Tuesday, 5 March 2013

When the Tigers Broke Free

Let's begin by saying that Pink Floyd's album The Wall is one of the best concept albums ever made, if not the best. When I first went to see the film Pink Floyd--The Wall I did not, therefore, have much hope that it would match its great original. Surprisingly, I felt it did. It also earned the respect of some prominent film critics, such as Roger Ebert.

Many of the songs sounded noticably different in the film, richer, with the Pontarddulais Male Choir added to the mix. One song was not on the album at all: "When the Tigers Broke Free." This song appears in two parts, the first at the beginning of the film.

Cut now from 1982, the year the film came out, to 2013. I watched The Wall again and found myself in tears as I heard "When the Tigers Broke Free." Here is the song to test if it has the same effect on you.

The lyrics are:

"When The Tigers Broke Free"
It was just before dawn
One miserable morning in black 'forty four.
When the forward commander
Was told to sit tight
When he asked that his men be withdrawn.
And the Generals gave thanks
As the other ranks held back
The enemy tanks for a while.
And the Anzio bridgehead
Was held for the price
Of a few hundred ordinary lives.

And kind old King George
Sent Mother a note
When he heard that father was gone.
It was, I recall,
In the form of a scroll,
With gold leaf and all.
And I found it one day
In a drawer of old photographs, hidden away.
And my eyes still grow damp to remember
His Majesty signed
With his own rubber stamp.

It was dark all around.
There was frost in the ground
When the tigers broke free.
And no one survived
From the Royal Fusiliers Company Z.*
They were all left behind,
Most of them dead,
The rest of them dying.
And that's how the High Command
Took my daddy from me. 
* "Z" is pronounced "Zee" in the song, although Roger Waters, being English, would normally say it as "Zed." The rhymes work if it's "zee" and not if it's "zed," and that's really all there is to say about it.
There is more than enough interpretation of the song's first stanza at thewallanalysis.com and on the rest of it on another page. The historical background is dealt with on Rogerwaters.org here and again here. I admire, I truly do, what a little obsessiveness can do for web pages like those.

I'd like to make a few small points myself, though. First, the first stanza sounds very descriptive, almost detached, except for a few adjectives that betray an emotional connection: "miserable," "black," and "ordinary." The last one brings up a theme that is expanded in the later stanzas: This is a song that flavours grief with a very keen sense of class consciousness.

It is the "other ranks," meaning the ordinary soldiers, not the officers, who hold back the enemy tanks. It is they who contribute the "few hundred ordinary lives" towards victory. The generals, in safety, "give thanks," but the implication is that they are thankful for their own luck, rather than to their troops.

The second verse veers into sarcasm. When "kind old King George" heard that "father was gone," he sent a note to the mother. As nice as the scroll was, it had no sincerity. The king signed it "with his own rubber stamp."

The third stanza flashes back again to the day that the father died. It is vividly imagined with darkness and cold. The line "When the tigers broke free" refers literally to the Tiger I tanks that the Germans used in this assault, but "tigers" is not capitalized, so the image is that powerful and vicious predators are leaping onto the helpless soldiers. The aftermath is described: most of the company were dead, "the rest of them dying." Whether dead or not, however, "They were all left behind." The blame for these deaths is clearly assigned in the last line: the generals of "the High Command" who had ordered the men to stand fast "took my daddy from me."

"Daddy" is an unexpected word here. It is a young child's word. That is appropriate, though, because Roger Waters' father was killed when Roger was only six months old. That child had lost his father. The adult who composed the song is mourning them both.

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