In the end, the most significant character isn’t Hooper, Brody or Quint. It’s the shark. The shark’s character is built of many things, from the mechanical “Bruce,” to the footage of actual great whites, to the illustrations in Brody’s book, to shots of blood rising to the surface or a severed human leg falling to the ocean floor, but the soul of the shark is provided by John Williams’ score. I mentioned at the outset that Williams’ famous theme might make for the most powerful and iconic score in cinema history, and here’s why: Can you think of any other score that’s more identifiable among the general population? Can you think of any other score that can be recognized in just two notes (DUHHHH-DUN!)? Can you think of any other score that more completely transcends its film to become the soundtrack to real life? (Put a city slicker on horseback and there are a number of Western ditties he or she might hum for the occasion. When we view sharks, however, only one tune comes to mind.) Williams’ score is more than just the shark theme, of course. And, indeed, it does well to amplify the adventurousness of the shark pursuit or the menace of the attack on Hooper in the shark cage. But what we remember are those repeating groaning strings, escalating as the shark nears and our pulse quickens.
EH: Williams’ score in general encompasses many different moods and tones, but it’s no surprise that the shark theme—simple, effective, utterly unforgettable—tends to dwarf the rest of the music, just as Spielberg’s masterfully executed suspense sequences make it easy to forget the film’s dark comedy, character nuance and thematic depth. As we’ve been discussing, this film deftly balances many different tones and ideas, and Williams’ music does the same. The shark theme, though, is so simple that when Williams first played it for Spielberg, the director thought that Williams was joking. But, as Spielberg himself quickly realized, this pulse-quickening theme is the perfect music to announce the presence of the film’s big threat. The music, in its simplicity, its unblinking forward drive, mimics the blank determination of the shark itself.
The shark’s character, such as it is, is of course much less complex than that of the men on the boat, and that’s part of the film’s point. The shark, much like the avian swarms of Hitchcock’s The Birds, represents the unthinking, unrelenting force of nature, a primal creature whose only purpose is to stalk its prey and feed. Earlier, I pointed out how Spielberg had derived his point-of-view shots from Creature From the Black Lagoon, but there’s a crucial difference. The creature’s POV in Jack Arnold’s horror classic (and even more so its sequel, Return of the Creature) suggests a psychology that is alien to our own, a relic of an earlier stage of evolution, but nevertheless comprehensible. The creature has desires and perhaps even feelings, especially sexual and romantic feelings; when the creature looks up from beneath the water at a bathing beauty, her legs flailing in the water, we feel the pathetic and impossible yearning of this primitive being. The shark, less a true character than a force of nature, doesn’t have any such feelings, and when it looks at a woman swimming in the water, all it sees is dinner.
In that respect, the shark has more in common with the truck in Spielberg’s TV movie Duel, which first demonstrated the director’s penchant for teeth-gritting suspense. Just as the protagonist of Duel is pursued and assaulted by a mysterious truck, seemingly for no reason, with no motive or explanation, the characters of Jaws are being subjected to a force beyond psychology, beyond rationality, a pre-modern creature driven by simple impulses. The film is about the loss of control, about the cruelty of nature reminding us just how fragile our seeming mastery of the world really is. This theme is especially enhanced by the setting of the film’s first half, the way that the shark disrupts the comfort and leisure of a beachside community dedicated almost exclusively to the tourism industry. There’s nothing more modern, more indicative of privilege and comfort, than the idea of a vacation, which only makes the shark attacks even more upsetting: the shark isn’t just feeding, isn’t just killing, it’s undermining one of the primary symbols of status, security and happiness in our society.
JB: You’re on to something there, because while many of Amity’s leaders and business people initially object to closing the beaches on (understandable) economic grounds, beyond that there’s also some pretty thinly veiled anger over the idea that a shark would dare to fuck with the 4th of July. The looming threat of shark attacks, in addition to the attacks themselves, shatters the spirit of innocence, playfulness and, yes, friendship that are Amity’s understood brand. Amity, after all, is the place to get away from it all, even for Brody who has arrived there as a result of fleeing New York.
Of course, to some degree setting the action in an oceanfront vacation getaway is a matter of narrative practicality. Peter Benchley, who wrote the original novel and co-authored the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (John Milius, uncredited, reportedly helped to shape Quint’s Indianapolis monologue), needed a reason to keep people in the water where the shark could reach them. And having already praised the film’s intricacy, realism, theatricality, performances, score and more, it strikes me that the greatest achievement of Jaws isn’t just that we believe that Amity’s residents and vacationers would continue wading into the ocean after the first attack but, furthermore, that the threat of the shark is almost unceasingly omnipresent.
Truly, soak that one in for a moment: The only thing any of these people need to do to avoid the shark is to remain on dry land. That’s it. And that’s what makes Jaws so different from The Birds (where going indoors proves not protection enough), or Alien (where the humans are trapped in the same physical space), or Open Water (where the difficulty of getting to dry land is the whole point), or the dozens upon dozens of monster movies in between. The threat isn’t omnipresent; it just feels that way. And while that’s partially due to the screenwriters’ knack for keeping people in the water, it’s also due to Spielberg’s knack for bringing shark imagery to dry land, whether through Brody’s book, or Quint’s blackboard illustration, or the Amity billboard of a happy swimmer that’s been vandalized to include a menacing dorsal fin, or Quint’s business headquarters, festooned with the jaws of his kills. Mentally, we know that dry land is safe. But emotionally Spielberg makes us feel as if the shark is always close by, as if confronting the beast is unavoidable.
EH: That ties back to the scene you mentioned earlier, in which Brody’s wife is initially unconcerned about their kids playing in a boat until she sees the picture of a shark leaping out of the water to take a bite out of a similar small boat. There’s a certain amount of irrational fear in the response to the shark: yes, the shark is deadly, if one goes in the water, although Spielberg stages several scenes to suggest that dry land isn’t always entirely safe either, like the scene where the shark rips the dock to pieces. And then, in the film’s second half, the shark increasingly appears as the embodiment of everyone’s worst fears made flesh: exaggeratedly huge, implacable, stalking the Orca like prey, eventually leaping up out of the water and onto the boat’s deck just like the shark in Brody’s book. For the most part, though, the shark is a creature of the water and if everyone had just been willing to stay out of the water for a while then they would have been safe. The town of Amity, though, reacts to this sensible precaution as a violation, not only of their economy but of their deepest principles, their freedom, their whole way of life. There’s something un-American about ruining a holiday celebration like this, but the shark tramples over all of it, uncaring, and in a way that’s what really shakes everyone up so much. There’s a complicated mix of emotions here, ranging from the somewhat irrational terror of the unknown to a sense of entitlement and security so strong that it takes much more blood than it should to wake most of the townspeople up to the threat.
These tangled, surprisingly complex emotions and the at times deeply submerged subtexts of the material may account, in part, for the remarkable longevity of Spielberg’s bloody thriller. Jaws helped to usher in changes in the movie industry, but it has remained a pop culture staple for so long not for its historical importance but for its enduring ability to shock, provoke and frighten multiple generations of filmgoers. Iconic lines and images from the film are recognizable even to those who haven’t seen it, and its legendary status is unavoidable, but familiarity has done little to dull or disguise the alternately raw and sophisticated thrills of Spielberg’s visceral filmmaking.