Global Sixties," the conservative backlash by Conservative politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, and Cold War tensions in the 1970s and early 1980s.3 The film makes clear references to social and identity movements related to youth and gender (masculine and feminine), the rise and fall of authoritarian systems, and makes more subtle references to issues of empire, race, and decolonization throughout these postwar decades. In this light, the film can be used to open discussions to myriad postwar global issues including (male) subcultures, women's liberation, civil rights, political trends, and questions about identity and performative actions—in this case through mass media and popular culture.4
The Wall, both the film and its music, continue to resonate around the world. Pink Floyd's Roger Waters' 2010–2013 global The Wall Live tour and his current global Us + Them tour means new global audiences, including twenty-first century youth and adults, may be familiar with Roger Waters, his music, and elements of The Wall album and film. Many, however, could benefit from examining the film in its historical context and meaning, especially as the iconic The Wall image has been misappropriated—most recently by US Trump supporters and others as imagery and sound for Trump's plans for a US-Mexico border wall.5 This article, focused on The Wall (film), describes our approach to using film—and the special case of using The Wall—in the history classroom with emphasis on providing that historical context and analysis of the film for college instructors and students to deepen their understanding of why and how The Wall can—and should—be used as a historical source.
Using Film in the History Classroom
As a British and World history senior lecturer at the University of Washington, Tacoma, Libi Sundermann regularly uses film as sources in her British and World history courses. Joshua Scullin honed his interests and skills in reading media historically (including The Wall) while a student in Sundermann's history courses, leading to joint work on this paper. They believe, as Scott Bailey stated in the his announcement for this forum, "Film now plays a preponderant role in shaping individuals' conceptions of the global past and can many times provide an initial understanding of an historical event or personage."6 Sundermann's pedagogical choice to include feature and documentary films in her history classes is bolstered by Trenia R. Walter's 2006 "Historical Literacy: Reading History through Film," in which Walter argues,
This skill, as Walter and others note, is crucial for films as historical sources—whether documentary or historical fiction feature films. Cable history channels, Hollywood, and many other producers make and remake films about historical events and people which inform and flavor our understanding of the past, present, and future. That said, as Walter and others also argue, all film becomes a historical source as a cultural artifact. At the heart of this forum is the question: how should we as scholars, instructors, and students react to and understand historical films and films as sources? Clearly, as Walter argues, by using our "historical literacy skills" or critical thinking.
Teaching The Wall
Sundermann assigns film reviews to her students (co-author, Scullin wrote several of these assignments) asking them to think critically about film, its historical context, and how it portrays history. Sundermann began assigning The Wall in her courses as she developed curriculum looking at issues of postwar youth angst, tied to her research interests in twentieth-century English education, specifically the landmark 1944 Education Act.
While researching The Wall's current reception, Sundermann came across an Amazon.com buyer review that horrified her, not only because of its content, but because she feared it could have been written by the parent of one of her students:
This review motivated Sundermann to ensure that students (and instructors) clearly understand the historical context of the film, its autobiographical qualities, and how to use "historical literacy" to understand The Wall—and any other film they watch.
Sundermann and Scullin both had previous experiences with The Wall, from Sundermann's first viewing as college student at a midnight showing and Scullin's adolescent exposure to the film, encouraged by his appreciation for Pink Floyd's discography. At their first viewings of The Wall, they, too, were baffled by the plot, but the graphic graphic art images of death, violence, violent sex, and authoritarianism stuck with them. They started researching and re-watching the film, eventually writing a lecture and an independent study paper on the film, on which this paper is based.
Because of its untraditional narrative form, students of the film must be prepared for close reading and analysis.9 In addition, some students may find some scenes, specifically those related to sex, violence, and drugs, unsettling. While these scenes are integral to the film's messages and plot, instructors may want to discuss these scenes with students before screening the film. Students may find the non-traditional, non-linear, and lyric and music-driven film difficult to follow at first—yet current pedagogical practices, including this forum, suggest that multimodal literacy is a key learning objective for twenty-first century students. Scholarly interest and literature on multimodal pedagogy is growing rapidly, as this forum attests. An introduction to interdisciplinary analysis techniques, including film, literature (with the recent inclusion of graphic novels as serious literature), and music studies may also benefit students. Sundermann's pedagogy is influenced by her film, literature, and cultural studies colleagues who have aided her in multimodal analysis and teaching methods.
Luckily, there is a plethora of popular media available in print and online on The Wall, including film reviews, compendiums and analysis of musicology and lyrics, and interviews with Roger Waters about the film and his music, to help instructors and students unpack the film.10 This includes a 2010 book by Gerald Scarfe: cartoonist, illustrator, and long-time Pink Floyd collaborator, The Making of Pink Floyd: The Wall. The film and the album (LP and CD) are widely available through university libraries and online retailers which allows instructors and students easy access to the multiple viewings which may be necessary to understand the film.
An introduction to key themes of World War II and the postwar era, including youth angst and protest, sexual and gender developments, race, and post-colonialism benefits students before screening. There is, of course, wide and deep scholarship on these topics and themes for the world history classroom. More specific Anglo-American and European scholarship in cultural studies, history and memory, and the radical shift to modernism and post-modernism in the twentieth-century may also help students with a close reading of the film. We suggest readings from Dick Hebdige's Subcultures, Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, and the work of British Cultural Studies scholars such as Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart. In addition, although focused on World War I, Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory and Jay Winter's Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History are excellent introductions to generational culture shifts in the twentieth century. We suggest instructors and students become familiar with themes of "second generation" history and memory scholarship as well. While World War II "second generation" studies often focus on Holocaust survivors' children, history and memory analysis of work such as Art Spiegelman's Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel, are useful to understanding The Wall's graphic art medium and the film's autofictional qualities.11
The Wall: History and Reception
Despite its mixed early reviews, The Wall is a highly ranked popular cult film and professional critics also praise the film—Roger Ebert argued, "the 1982 film is without question the best of all serious fiction films devoted to rock" in his "Great Movie" archive despite his acknowledgement that "I can't imagine a 'rock fan' enjoying it very much on first viewing."12 The film serves as a rite of passage for many youth, often at art house or campus screenings. Yet general audiences, like the Amazon reviewer, may not recognize the depth and context of the film without additional guidance.
Scholars have addressed the film, the music, and their themes, but this body of work is relatively thin and is almost bizarrely diverse: historical, educational, musical, psychological—and several studies use The Wall as a cultural marker for Berlin Wall scholarship.13 In terms of the film's specifically British history, Jorge Romero's and Luis Cabo's "Roger Waters' Poetry of the Absent Father: British Identity in Pink Floyd's The Wall" does an excellent job of identifying key themes in the film, such as the album's grappling with the horrors of World War II, postwar reactions, British domestic problems, and the impact of American-led globalization.14 Their work, however, tends to (re)focus its argument and periodization from The Wall's stand-alone significance by inclusion of Pink Floyd's subsequent album, The Final Cut (1983) and its connections to domestic and global issues in the 1970s and 1980s with an emphasis on the rise and domination of Margaret Thatcher's neoliberalism, and globalization as Americanization. While this is an apt and interesting approach that reveals the "intimat[e] connect[ions]" between The Wall and The Final Cut, the article's focus on the 1970s and 1980s leave earlier postwar decades glossed over and some sections feeling ahistorical.15 Our discussion here serves to redirect the focus on The Wall to its root historical context: the history and memory of World War II and its effect on baby-boomer and "bomb culture" generations in their childhood and its effect on them as young adults—examining The Wall and its semi-autobiographical protagonist, Pink, from birth to adulthood, as well as revealing how the film connects to Pink's world, his childhood and adult relationships, and how Pink's experiences relate to global contexts, collective memories, and collective postwar angst.
Authors such as Zeno Ackerman have also examined the lyrics from Pink Floyd: The Wall for historical context. Ackerman argues that Waters is "offer[ing] an inventory of wartime and postwar British discourse," but we argue he fails to examine Waters' dystopic vision of the past, present, and future through minute analysis of lyrics and imagery.16 Regardless, Ackerman is exceptional in discussing the impotence of the postwar British male, and also in arguing that music is valid as a historically relevant discourse as a "social and cultural concept, rather than as a musicologically valid category."17 Phil Rose completed an exhaustive analysis of Pink Floyd's concept albums, arguing them to be a collective manifesto against capitalism and commercialism.18 Seen through these varied lenses, and given its autobiographical and cultural nature, The Wall, film and soundtrack, are clearly worthwhile historical sources. Our work here attempts to deepen analysis on the film as a historical source including its connections to global topics and themes.
This analysis will examine major themes in the film and its soundtrack tied to post-World War II history that remains relevant in the twenty-first century: youth angst, masculinity, feminism and reactions to sex and gender relationships, (neo-)authoritarian leadership, and "othering," particularly in terms of race. Although The Wall presents them through the eyes of a British male youth, these themes connect to twentieth and twenty-first century world history.
Postwar youth angst and masculinity
The Wall's main plot follows a young British man known only as "Pink" through a tragic coming-of-age journey and transformation.19 The film focuses largely on emotional—often destructive or painful—incidents in Pink's life by highlighting scenes in his childhood and postwar years including his rise as a rock star. The film's crux is Pink's effort to barricade himself from society behind the eponymous [psychological] "wall." The Wall reveals a postwar male youth whose inability to deal with postwar angst—from the death of his father, to his relationships with women, to (continued) social injustices, and the dumbing down of postwar mass culture—forces him to create a mental wall that nearly destroys his ability to function in the real world. He suffers a breakdown resulting in, what may be best considered, a psychogenic fugue state, taking on a new identity.
Pink's journey into alienation begins with a seemingly tranquil domestic scene in his pram that foreshadows knowledge of his father's death in the war. The juxtaposition from quiet family life to the horrors of war foreshadow postwar disillusionment. Pink's coming of age is both collective memory and personal: "Goodbye Blue Sky" reveals collective memory of the war:
The Wall's images and lyrics, however, also focus on Pink's father's death and his anger at "the [British] high Command." Pink's father's death profoundly shapes his relationships with the world around him. 21 "The Tigers Broke Free," recounts his father's death:
The failure of leadership to keep his father safe colors Pink's relationships with authority figures, similar to the common trope for postwar youth who didn't "trust anyone over thirty."23 Their distrust is a product of disillusionment over the sins of their parents and grandparents' generations—culminating in the World Wars, the Holocaust, and the atom bomb—and their defiant reactions to official attempts to return to cultural norms in a nuclear age.24 Pink Floyd's music and The Wall's imagery is performative rebellion at its finest.
Domestic tranquility as dramatic irony emerges again in "The Thin Ice," the song's quiet, melodic opening chords reminiscent of a soothing lullaby of platitudes parents (like Pink's mother) may tell their children. A close listening, however, reveals a song that is, in fact, portentous of troubles and anxieties in young Pink's future and realizations that his single mother's overprotectiveness left him unable to cope with his world. Further, the implied hesitations in lyrics like, "The sea may look warm, the sky may look blue," are deafening, and, ironically, foreshadow the chill to come. The second half of the song finds the soothing sea water to be, rather, a sheet of thing and fragile ice, visual metaphors for both Pink's psyche and the relative peace of postwar (Cold War) life: it is a veneer that cannot withstand the pressures of past, present, and future that Pink and postwar youth carry with them. Visually, the film complements these lyrics with images of Pink floating, Christ-like, in a crystal-clear pool—i.e. the sea; as the song transitions, Pink thrashes and the pool is stained red in a metaphor for the blood spilt during World War II—and being spilled in the Cold War decades.
In this fashion, the film makes a case that the death tolls and atrocities of war have not—should not—been forgotten—"The Thin Ice" notes, "the silent reproach of a million tear-stained eyes." The film presents images of the cartoon violence of "Tom and Jerry" as a quiet indictment of humankind's inundation with, and casual acceptance of, violence.25 Pink, himself, reveals this use of violence, in his memories and in his actions. This violence—physical, verbal, and psychological—has also compelled him to build and hide behind a wall. The Wall forcefully argues that society expects men to not share their feelings.
Pink's emotional wall, ironically, is an end result to a failed attempt to create and embrace a "new man" in postwar male societies, a trend that Holger Nehring argues was a shift of "the focus of … cultural politics … away from explicit political objectives and towards the self-transformation of (male) activists: it was essential to [John Gerassi's] 'establish[ment of] a new society that [would] allow men to talk about their souls.'"26 In the film, schoolboy Pink attempts to "talk about his soul" through poetry which his teacher confiscates and then mocks aloud.27 When Pink's mother drops him off—alone—at a park to play, Pink is drawn to a man who is playing with his son. Following the pair, Pink attempts to clasp hands with this father-figure several times but is rejected. In another poignant scene, Pink tries to care for a sick rat in secret after his mother's repulsion to the creature. He hides it away, wrapped in his sweater, only to return to find it dead. A moving cinematic sequence shows Pink watching his mother grieve for his lost father in a church while he plays with a toy plane that "flies" between the pews: "Daddy's flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory … a snapshot in a family album." Another scene shows him furtively trying on his father's uniform, hidden away in his mother's drawers. As a child, Pink tries to fill the gap his father's death left inside of him through art, love, and remembrance. Through these scenes Pink is detailing the loneliness, despair, and resignation that alienated him as a war orphan. His attempts to "'establish a new society that [would] allow men to talk about their souls'" are, sadly, rebuffed.
The representation of Pink's father's absence, a member of a second "lost generation," is central to much of the film. The audience sees, however, that Pink's—and postwar society's—emptiness is not just related to those lost in the war but to postwar society. As a child, Pink seems isolated, even from his mother: a scene of Pink sick in bed leaves him sick with worry as his mother and doctor converse behind a closed door. During "The Happiest Days of Our Lives," young Pink—separated from his friends—places one of his father's bullets on a railroad track as a train comes hurtling toward him. Amidst the small explosion caused by the train running over the bullet, Pink sees not an empty car, but one full of faceless children. This scene adds to a sense of Pink's alienation but also foreshadows his future angst and attempts to "become comfortably numb" through drug use and self-mutilation. The most iconic scenes from the film, in "We Don't Need No Education," reveal the soullessness of the educational system—faceless children forced through a factory system—"another brick in the wall." As Pink becomes an adult, the audience is given a shimmer of hope that he has left behind this childhood angst and as they see him grown into a musician and a loving husband—a brief hope that he has overcome the odds and "self-transform[ed]" finding ways to "talk about [his] soul." This happiness is short-lived as Pink's career and marriage begin to fall apart in the face of his continued isolation from society. Pink's breaking point comes in a North American hotel room where he has isolated himself while on tour.28
These incidents connect to interdisciplinary world history that considers what gender studies have identified as (global) "crises in masculinity," including the struggles of men to live in still-traditional patriarchal social milieux in the postwar world. In 1970, Nicolas Von Hoffman, like Gerassi, argued,
Pink, and other young men in the postwar world, sought out new subcultures and new relationships to express themselves, but these were subsumed by traditional patriarchal norms, reaction to shifts in women's and gender culture, and an increasingly soulless mass culture which strips their expressions of their personal meanings. We see this failure in postwar male angst and the continued attempts and failures of men to reimagine [global] male culture throughout the late twentieth and early twentieth centuries. James P. Grant's 1971 "Marginal Men" describes "[men] who have reached adulthood with no useful role to play in their societies" in an argument echoed by the 2017 ethnography examining "organizational hierarchy" and "deprived masculinity."30 Xioali Tian and Yunxue Deng argue that,
Pink defends his masculinity by creating an alter-ego: a jack-booted fascist stripped of Pink's identity, makes an appearance "In the Flesh." The xenophobic authoritarian figure who replaces the emotionally-muted Pink tells his audience: "I've got some bad news for you sunshine, / Pink isn't well, he stayed back at the hotel /And they sent us along as a surrogate band …" Pink's alter-ego has emerged after a final blow to Pink's psyche—the realization that his wife is having an affair (another brick in the wall).
"Mama," the wife, and "dirty girls"
The Wall makes it clear that Pink has difficult relationships with women including his "traditional" mother and his "modern" wife. Connecting scenes featuring Pink's mother, his wife, "the dirty girl" groupies, and graphic illustrations of symbolic castration, reveal Pink's hope for, fear of, and anger against male-female intimacy. These scenes, although told in an Anglo-American setting, reveal "crises in masculinity" tied to shifting relationships between and among genders in the postwar world, including the (global) "modern woman." Additionally, these scenes lend themselves to interesting commentary on shifting women's roles in the postwar world, combined with tropes of emasculation and nihilism in male cultures.
The lyrics of "Mother" relate a contemplative, imagined conversation between Pink and his conventional mother.32 Pink's first question, "Mother do you think they'll drop the bomb?" underscores that while the war is over, societal fear of further violence remains. Pink then asks, "Mother should I trust the government?" and "Mother will they put me in the firing line?" The answers to the questions are chilling: "Mama's gonna make all your nightmares come true. Mama's gonna put all of her fears into you." The images accompanying the lyrics reveal Pink's over-protective and widowed mother, but also his over-dependence on her portrayed as a mutually destructive and co-dependent relationship in a single-parent family. The film's flashbacks to Pink's father's corpse serve as a reminder that his death is still very central to Pink and his "Mama's" inability to find happiness or communicate through the emotional barriers they have both erected; Pink seeks solace from his mother as he slips into her bed, but his mother always appears removed from Pink's emotional needs. Her widowhood weighs heavy and the child witnessing her anxieties picks up on those fears. The final line of "Mother," "you'll always be baby to me," is a sign that Pink may never grow out of his childhood angst nor his awkward relationship with his "Mama." This immaturity will feed into his relationship with his wife.
Pink's marriage appears happy enough at first, but quickly fails as he continues to build his emotional wall and shuts out his wife. Eventually, his wife chooses a new lover—notably a leader of a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament activist group33—which Pink discovers as he tries to make a transatlantic call home to his wife.34 Pink's wife can be read as a liberated woman—self-assured and self-motivated—thus attracted and attractive to self-assured men (like her activist lover) yet an adulteress who causes Pink emotional trauma. His angst and anger toward his wife—and women—is revealed in Pink's hallucination of his wife as she appears in the form of a classic feminine silhouette which morphs into that of a praying mantis which stalks him. Images of anthropomorphic, feminine, and sexualized flowers devouring their male counterparts reveal fear of the femme fatale and emasculation. Turning his wife into a deceitful, and potentially aggressive, monster allows Pink to remain safely behind his wall and to blame his wife, not his own emotional barriers, for the failed marriage. His revenge is to attempt his own affair to punish his wife and gain back his manhood.
"Young Lust" is the song that depicts much of his marriage, as well as foreshadowing Pink's futile attempts to "[find a] woman in this desert land [who can Make me feel like a real man. … Oh, I need a dirty woman." In a criticism of the new woman as femme fatale, mass culture, and loose Anglo-American sexual morals, the film depicts young female groupies entering the backstage of a rock concert by seducing the guards. These women then flaunt their sexuality and sexual availability to the men backstage—including Pink. One groupie follows Pink back to his hotel room at his invitation.35 Once there, however, Pink retreats behind his wall and becomes indifferent to her sexual overtures. This scene's song lyrics, "One of My Turns'" connects his disconnect to his failing marriage:
As Pink retreats further behind his wall, the groupie is shown to be sexual and emotionally available as she sucks his fingers, and when her overtures get no response, she asks if he is okay. Pink is not okay and bursts into a violent frenzy.
Armed with his "axe" [guitar] he screams at the young woman while he systematically destroys everything in the hotel room that reveals what he has outwardly become. The destruction of mirrored surfaces, his many bottles of booze, and the trappings of his rock star persona demonstrates that Pink recognizes he has given in to the materialistic and immoral societal norms—including, one can surmise, casual extramarital sex. Pink quickly descends into ultimate emotional darkness asking: "Would you like to learn to fly…would you like to see me try?" referencing murderous and suicidal tendencies as he chases the now terrified girl from his room while plaintively wailing, "Why are you running away?"
These scenes are indicative of global themes and challenges of shifting ideas about masculinity and feminism in the post-World War decades. While differences exist in the development of global women's liberation movements and the co-current struggles of masculinity, the struggles of women and men to test out new roles and challenge traditional gender norms are universal in the postwar world. Pink's struggles to grow-up without a father, his difficult relationships with women, including his mother, wife, and modern women, and his own struggles with revising what it means to be a man are entry points to broader discussions of gender roles in the mid-to late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. These discussions extend beyond Western culture's tragic rock stars to Japanese otaku, "socially maladjusted young men," and Chinese diaomao, known to challenge workplace and cultural emasculation with "offensive language, flirting[,] and sexual harassment" toward female co-workers.36 The rock star allure and power that enables Pink to bring young women to his room for sex connects to a long history of sexual harassment and rape recently brought (back) to light in the global #MeToo movement. As the young woman flees his room in terror, Pink, unable to perform as a "man," resorts to trashing his hotel room—acting like a child. He then begins his transformation to his violent alter ego literally shaving away Pink's image in a mirror.37
The crux of Pink's dysfunction manifests itself in the hideous persona of rock star-cum-fascist dictator in a concert purposely staged like a Nazi rally. Pink's fascist alter ego uses the show to call and cast out all who do not fit a particular (traditional) social paradigm. Visually, the segment is stunning, if disturbing. Nazi, Fascist, and Soviet imagery abounds. Although black, Pink's uniform is reminiscent of Hitler's and Mussolini's brown and black shirts, while ubiquitous red and black hammers (suggestive of the Soviet Union) replace swastikas. At this point, Pink has shaved off all his hair (including his eyebrows) and his backup band is a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. The first lines of "In the Flesh?"—"So ya thought ya, might like to go to the show," invite the audience to discover "what's behind these cold eyes," while the now-authoritarian Pink challenges the audience: "we're gonna find out where you fans really stand."
Authoritarian Pink, surrounded by a legion of neo-Nazi supporters, tests his power over the malleability of the crowd, calling out the Other: "queers," Jews," and "coons"—and demanding they be put "up against the wall." Then, perhaps as reference to the debasement of his own generation, he points out "one smoking a joint! And another with spots!" The crowd immediately turns on those identified, uncaring that moments before they were compatriots, and become an angry mob blindly following Pink's lead. In these scenes, the film argues that the conditions of decay, despair, and isolation in the postwar Western world may reflect those in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union. The audience, Pink's willing executioners, obey and even cheer as Pink's alter ego shouts, "If I had my way, I'd have all of you shot!"
The film's "Waiting for the Worms" sequence further reveals Waters' condemnation of fascism and the fear that his world is (re-)forging a path to (neo-)authoritarianism through mass media, popular culture and the cult of fame. The song's introduction: "Eins, zwei, drei, alle!" and its allusions to the Holocaust, "waiting for the final solution to strengthen the strain," demonstrate to what extent he feels his own era is emulating a mindless cultural populism. The final lyric sung is the question, "Would you like to see Britannia rule again, my friend?" and its answer, "All you have to do is follow the worms," reinvokes the British Empire, a racist, often illiberal and authoritarian government itself—at least toward people of color and its colonies.
The History and Memory of a Racist Empire
While the more obvious messages of the film and soundtrack are postwar cultural, social, and political angst, the film addresses issues of empire and race through the specter of the British Empire as the film and soundtrack make explicit reference to racism in Britain (and arguably the West) by use of the epithets "N[-word" and "coon" in background dialogue and lyrics: "[T]hat one's a coon! Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?" is reminiscent of the racist anti-immigrant rhetoric of British politician Enoch Powell and race riots in postwar England in response to the arrival of the Windrush generation and other immigrants.
Pink's obsession with a black-and-white World War II film, The Dam Busters, a 1954 film that dramatizes the true story of Operation Chastise, a Royal Airforce operation to bomb German dams to attack German industry, may demonstrate Pink's fixation on the loss of his father. The most prominent scene of The Dam Busters featured, however, contains racist language: Wing Commander Guy Gibson's dog, "N[-word]," has been hit by a car.38 The canine's name has caused uproar, both for the use of the N-word, as well as over whether the scene should be preserved, remade, or have the dog's name dubbed out or changed. Some of these discussions focus on applying new concepts of political correctness to the film (and a possible remake) while some argue the dog's name should remain "N-word" for historical accuracy (one argument is that many black dogs at the time bore the same name) and because it is a reminder, albeit a painful one, of the casual racism of the British during World War II.39 Although these questions and concepts may be missed by the casual observer of The Wall, the careful observer should ask why this Dam Busters scene, out of many, was chosen by The Wall's filmmakers. The answer is that it foreshadows more explicit discussions of racism in the film's later sequences.
One such sequence is a street riot showing a young black man being pulled from a car while his white girlfriend screams in terror. The riot itself, specifically because of the attack on the young black man, reminds the viewer of race riots and rebellions in postwar Britain and the United States. Waters himself notes that, "I could explain one thing and that is that all that shouting, the bullhorn stuff [in the film] is actually describing a march from a place in south London. It's a heavily black populated area of south London where the National Front is particularly active."40 Pink Floyd is on record supporting the Rock Against Racism movement's 1978 concert, which challenged the National Front, whose slogan was "Keep Britain White."41 Thus, The Wall tackles issues of race, racism, and postcolonialism of the postwar decades—and, with the noticeable escalation of xenophobia and racism in contemporary societies, provides context for current events such as the 2018 British Windrush scandal.42
Pink Floyd: The Wall continues to be a film (and soundtrack) worthy of study to better understand the zeitgeist of the postwar era in Britain, and as an entry point for global postwar angst, social movements, and political challenges. It has a place in the history classroom as a historical source but must be taught in its historical context and with multimodal methods of analysis so that students can understand and analyze its messages. With thoughtful preparation, instructors may use The Wall as a segue into interdisciplinary world history topics and themes from the post-World War II decades through the early twenty-first century.
The Wall, through its cinematography and music, reveals and remembers personal and collective post-World War II history while remaining relevant in the global twenty-first century: The film obviously connects to World War II and the immediate postwar decades, but also to neoconservatism, the Cold War, and current global politics and events: To wit, Roger Waters performed The Wall in Berlin soon after reunification of West and East Germany, and on multiple occasions refused to play in Tel Aviv to protest the divisions between Israel and Palestine. Waters is considering a performance of The Wall on the Mexican-American border to protest President Trump's anti-immigration policies (ironic given the misappropriation of The Wall icon by Trump supporters in favor of the border wall). Waters' current global Us + Them tour is described as, "pop and politics … one man's attempt to put the world to rights delivered as a giant spectacle … [to] 'resist.' Resist what or who? … 'Neo-fascism', 'pollution,' 'profits from war,' 'Mark Zuckerberg' and other such bogeymen."43 The Wall is both a story of history and memory and of postwar youth angst, but one that continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. In this light, there is no doubt that The Wall deserves to be taken as a serious film and to be taught in the world history classroom.
The repercussions for screening, but not teaching the film can be high: In 1987, an American high school teacher lost her job for screening the film in her class—a decision upheld despite appeals protecting her First Amendment Rights.44 School Board witnesses called the film, "immoral, anti-education, anti-family, anti-judiciary and anti-police.45 The single dissenting judge in the case, however, understood The Wall's true meanings, and argued,
This reading, by Court of Appeals Judge Gilbert Merritt, honored the film's true vision and message. Instructors and their students do need an education about The Wall because its core message, "Stay human or die," is universal.47
Libi Sundermann, PhD, teaches British and World History at the University of Washington, Tacoma. She earned her PhD from the University of California, Davis, and is the author of For God and Country: Butler's 1944 Education Act and "History Lab for Undergrads: A Day at the Museum."
Joshua Scullin earned his BA in history at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He is currently the Museum Manager at the Tacoma Historical Society and is beginning the master's program in library science at the University of Washington, Seattle.
1 Pink Floyd's The Wall (film) was released in 1982 following the 1979 album release.
2 While Pink Floyd and the film's protagonist, Pink, are British, the film examines life in Britain and North America.
3 The Global Sixties takes the traditional, and often Western-centric events of 1968, and expands the scholarship in both time and space to argue that 1968 is only one marker of postwar global phenomena that span decades. Scholars mark 1968's fiftieth anniversary with works that celebrate is global character, such as Jian Chen, The Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties: Between Protest and Nation-building (Routledge Handbooks. London: Routledge, 2018).
4 A classic (British) statement on postwar youth subcultures is Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1988).
5 Examples include t-shirts promoting Donald Trump's border wall which misappropriate The Wall's iconic cover imagery and text and a January 22, 2018 PBS NewsHour segment, "Will Trump's wall ever be built?" which uses Pink Floyd's music and lyrics from "Another Brick in the Wall" as a backdrop for a story on Trump's border wall proposals. It should be noted that Roger Waters, lead singer of Pink Floyd, is publicly anti-Trump, and his current Us + Them Tour makes these views clear. See for example, Rudi Greenberg, "Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters on Trump, Lucius and his 'Us + Them' tour," The Washington Post, August 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2017/08/03/pink-floyd-co-founder-roger-waters-on-trump-lucius-and-his-us-them-tour/?utm_term=.f771bab57599.
6 Scott Bailey, "CFP: World History Connected Forum on 'Film and World History: New Approaches and Sources,'" H-Announce, February 14, 2018, https://networks.h-net.org/node/73374/announcements/1368488/cfp-world-history-connected-forum-%E2%80%9Cfilm-and-world-history-new.
8 Viewer review, amazon.com.
9 The Wall's plot is non-linear shifting from one decade of Pink's life to another with few transitions; the film combines live action with little dialogue with graphic art sequences; and uses rock music, rather than character dialogue, to tell its story.
10 A number of these materials appear in the endnotes and references of this paper.
11 Marita Grimwood, Holocaust Literature of the Second Generation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 2007 and James E. Young, "The Holocaust as Vicarious Past: Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and the Afterimages of History," Critical Inquiry 24, no. 3 (1998): 666–99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344086.
12 For an example of The Wall's cult film rankings see "Reader's Poll: The Best 25 Cult Movies of All Time," Rolling Stone, May 7, 2014, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/pictures/readers-poll-the-25-best-cult-movies-of-all-time-20140507; Ebert's review: Roger Ebert, "Great Movie: Pink Floyd: The Wall," https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-pink-floyd-the-wall-1982.
13 In addition to scholarly works mentioned elsewhere in this paper analysis of The Wall includes: Ferdows Agha-Golzadeh and Amir Ghorbanpour, "We Don't Need No Education: A Stylistic Analysis of Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick in the Wall'," Idil Journal of Art and Language 5, no. 19 (2015; George A. Reisch, Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful with That Axiom, Eugene! (Chicago: Open Court), 2007; Ernst Schürer, Manfred Erwin Keune, and Philip Jenkins, The Berlin Wall: Representations and Perspectives (New York: P. Lang), 1996.
14 Jorge Sacido Romero and Luis Miguel Varela Cabo, "Roger Waters' Poetry of the Absent Father: British Identity in Pink Floyd's The Wall," Atlantis, Revista De La Asociacion Espanola De Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos 28, no. 2 (2006): 45–58.
15 Romero and Cabo, "Roger Waters' Poetry," 45.
16 Zeno Ackerman, "Rocking the Culture Industry/Performing Breakdown: Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and the Termination of the Postwar Era," Popular Music and Society 35, no. 1 (2012): 2.
17 Ackerman, 3.
18 Phil Rose, Roger Waters and Pink Floyd: The Concept Albums (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015).
19 A glimpse of a legal document in the film reveals Pink's full surname is Pinkerton.
21 Tom Kington, "Roger Waters Pens Poem for Veteran Who Found Father's Place of Death," The Guardian, November 12, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/nov/12/roger-waters-poem-veteran-henry-shindler-father. The Wall's "When the Tigers Broke Free" also tell part of Pink's father's story. This is semi-autobiographical: Pink Floyd's lead singer Waters' father died in World War II when Waters was a baby—Lieutenant Eric Fletcher Waters went missing in action in 1944 when Waters was five months old. Waters' father's disappearance affected him profoundly his entire life and was a catalyst for The Wall and other endeavors.
22 "When the Tigers Broke Free" appears in the film version of The Wall, but not on The Wall album. Lyrics from https://genius.com/Pink-floyd-when-the-tigers-broke-free-lyrics?referent_id=4359166#note-4359166.
23 Versions of this edict have been attributed to various postwar youth movement figures. Jack Weinberg, active in the Free Speech Movement at University of California, Berkeley, has been widely credited with coining the term in a 1964 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. James Benet, "Growing Pains at UC," San Francisco Chronicle, November 15, 1964: 6.
24 Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1968) is the (cult) classic statement of this rebellion and its association with, among other forms, pop music. Not surprisingly, Nuttall and Pink Floyd both worked with the London Free School, an experimental scene of radical education in the late 1960s. See Gillian Whiteley, "Sewing The 'Subversive Thread of Imagination': Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture and The Radical Potential of Affect," The Sixties, 4, no. 2, (2011), 109–133, DOI: 10.1080/17541328.2011.625198.
25 We are reminded of Mark Levene, "Why Is the Twentieth Century the Century of Genocide?" Journal of World History 11, no. 2 (2000): 305: "It has become almost a platitude, a statistical one at that: 187 million is the figure, the now more or less accepted wisdom for the number of human beings killed as a result of political violence—Zbigniew Brzezinski uses the unlovely term megadeaths—in this, our bloody [twentieth] century. More killing than at any other time in history. And yet at the end of the twentieth century its relentlessness, as it passes across the television screens of those of us seemingly blessed with immunity from its catastrophic reality and consequences, continues to daze and bewilder."
26 Holger Nehring, "Openings: Politics, Culture, and Activism in the 1960s." In Politics of Security: British and West German Protest Movements and the Early Cold War, 1945–1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 248, 2014. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199681228.003.0008. Nehring quotes academic John Gerassi's speech at a 1967 counter-culture 'Dialectics of Liberation' congress
27 Scene from The Wall: "Teacher: What have we here, laddie? Mysterious scribblings? A secret code? No! Poems, no less! Poems, everybody! [classmates laugh Teacher: The laddie reckons himself a poet! [reads poem from Pink's little black book; [slams the book onto Pink's deskTeacher: Absolute rubbish, laddie. [whacks him with a ruler, growls at Pink Teacher: Get on with your work." (Dialogue adapted from IMBD, "Pink Floyd: The Wall: Quotes," https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084503/quotes.
28 In Waters' reality, the breaking point came at the Montreal concert where he infamously spit on a fan. Audio of the concert reveals Waters' saying to the crowd, "I'm trying to sing this song … why don't you just be quiet … if you want to shout and scream and holler go and do it out there … but I'm trying to sing a song … that some people want to listen to … I want to listen to it." "38 Years Ago: Rogers Waters Spits on Montreal Stage-Climbers," Classic Rock 94–5., http://classicrock945.ca/daily-fix/rock-lounge/2015/07/38-years-ago-rogers-waters-spits-on-montreal-stage-climbers/.
29Nicholas Von Hoffman, "Liberation of Men," The Washington Post, 1970.
30 James P. Grant, "Marginal Men: The Global Unemployment Crisis," Foreign Affairs 50, no. 1 (1971): 112, DOI:10.2307/20037891. Xiaoli Tian and Yunxue Deng, "Organizational Hierarchy, Deprived Masculinity, and Confrontational Practices: Men Doing Women's Jobs in a Global Factory," Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 46, no. 4 (2017): 464–89.
31 Tian and Deng, "Organizational Hierarchy, Deprived Masculinity," 1. Tian and Deng use the conflicted gendered term "diaomao" in their article which is a term of solidarity and abuse among Chinese men.
32 Pink rocks himself as he lies in bed reminiscing on the conversation with his mother.
33 The British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, formed in 1958 and has remained active protesting nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and other postwar conflict and violence.
34 "Young Lust" lyrics: "Hello? / Yes, a collect call for Mrs. Floyd from Mister Floyd. Will you accept the charges from United States? / Oh, he hung up, that's your residence, right? I wonder why he hung up? Is there supposed to be someone else there besides your wife there to answer?"
35 A question on the "new woman" can be asked in the history classroom: are these young women the femme fatale or the modern woman? The aspects of women's liberation and social movements raised in the film can lend themselves to discussions of global women's movements or global feminism. An overview of these issues is provided by Peggy Antrobus, The Global Women's Movement: Origins, Issues and Strategies, (London: Zed Books, 2004).
36 William M. Tsutsui, "Nerd Nation: Otaku and Youth Subcultures in Contemporary Japan," Education About Asia, 13, no. 3 (Winter, 2008):12–18 and Tian and Deng, "Organizational Hierarchy, Deprived Masculinity."
37 Akin to Tian and Deng's description of the oppressed Chinese worker.
38 Critics note the dog played a central role in the film as the squadron's mascot and emotional crutch.
39 Kathy Marks, "Nigsy? Trigger? N-word dilemma bounces on for Dam Busters II," Independent, May 6, 2009,
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/nigsy-trigger-n-word-dilemma-bounces-on-for-dam-busters-ii-1680148.html and Caroline Bressey, "It's Only Political Correctness—Race and Racism in British History," in New Geographies of Race and Racism ed. Claire Dwyer and Caroline Bressey (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2008): 29–30.
40 Roger Waters, "An Explanation of The Wall: Broadcast in 1980," Interviewed by Jim Ladd,
41 An interesting history of the Rock Against Racism movement, which Pink Floyd showed support for, in Ian Goodyer, Crisis Music: The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism (Manchester; New York: New York: Manchester University Press/Palgrave, 2009) and John Street "Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge," Popular Music 36, no. 3 (2017): 455–57.
42 The Windrush generation, British African-Caribbean immigrants, who arrived in the postwar years, has recently faced new twenty-first century discrimination revealed in 2018's "Windrush Scandal." Their papers destroyed circa 2010, they were accused of illegal immigration and threatened with deportation, despite having lived in Britain for decades.
43 Dave Simpson, "Roger Waters: Roger Waters Review—Raging at the Dark Side of the Earth," The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/04/roger-waters-review-us-them-tour-resistance.
44 Nick Deriso, "How Pink Floyd's The Wall Got a Teacher Fired," Ultimate Classic Rock, http://ultimateclassicrock.com/pink-floyd-the-wall-movie-teacher/. The teacher, Jacqueline Fowler, allowed her students to pick the film and watch it while she graded papers on the last day of school. Fowler was not familiar with the film herself
45 Deriso, "Pink Floyd's The Wall," and "Against 'The Wall:' Trends in the Law," ABA Journal, 73, no. 11 (September 1, 1987), 98.
46 Fowler v. Board of Education, 819 F.2d 657 (6th Cir. 1987).
47 Dave Simpson, "Roger Waters: Roger Waters Review—Raging at the Dark Side of the Earth," The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/04/roger-waters-review-us-them-tour-resistance.
"38 Years Ago: Rogers Waters Spits on Montreal Stage-Climbers." Classic Rock 94–5. Accessed January 18, 2018. http://classicrock945.ca/daily-fix/rock-lounge/2015/07/38-years-ago-rogers-waters-spits-on-montreal-stage-climbers/.
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