Determining Theme Using a Film Clip from Pink Floyd: The Wall

Subject: ELA: Theme

Ages: 14+; High School Level

Length: Film Clip: Fifteen minutes, beginning at DVD Scene 5; Lesson: three 45 – 55 minute class periods.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



Students will learn a method for determining theme and will write a thematic statement in a paragraph or an essay. They can also be asked to write compositions of various types on topics suggested by the clip.


Deriving theme is an important skill required by most ELA curriculum standards. An explication of the clip enables students to practice deriving theme and writing compositions using the subject matter of interest and value.


“Pink Floyd: The Wall” is a dark, expressionistic musical structured around the memories of Pink, a depressed British rock musician. As a young boy, Pink suffered from the effects of his father’s death in WWII, a distracted and distant mother, and a repressive and unresponsive school system. In the clip, a young Pink tries to express himself in writing, only to be ridiculed by his teacher and his fellow students. He escapes through fantasies of a factory/school in which faceless automaton children are processed on a conveyor belt which takes them to a meat grinder. The students then riot, singing “We don’t need no education”, and burn down the school. When the building is ablaze, they throw the teacher into the flames. This powerful clip contains striking visuals, evocative music, and simple, forceful lyrics. The images are dark, the hopelessness palpable.

Note that the themes derived from the clip are different than the theme of the overall film, which focuses on how Pink builds a wall to insulate himself from the pain he experiences in the world.


1. Preview the film clip and find its exact location. In the newer releases of the movie, the scene selection can be complicated.

2. While previewing the clip decide whether to give an introduction. A proposed introduction is set out below. Some teachers play the clip without an introduction.

3. Review and, if appropriate, edit or supplement TWM’s Worksheet on “Pink Floyd: The Wall”. The worksheet contains many discussion topics and there may not be time to cover them all.


1. Introduce the lesson, telling the class what is going to be taught and why the lesson is important. A suggestion for an introduction for this Snippet Lesson Plan is set out below.

Today we’re going to do another exercise in understanding the theme of a work, only this time we’re going to find the theme in a movie. Often, movie makers are concerned with conveying a message to their audience. People who watch movies without being able to understand those messages miss a lot of what the director and the actors are trying to tell them. The process for determining the theme of a movie is the same as for a written work.


2. Introduce the clip by giving the class the following information.

The film “Pink Floyd: The Wall” is a semi-autobiographical work about a rock star named Pink.

Pink’s father was a British soldier, killed in WWII when Pink was a very young child. As a boy and a young man, Pink is haunted by many things, including images of the bombing of London by the German Air Force during WWII. The clip shows animated images of the bombing.

The Second World War was the first major conflict in which air forces played an important role. Early in the war the Germans targeted British cities. The world was shocked that the Germans would try to kill thousands of civilians with indiscriminate bombing. The British people hid wherever they could, many seeking shelter in the tunnels of the London subway system. The German air attacks were designed to break the will of the British people to resist a planned German invasion. However, the bombing had the opposite effect. For this and other reasons, the German invasion of Britain never took place.

Later in the war, the British and the U.S. repaid the Germans many times over for the bombing of British civilians. For example, in 1945, British and American bombers leveled much of the German city of Dresden, killing an estimated 25,000 non-combatants. This action is still considered by many to have been a war crime. The U.S. also used the bombing of civilian targets in the Pacific Theater, systematically destroying Japanese cities with incendiary bombs. The U.S. ended the war with atomic bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than a hundred thousand civilians were killed by the two atomic bombs. Modern standards of warfare prohibit the mass killing of innocent civilians.

The Anzio campaign is mentioned in the clip as the operation in which Pink’s father was killed. It took place in Italy when British and American forces landed on a beach behind German lines near the town of Anzio. The effort, eventually successful, was to bypass a German defensive line that blocked the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula.


3. Show the clip.


4. Hand out the worksheet and review the questions with the class. Do not allow discussion of the responses. Students should be instructed that if they have ideas for responses based on their first viewing, they can make brief notes.


5. Play the clip a second time.


6. Separate the class into groups of no more than four students. Allow the students to share ideas within the group. Students should be encouraged to use new information they may learn from their peers so that they will feel better able to write an essay when the assignment is given. Give students an estimate of the time that they should take with each question.


7. Select different students at random to lead a short class discussion on each question in the worksheet. Other students should be allowed to contribute their ideas to the class discussion. Tell students that there will be an assignment in which the information from the discussion will be useful. The teacher should ensure that the points described in the suggested responses set out below are covered during the class discussion.


8. Questions on the Worksheet with Notes on Responses

(1) What irony can be found in the church scene in which the mother prays while the boy plays with an airplane? Notes on Responses: While the mother prays, she ignores her child who is suffering from having lost his father. He is playing with an airplane, a tool of destruction that dropped the bombs that killed his father and terrorized Britain during the war. This scene occurs in a church, often valued as a representation of peace and comfort.

(2) Why do we laugh as one of the boy’s friends falls down the hill? Is there irony our reaction to his mishap? Notes on Responses: We laugh at what is called “comic relief,” an element of film that provides a break from the tension of the serious, even tragic, storyline. There is irony in the fact that we care about people and do not want them to be hurt yet we laugh when we see them fall. The fall may presage the coming danger the boys face as they seek to put bullets on the train line, a far more dangerous form of play than running down a slope.

(3) How do color and sound create the dismal feeling in the animation? Notes on Responses: Student reactions to the visuals and soundtrack will vary. For example, they may point to the strong presentation of dark and red colors or the shifts in the music between soft and lilting to bold and frightening. Any response supported by evidence from the clip and logical connections will be appropriate.

(4) Which incidents in the clip effectively show the boy’s loneliness? Notes on Responses: Here are several: the boy’s loneliness can be seen as he plays in the church, ignored by his mother; as he tries to get a man in the park to “father” him; as he plays alone in the park, watching the other children with their parents; and as he comes home alone to prepare a sandwich and dress in his father’s uniform.

(5) What is the point being made as the boy, dressed in his father’s uniform, sees his father’s reflection in the mirror? Notes on Responses: Instead of his own image, the boy sees his father reflected in the mirror suggesting that boys want to emulate their fathers when they grow to be men in a repeating cycle of death and loneliness. The boy himself may grow up to die in war and cause his own children to suffer the loneliness he has suffered.

(6) The boy sees masks on the faces of the people in the train. Later he sees similar masks on the faces of the children in his fantasy. What are the filmmakers trying to tell us with the similarities in these two images? Notes on Responses: The masks on the faces of the people in the train cars represent the nameless, faceless automatons who became victims of war and possibly the concentration camps of WWII. Later the students marching in lockstep in the school system have these same masks, suggesting that they, too, are victims of a system that concentrates them in heartless educational camps without regard for their individuality. They are nameless, faceless.

(7) The teacher ridicules Pink. What irony can be found in the laughter of the other children in the classroom? Notes on Responses: The teacher’s comments about the boy who “fancies himself a poet” would be less effective were it not for the students joining in the derision. A child subjected to a repressive school system will hope to find support among his fellow students. The irony in this scene is that Pink’s fellow students join in the demand for conformity; they are allies of the teacher, not their fellow students.

(8) The teacher reads lines of poetry from Pink’s notebook and mocks the boy for writing them. These lines are lyrics from a song entitled “Money” which was on Pink Floyd’s best selling album, Dark Side of the Moon. What irony can be found in this? Notes on Responses: It is ironic that the boy’s writing which will one day make him a successful artist, both in terms of money and fame, is ridiculed as being worthless in a setting that is supposed to prepare young people for their futures. The teacher has the students recite a mathematical definition as if this information were more important than poetry.

(9) At his home, the teacher is dominated by his wife. What has this to do with the way he treats the children? Notes on Responses: Since the teacher is mistreated at home and he cannot defend himself against his domineering wife, he takes this injustice out on his students. This scene suggests that people who bully others are bullied by an authority in their own lives. It shows how some people battle against the weak when they are unable to battle against a powerful force in their own lives.

(10) What is the symbolic meaning behind the teacher’s words: “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding”? Notes on Responses: The meat and the pudding in this phrase refer to a cause and effect relationship between any number of factors in an individual’s life. The meat represents the work and the pudding represents the reward.

(11) Metaphors can be visual as well as spoken or written. In this movie, a visual metaphor is generated through images of machines and assembly lines as the children march in lockstep. State the visual metaphor described by the images of the use of machines and assembly lines as the children march in lockstep. Notes on Responses: A strong response will be something similar to the following: the machines and assembly line images serve as visual metaphors making the statement that “the assembly line is the British educational system that eliminates individuality and creativity”.

(12) The hammer seen in the industrial setting of the school is known as a “dichotomous symbol,” one that has two opposing meanings. What two symbolic meanings does the hammer suggest in this scene? Notes on Responses: The hammer earns its status as a dichotomous symbol because a hammer can be a tool to build as well as a tool for destruction.

(13) The children falling into the meat grinder is another visual metaphor which makes a powerful point. What is the metaphor and what point does it make? Notes on Responses: A strong response will be something similar to the following: the machines and assembly line images serve as visual metaphors making the statement that “the grinding of children in a meat grinder is the ultimate result of the education system shown in this film clip”. The point being made is that the education process shown in this film clip grinds up the minds of children and makes them a uniform undifferentiated mass.

(14) What ironies can be found about the way in which, in Pink’s fantasy, the students riot and tear down the school? Notes on Responses: As the students riot they act together and conform utterly to mob rule. It is ironic that Pink’s desire for individuality finds expression in a fantasy in which he is liberated from the conforming constraints of the school system by students acting in conformity.

(15) The underlying concept of political nihilism is that the current institutional order is destructive but so deeply entrenched that it cannot be reformed; it must be completely destroyed. In what sense does Pink’s fantasy of destruction envision an act of political nihilism? Notes on Responses: As the students riot, they destroy the school and kill the teacher. This is a statement that the educational system shown in the movie cannot be reformed and that the only hope lies in the total destruction of the existing schools.

(16) The riot scene ends and the camera returns to the boy in the classroom as the children recite the lesson. Discuss whether this ending suggests hope or futility? Notes on Responses: Answers will vary. This is an opinion question that requires only clarity and support for a position taken. One may suggest that the boy is persevering and is thus hopeful. Another may suggest that nothing has changed and that the boy’s perseverance represents futility.


Theme — Exercising analytical skills: an effective method of determining the theme


9. Often students will watch the clip and decide that the subject is associated with criticism of the school system, which is true, but they will not look deeply enough into the action to derive a theme. In order to assist students in their efforts to understand theme, ask students to write brief answers to the following questions. The answer to the fourth question will constitute theme.

Below are two reasonable interpretations of the theme of this film clip.

A. Whose story is this? Suggested Response: The story’s protagonist is Pink, a young boy troubled by the death of his father, a distant and distracted mother and a rigid, conformist school system.

B. What happens to him? Suggested Response: The boy loses his father in World War II and feels lonely and alienated from the school system. He is ridiculed by a teacher and his peers and indulges in a fantasy in which the school system is destroyed by rioting students. He feels despair at the end of his fantasy.

C. Why does this ending come about? Suggested Response: This fantasy is the result of his despair. He sees no hope other than destruction.

D. What does the fact that the story ended this way mean to me? Suggested Response: Destructive fantasies relieve the pain of outcast members of society.


Using the same method of analysis, students can derive a theme from the boy’s fantasy as set out below.


A. Whose story is this? Suggested Response: It is the story of the school children.

B. What happens to them? Suggested Response: They are being forced into conformity; they are the product of an assembly line education which destroys their individuality and makes them one undifferentiated mass. This situation is not tolerable and the students riot in rebellion. However, even in their rebellion, the students are all acting in the same way. The students are conforming to conformity to protest conformity.

C. Why does this ending come about? Suggested Response: The students cannot escape conformity because this is all the students know.

D. What does the fact that the story ends this way mean to me? Another way to put this question in the context of the fantasy, is: What does the fact that the fantasy ends this way mean to Pink and, by extension, what does it mean to me? Suggested Response: Conformity negates the concept of individuality, reducing the individual to nothing other than being part of a homogeneous mass, like ground meat.


Students can be asked to write an essay of several pages explicating the theme of the clip or of the fantasy, using the questions set out above as a way of organizing their paper and citing evidence from the film clip to support their assertions. Citations can refer to the lyrics, scenes, images, dialogue and actions in the clip. In the alternative, for a less demanding assignment, students can be asked to write a paragraph declaring the theme of the film clip or of the fantasy, using the questions and the answers held together with proper transitions.


The following lyrics, the theme song from the film as a whole, can be used to help illuminate the theme and drive assignments.

The Wall: Part II

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone.
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.


1. Ruminative Paragraph: — The lyrics of “The Wall, Part II” provoke thought through the use of a double negative: “We don’t need no education.” The line is repeated throughout the film clip. Write a ruminative paragraph about what you think the writer means by this line.


2. Discussion Piece — Write a discussion piece about the validity of the idea that individualism is lost in society today and that young people are merely cogs in a machine.


3. Informal Essay — Write an informal essay about the use of a wall as symbol. In this essay explain what a wall represents in terms of individuals building a wall around themselves and in terms of society as a whole. Try to find examples of walls that are a part of history or a part of a neighborhood or even a part of the design of a school.


4. Formal Analytical Essay — Write a formal analytical essay comparing the school system shown in the film clip with the school system that you currently attend or have attended in the past.


5. Narrative — Write a narrative about a time in your life when you felt as if you were simply mass produced as if on an assembly line. Do not just tell about your experience. Show it. Use at least four of the five ways to show meaning: 1. through action; 2. through dialogue; 3. through comparisons; 4. through thoughts; 5. through descriptive language.


6. Opinion Piece — Write an opinion piece on the validity of political nihilism: Must the institutions of our present-day society be destroyed in order for there to be meaningful reform?


7. Critical Essay — Evaluate, through a critical essay, the use of music to help tell the story. Support the idea that the music is the driving energy in the clip.


Using your own taste in music, find a song or a piece of instrumental music that communicates the conflict between conformity and individuality. Decide what visuals you would use to create a video to illustrate the idea. If you have the technology available, you may want to create the music video. Present either the idea in the form of storyboards or the complete product to the class. Essays are to be written according to the essay rubric established in class. When paragraphs are called for, they should be written according to the rubric for paragraphs established in class.

This Snippet Lesson Plan was written by Mary RedClay with assistance from James Frieden.

It was published on November 18, 2009, and revised on March 16, 2011, and again on April 24, 2011.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email