“You’re certifiable Quint, do you know that?” – Chief Brody
If my memory serves me well, I was around six-years old when my mother took me to the cinema. For some insane reason I was able to get in and watch Jaws, a film experience that solidified my fear and fascination for all things shark. As a child, I would spend hours at a time perfecting my sketches of them, ensuring the pectoral fins were in proportion to both the dorsal and tail fins. However, it was not as much about the teeth these predators bore, rather the sleekness of their anatomical design – able to glide silently through the water and be upon you in the blink of an eye.
The zeitgeist of the seventies seemed to revolve around this mythical flick, and I have since lost count of exactly how many visits I have made to Amity Island (or Martha’s vineyard) in search of that sense of impending doom. But as always happens over the passage of time, the fear of one object or threat, changes with a growing awareness of ourselves, and the terrors we project from within.
Writing about Jaws today, the film is a more intimate and in some respects, affectionate affair. Instead of focusing on the beast that lurks beneath, it’s the human dynamic between Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) that resonates most. Every time these three characters are seen pitched against nature and the elements, the camera allows me to observe how fragile, lonely, and in many ways vulnerable, these men are.
In Martin Brody, we had the new kid on the block, the outsider, with no sea legs to speak of, and an inherent fear of the water. Not only was this middle-aged father and husband starting out again, and incidentally way out of his comfort zone, he was forced to confront both his fears and those of an entire island. With little to no support from the authorities assigned his protection, and growing pressure to lie to the very people he needs to win over, I cannot imagine a worse place to wind up.
With Matt Hooper, it is a similar, yet less daunting situation. The wealthy son of an even wealthier family, he has all the toys, but lacks the experience to truly know his worth, despite having a deep love of oceanographic life, and that recognisable need to make his mark amongst his peers. Does he stay and make a name for himself, or hide behind his inadequacies and money?
Quint however, is the real lynchpin of this fable. Plagued by survivor guilt after watching his fallen comrades turn shark bait during the SS Indianapolis disaster, his only sense of existence comes from hunting down and slaying the objects of both his obsession and fear. No matter how many of these abominations he destroys, the nightmares return to haunt him, so what more fitting way to go, other than in the jaws of the biggest shark humankind has ever seen?
When the three of them go in search of this aquatic behemoth, circumstances force them to either pull together, or unhinge from one another, through fear and desperation. However, something quite moving happens instead. Despite their differences in class, age and motivation, these characters push and pull each other to the edge, yet recognize their own need to lean on each other within the third act.
It is sad that Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) is the last man standing now, and I wonder if he shares the same love for Jaws that many others like me do? I recently bought The Deep (1977), hoping to find that similar feel for Robert Shaw’s character, but I think Quint was bottled lightning, and rightly so. More importantly, I have an admiration for all three actors, and as such, Jaws will always hold a place in my heart, just as it frightened the living wits out of me as a boy.
Ultimately, I really don’t need to ponder those who haven’t yet seen this vintage classic, as it’s been around almost as long as I have, but what I do wonder is what the film means to other viewers, and are they still afraid to go into the water?
As they used to say, “Answers on a postcard please”.