Jaws is one of those films that provides almost endless topics of discussion. From its tumultuous production to its masterful craftsmanship and storytelling, to its effects on the movie industry as a whole, just about every facet of the film could sustain an essay unto itself. But for today, I want to focus on one aspect in particular.
The Man of the Town
The film’s protagonist is Martin Brody (played by the great Roy Scheider), a New York City cop who has recently taken a job as chief of police in the quiet New England town of Amity Island, seeking to remove his family from the dangers of big city life. Immediately, therefore, we have a double emphasis on the male role as protector: Brody is both in charge of public safety for the town and a conscientious husband and father. He thus occupies a traditionally masculine role as leader and protector: the soldier, the watchman, the guardian.
Yet, when he tries to exercise this role by shutting down the town beaches following a fatal shark attack, he finds himself unexpectedly blocked by the gentle and polite, but immovable forces of the town’s political establishment, embodied in Mayor Vaughn (the great Murray Hamilton—this film really doesn’t receive enough credit for the acting caliber on display). Vaughn explains to Brody that Amity is economically dependent on summer tourists, and that shutting down the beaches would scare them off. When the coroner changes his suspected cause of death to a ‘boat accident,’ Brody finds himself without a leg to stand on.
Brody’s efforts to do his duty as a man and leader are thus stymied by the economic and political interests of the middle-class townsfolk. His job and thus his ability to care for his family is dependent on his going along with the town, and the town’s comfortable, middle-class lifestyle is dependent on tourist dollars.
The result is that Brody strongly suspects there to be a danger to the people he is responsible for, but is unable to do anything about it.
And indeed, lest we judge Vaughn too harshly, a later scene at a town meeting suggests that he himself lacks the authority to close the beaches. Even after a public attack resulting in the death of a little boy, the townsfolk nearly revolt at the prospect of closing the beaches even for twenty-four hours. The people simply refuse to accept the idea of a situation that will require them to undergo privation, and since both Brody and Vaughn are dependent on the people for their own well-being, they have to go along with them.
As depicted in the film, therefore, the modern American man finds his ability to act as a man suppressed by economic and political interests, such as the need to keep a job and the consequent need to follow the will of the majority.
Yet the consequence of his failure still fall on him, not on the people whose self-interests restrain him. In one of the film’s dramatic highlights, Brody is approached by the mother of the dead boy, who slaps him across the face before tearfully rebuking him for letting people go swimming even when he knew the water was dangerous. After she leaves, Vaughn tries to console Brody by saying, “She’s wrong.”
“No, she’s not,” Brody answers. At the end of the day, it was his duty to keep people like young Alex Kintner safe, and he failed. He may have failed for perfectly understandable reasons, but he failed nonetheless and a life was lost.
Brody, the middle-class American everyman, shackled by economics and politics, is contrasted to the other two male leads of the film, who represent different and older archetypes.
On the one hand, you have Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an old money college-educated shark expert, who, though unwelcome in the provincial little town of Amity, nevertheless possesses all the assurance that Brody lacks, due both to his knowledge (unlike Brody he knows exactly what a shark attack victim looks like and so can furiously chew out the shame-faced coroner over his ‘boat accident’) and to his blue-blooded confidence that he can more or less do whatever he likes, such as showing up at the Brody’s house, unannounced with bottles of wine in tow to try to prod Brody into investigating the recently-caught tiger shark.
On the other, we have Quint (Robert Shaw, in the film’s most iconic performance), the rough fisherman and Navy veteran with a dark past. He, of course, cares nothing for the niceties of middle-class society, literally cutting through the chaos of the town meeting by running his nails down a chalkboard to make his own offer to kill the shark. He’s an old-school man of the sea, hard and weather-beaten, experienced in his craft, and inured to discomfort (the pecking order of the three men is established when all three try some of Quint’s homemade liquor. Quint gulps in down at once with relish, Hooper drinks it and gags, Brody spits it out).
Both Hooper and Quint are, to an extent, independent of the concerns that hamstring Brody. Hooper, of course, is old-money, beholden to no man, and is a subject matter expert who knows exactly what he is talking about. Quint makes his living on the sea with his hands and hard-won experience, and the fish are always going to be there.
Brody’s comparative softness to both the worker and the aristocrat is highlighted in a scene on the boat, where Hooper and Quint drunkenly compare scars from their adventures. Brody, standing off to one side, only has his appendix scar, which he wisely keeps quiet about.
A Redemption in Masculinity
However, there is another side of him; while Hooper and Quint are effective and independent as a rule, Brody rises to the occasion in a crisis, and as the situation escalates he shows an increasing willingness to bend or break the rules to do his duty.
The most notable example of this comes after a very public attack on the Fourth of July, which Brody’s own son narrowly escapes. In the hospital after the attack, Brody corners Vaughn and forces him to sign a voucher to let him hire Quint to kill the shark. Vaughn, after hemming and hawing a while, at last tremulously reminds Brody that “my kids were on that beach too;” the full weight of what he risked by ignoring the problem coming home to him.
At this point, Brody and Vaughn have both failed in their mission as men and fathers: Brody by not forcing the issue sooner, Vaughn by trying to ignore the shark problem for the sake of keeping his constituents happy. The difference is that Brody’s failure leads him to take forceful actions to try to correct his mistake, while Vaughn can only remain in shock at what he’s done.
This is also why Brody insists upon coming along with Quint and Hooper to kill the shark, despite his complete ineptitude on the water. Town safety is his responsibility. It is his duty to see to it that the shark is killed, regardless of the danger or discomfort. Having twice failed his duty before, he has to see it through this time.
And, in the end, despite his comparative weakness, it is Brody alone, after the other two have been removed from the situation, who has to confront and finally kill the shark, rising to the occasion with tools taken from both his companions (Hooper’s oxygen tank, Quint’s rifle), as well as his own long-dormant courage.
Such is the film’s cynical, yet hopeful view of the American man. He is hamstrung in his manhood by political and economic concerns and the democratic conventions that force him to bow to his neighbors, but once take those away or push past them, and he will rise to the occasion and claim his manhood again.