The Internet TESL Journal

Teaching the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine": A Handout for ESL/EFL Students

Bill Templer
Rajamangala University of Technology (Srivijaya, Trang Province, Thailand)


The handout below is meant for students at pre-intermediate level and above. It provides an introduction to the fantasy film Yellow Submarine, a true masterpiece. The 90-minute animated movie is now readily available on DVD/video, and can be made the focus for an extended multimedia unit. The handout is a text for reading and discussion before and after students see the film. Teachers can devise various kinds of exercises and brief essays. The lyrics and music such as "All You Need is Love," "Yellow Submarine" or "Eleanor Rigby" can be found on the Internet. Many of our students have never heard of the Beatles. This movie is a window into their music and the "Hippie" counterculture of the 1960s. It is a classic "surreal" film against war and violence.

Yellow Submarine -- A Beatles Fantasy Film (1968)

You are going to see a very special animated movie. This will tell you about its plot (the line of the story) and a few of its main ideas. In talking about stories or movies, we call these main ideas "themes."

Welcome to Pepperland

Far away somewhere, down below the deep sea, there is a colorful country. It is full of laughter and song. It is called Pepperland. It is a world of wonder and magic. In Pepperland, a special band, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band, plays its music on and on. Everyone is happy. It is a band to make lonely hearts sing. No one here feels lonely. There is no winter, no cold.

Until one day great monsters with very big sharp teeth arrive. They invade Pepperland. They take it over. Soon they control everything. It is an invasion. These monsters are blue. They have a name: the Blue Meanies. A meanie is a person who is mean, not kind. These Blue Meanies do not like music. Especially rock music. They attack Pepperland, and they make it a colorless place, silent. They hate color, music. They hate beauty, happiness. They despise freedom. They hate peace. They love war. They try to control people. Like an army. By violence and fear.

But there is a small light in this darkness. Captain Fred is a sailor. He has a fantastic Yellow Submarine. He escapes from the Blue Meanies. He takes his submarine to find help. He sails very far. He goes around the world to England.

Captain Fred lands in the city of Liverpool. There Fred finds the band called the Beatles -- Ringo, John, Paul and George. They decide they will return to Pepperland with Captain Fred to try to help the people. The name of the Beatles band in Liverpool is also Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band. They go back with Fred in the Yellow Submarine. They play their magic music and the Blue Meanies change. They stop hurting the Pepperlanders. Pepperland is free again. The Beatles sing: "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE."

The Story of the Movie

The Blue Meanies control Pepperland. They are dictators. A dictator is a ruler with unlimited force. The Pepperlanders don't have any way to fight them. The Pepperlanders live under "oppression." This means they have no freedom. Like in a dictatorship, force 'presses' down on them. They must be obedient, they have to obey.

The Blue Meanies have a very mean Chief, a leader. They have many magic monster-like weapons. They have a bull-dog with 4 heads. And they have an awful Flying Glove. Its face is blue. It is a terrible and frightening weapon. They also have tall thin men who drop gigantic green apples on people, knocking them out. They are called Apple Bonkers. The Blue Meanies can freeze people. They make them into colorless statues. They just stand there like flat drawings in grey. Everything is drab, without color. Tears run down their sad faces. The Pepperlanders are powerless.

Fred escapes the Blue Meanies, along with the Old Lord Mayor, the leader of Pepperland. The Mayor is a small old man with a very colorful hat, a purple face with a white moustache and a big green jacket. Fred has a white beard and wears a sea captain's uniform.

Fred arrives in Liverpool. He comes to Hope Street but life there looks pretty hopeless. It is very dirty and ugly. We hear a sad song about a lonely woman named Eleanor Rigby. A simple very lonely older working woman. And the song tells about Father McKenzie: he is from the church, like a monk. He lives alone and is also lonely. Nobody listens to him. 'Eleanor Rigby" is one of the Beatles' most famous songs. It says: "All the lonely people / Where do they all come from? / All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?" It is a song about loneliness. About people who have no friends, no family. Liverpool is sad and drab.

Fred cries for HELP to rescue Pepperland. The Beatles agree to go with him and board the Yellow Submarine. It dives deep beneath the waves and goes down down. This will be a long journey of magic and wonder.

The Great Voyage of Wonder

They come to a Sea of Monsters. They see many whales. They see other strange monsters of the sea. Then suddenly a great monster appears, the Suckophant. It sucks everything into its big trunk, its nose. It is like a vacuum or what scientists call a "black hole." The Suckophant sucks them all in and they disappear. The whole world disappears into the Suckophant. Everything becomes No-thing.

Then they find themselves in a Nowhere Land. Beyond space, beyond time. There they meet a strange tiny brown man, the Nowhere Man. He is very lonely. He knows everything -- except where he belongs. His life is just books and words. They ask him to come along. He says: OK. Then they come to a Sea of Holes. They can't find any way out. It is just all holes. But one hole goes down to Pepperland. A Blue Meanie comes up and pulls them into Pepperland. They fall through the Sea of Holes into Pepperland.

Making Pepperland Free

They start singing. They see all the lifeless people. They find the Old Lord Mayor. He says: "Why, you look like Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band. You can play their music and the Blue Meanies will go away." Of course the Beatles are Sergeant Pepper's Band. They made many songs in England using this name. One of their songs from the album Revolver was called "Yellow Submarine." They find the old uniforms of the band and decide they will try to be just like them: they'll play music. So they become … "themselves." The next morning they start playing pop music. And all the Pepperlanders start to return to life and color.

But the Blue Meanies do not like the music. The Chief Blue Meanie grows very angry. He shouts: "destroy them, crush them, o-blue-terate them!" "Obluterate" is a Meanie's word. It means "destroy them, obliterate them."

The terrible Flying Glove starts attacking the Beatles. It is like a giant monster helicopter. The band sings: "All you need is Love, Love, Love, Love, all you need is Love." The Beatles do not hurt the Blue Meanies. They want to change the Blue Meanies by love and music. Not by force.

The Blue Meanies attack. But they are confused, they run in the wrong direction. The Chief Blue Meanie tells them: "No, go the other way!" Their control is over. They don't know how to fight any more. The four-headed bulldog runs off in four different directions. And the Flying Glove becomes happy, the Glove turns into love.

The Nowhere Man says to the Chief: "Turn off what is sour, turn into a flower, and bloom, bloom, BLOOM." Magically, the Chief Blue Meanie becomes a big bunch of flowers. He turns into a bouquet of roses.

He starts to feel happy. For the first time in their lives, the Blue Meanies love life, because of one simple set of words: Love is all you need! The Pepperlanders are free again. They can rebuild their lives. And have beauty and music and color.

Some "Themes" in the Movie

This movie is "surreal". "Sur" means over, extra. So surreal is more than real, like in a dream. If you like Harry Potter, you like surreal stories. What is a submarine? Well, it takes you on a trip to a deep place. "Sub" means "under." Under the water. The water is like the "sea" of your own mind. What is called your sub-conscious. You enter your sub-conscious when you dream. And this movie is like a door to your sub-conscious.

This film was made in 1968 and became very popular. It was a dark time. America was fighting a bloody war in Vietnam. Many young people in America and in Europe and Japan were against this war. Some people think this movie on one level is about Vietnam and the American war there. In 1968, many young people thought the American army in Vietnam was like the Blue Meanies. In 1968, there was a lot of violence in America too. Two famous Americans were murdered. One was Martin Luther King, the other was Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy's brother. And President John Kennedy had been murdered in 1963. Many young people said, "America is a place of murder and death." They said, "President Nixon is a Blue Meanie."

The Beatles were the most famous rock band in the world then. In the movement against the Vietnam War, many young Americans used to sing the song "We all live in a Yellow Submarine" at big meetings. When people march and protest against the war in Iraq today, some may sing this song. It is an anti-war song.

In 1968, there was a lot of anger among many young people. Young Americans wanted to change the whole system, to stop the war. Black Americans wanted to be really free, to be equal, to end poverty, to end racism and to have peace in America and peace in the world. The movie says: we can build a different society. With love, joy, color. And you can know where you really belong. In Pepperland the Beatles sung: there's "nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be. It's easy. All you need is love." With love, everything is possible. That is one big "message" of the film.

Another "theme" is: respect people who are different. Let people be who they are. They say this movie is about "freedom." The freedom to be yourself. All people can be free and equal. And maybe they won't need Government to tell them what to do. They won't need bosses. We can run our own lives.

John Lennon and his friends had the idea that you can change the world by love, not by violence. John Lennon sang about non-violence. He was murdered in 1980 in New York. Many people were very sad when he was shot.

Some say the pictures and "images" in this surreal movie are like when you take "acid." That is a name for a drug called LSD. You go on a "trip" and see many shapes and colors in your head. The word for this is "psychedelic", which means strange images and colors in the mind made by some drugs. They say this is the first psychedelic movie. It is very different from the pictures in Hollywood cartoon movies.

They say this is a hippie movie, from the culture of the "flower children," which was very popular during 1968 and 1969. The Pepperlanders are like hippies. Hippies liked to have unusual brightly-colored clothing. They loved non-violence, were gentle. They wanted to return to more natural living, to cooperate, work together, live in big families on farms called 'communes.' Get away from ugly lonely city life, like in Liverpool. They wanted to change the world. Where love and sharing are more important than work and money. A world where people have solidarity.

Others think this movie is a fairy tale about a magic journey. Fred comes from a deep other world and takes the Beatles on a strange trip to a magic place. They say that the story is about death and a kind of rebirth. The Pepperlanders are reborn. The Beatles are reborn. Even the Meanies and the Glove are reborn.

Some think the yellow submarine stands for the society we could have if we wanted. We are all here together in this small spaceship, Planet Earth. As the song says, "And our friends are all aboard / Many more of them live next door … And we live a life of ease / Everyone of us has all we need / Sky of blue and sea of green / In our yellow submarine."

We need to protect nature. It can be easily broken. It is fragile. The Blue Meanies want to destroy the earth. They are the enemy of nature. The song "Yellow Submarine" is also a song for people who want to protect all living things. It is a song for a green earth.

Some think the story is like the old story in English literature called Beowulf. It was written about 1,300 years ago, and is the oldest story in English. Beowulf goes to rescue a kingdom that is attacked by a monster named Grendel. He kills the monster and the kingdom is free to live again in happiness. The Beatles are a little like Beowulf in this movie. The Meanies are like Grendel. It is the battle of goodness and light and love against darkness and violence and death.

Watch the many colors in the film. These colors have a deep meaning. Blue can mean sad, like when you say "I feel blue." The Flying Glove looks a lot like a kind of American flag. It is striped, just like the flag, and very bright blue. Yellow is a happy color, like the sun. The movie's colors are psychedelic.

The English in the songs is beautiful, simple. But the English talk in the dialogue is full of jokes and what is called "word play." It is often hard if you don't know English very well to understand these games played with words. It's OK if you don't understand. The Beatles 'take words apart' and put them together in unusual ways, called "puns." So the dialogue here is a kind of a surreal poem. Some people think this movie is a poem in color, words, pictures and music. It has many different possible meanings. . Find the meanings of the images for yourself, with your friends. Learn the songs. Start a Yellow Submarine English Club.


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The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XII, No. 1, January 2006