As the legend goes, Jaws director Steven Spielberg would not make the movie unless he was allowed to (fully) reveal the titular shark until deep into the film. Other lore suggests it was a decision made out of necessity due to the multiple mechanical sharks not working.
Whatever the real reason for this decision, it was the correct one, and is a key impetous as to why the film endures to this day.
The main reason, however, we are all still enjoying this sacred cow 40 years and running is the terrific performances from our three leads Roy Scheider (“Chief” Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Quint), and Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper) – without whom this ambitious project would simply not have worked.
That is not to take anything from the ingenious strategy to merely tease the shark before Spielberg reveals him to us at full bore near the 81st minute mark of the 123 minute film. This moment also segues to the Chief Brody’s iconic line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” (improvised by Scheider). Which then of course leads to one of the most exciting final thirds of a film in cinema history; which in turn cements the true theme of the film: Masculinity through humility.
Thinking back to the beginning of Jaws, it starts out somewhat fun loving and flirtatious. We see a young man and young lady chasing down the beach to go skinny dipping. The boy is too drunk and passes out on dry land while the gal has a much more violent fate with the shark in the ocean, giving us an abrupt end to our happy meet-cute.
…and also ridding this film of any innocence it may’ve had
From then on out, us viewers are as paranoid as the Chief has become in trying to keep the citizens of his island town safe from a shark.
One of the true joys of Jaws (for me) is watching Brody’s paranoia set in, and how in dealing with it, he chooses to remain strong among his people. His strength is what leads him to ultimately telling the mayor to pony up the $10,000 to pay Quint to hunt the shark and kill it.
And speaking of Quint, one cannot talk about Jaws without mentioning Quint’s famous Indianapolis monologue.
After Hooper and Quint have a fun and drunken duel of who has the better scars on their respective bodies (a scene which is beautifully parodied in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy), Quint regales Brody and Hooper with his experience on the USS Indianapolis whose mission it was to deliver a nuclear bomb (destined for Hiroshima Japan) during World War II. Along with Brody and Hooper, us viewers hang on to Quint’s every word as he explains how he and his shipmates completed their mission by indeed delivering the bomb, but also how the midshipmen were forced to try surviving in the Indian Ocean after the Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Japanese.
The way Shaw delivers this speech can best be described as somberly-upbeat. As he describes how the sharks picked off many of his shipmates one by one, we learn “1,100 men went into the water, 316 come out.”
The most informative part of the speech was Quint admitting that the time he felt most scared was when he and the other men were being rescued. He was most frightened while he awaited his turn to be lifted out of the ocean by the rescue plane. “I’ll never put on a life jacket again,” says Quint.
Chief Brody moved to Amity Island from New York City, where he was a policeman. Although he is admittedly afraid of the ocean, he opted for the island folk over the mean streets of New York. Somewhere he could be a better husband and father to his wife and sons (with whom he has a great relationship). But also because he can make a difference in the much smaller town of Amity.
More on that later….
Things begin to get hairy on the island when talks of the shark starts to ramp up. Many of the local business owners are not keen on the idea of rendering the shark a danger to the islanders during 4th of July weekend, which would in turn hurt their income they normally count on during that holiday. The mayor is able to convince Brody not to hire the likes of Quint to hunt the shark; this derelict of responsibility on the mayor’s part leads Brody to contacting Matt Hooper from the Oceanographic Institute. Brody figures if the town he is trying to keep safe from the shark won’t listem to him, then maybe an expert in the field of sharks (among other things) can bring some lucidity to the island.
It is Hooper who begins compel Brody to do things he’d otherwise be afraid of (like hunt a killer shark). Spielberg handles these moments with deft precision – not with long monologues from Hooper explaining to Brody (a man he just met) how he needs to overcome his fears, but rather a quick conversation of,
Brody: “I can’t do that…”
Hooper: “Yes you can…”
Not to mention the bravery Hooper displays at certain moments of the film (SCUBA diving in the ocean at night to look at a sunken boat with the obvious threat of being attacked by a shark). Brody learns to become a man of action in dealing with the menacing shark.
We learn that Hooper’s fascination and obsession with sharks was born out of him nearly being eaten by one when he was a younger man.
One of my favorite aspects of the film is the way Quint patronizes Hooper for being a trust fund baby “college boy.” As dissimilar as the two men’s backgrounds are, I find it funny how their respective lives in the ocean began in similar fashion.
As the three men set out for the sea on Quint’s boat the Orca to get their shark, we have two highly experienced seaman and Chief Brody who earlier in the film philosophizes, ” It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.” We understand what Quint and Hooper are doing there, but what has made Brody want to join this voyage?
The easy answer, of course, is if he did not join the two men the movie simply would not make sense.
But that’s not fair…
The broader point (for Brody and mankind) is that we humans have a silent yearning to prove our worth. We drag ourselves through the proverbial muck in life; really awful things that prove only to make us wiser, but with a self worth that leaves something to be desired.
Brody explains the futility of trying to be an agent of great change in a place like New York City – the place from where he moved to Amity where “one man can make a difference,” says our Chief.
So Chief Brody had his blueprint in place as to how he was going to make his mark on the world; but the fact that (under his watch) there has never been a shooting or murder on the island of Amity is not enough to satisfy his mortal longing to be a man. It is only through (overcoming) fear and being humbled one can truly reach the penultimate stage of manhood (death being the ultimate).
Roy Scheider is pure class in the scene where his Brody utters the aforementioned iconic line about needing a bigger boat. After he sees the great white face to face for the first time, Scheider’s body and face stiffen up – frozen with fear; out to sea…
This is the truest example of a crossroads moment you will ever see in cinema. Sure he still pines to go back in and get more help; sure he misunderstands the methods and techniques Quint and Hooper are utilizing to hunt the shark (“…KILL HIM QUINT!!”)
…but it is not always about why you do and arrive at something, but rather you simply did it at all.
It is on this voyage where Brody is humbled:
…humbled by Quint and Hooper’s collective experience on the ocean
…humbled by the ocean itself
…humbled by the killer shark
…and most truly humbled at the idea of humility being merely circumstantial – something we should all learn to realize.
After he is handed yet another menial task by Quint to pump out the water they’ve taken on, Brody throws the pump away and decides to join the two expert seaman in trying to kill the shark. Which, of course, he eventually does.
After Quint is bitten in half and killed by the shark, Brody makes sure to stuff one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks into the sharks mouth. As you all remember, he then retrieves Quint’s rifle, and affixes himself on the sideways mast of the now sinking Orca. This gives him a good enough angle to shoot at the shark where on his final shot, Brody hits the air tank and we watch with delight as the great white explodes into the air and onto the sea (“Smile you son of a bitch!”)
There are many many topics that can be covered in this film, and I did not get to all of them – perhaps another time.
But it is worth mentioning how this film is regarded as a pioneering effort of combining art house film making with box office appeal.
This is the film that put Spielberg on the map, and rightfully so. The man who would deliver such absorbing films as Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan (just to name a few), was first given notice for making a film about a terrorizing shark. Not that that is too breezy a subject matter to put into a film, but in the hands of a lesser director would have been just that.
Jaws was nominated for four Oscars, winning three (Best Sound; Best Editing; Best Film Score); it was also nominated for Best Picture losing to (another landmark film) One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.
…and speaking of the Oscars:
If I have one complaint about the film (and it really ain’t the film’s fault), it would be the fact that Robert Shaw as Quint did not receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Hell, the fact that he scraped his fingernails across the chalkboard to get the attention of the ignorant island folk at the town hall meeting should have netted him the nomination. But if that was not enough to convince the Academy, then the Indianapolis monologue should have made him a cinch for it. Oh well – at least he was nominated before for A Man for All Seasons in 1967.
But I digress…
Shaw’s performance truly provides the gritty center the film needs in order for us as viewers to feel brave enough to embark on this voyage. Not just a voyage to kill a shark, but a shining cinematic example of our heroes finding their masculinity in a world that has tried to humble them, only to make them the best they can be
Take that from this film if nothing else….