There has been a lot of debate about the allegorical nature of Jaws. Despite Steven Spielberg long maintaining that it is just a film about a big shark, people have looked for a deeper meaning in its story of a Great White terrorising the sands and ocean shallows of an island off the coast of Massachusetts.
In the forty five years since it broke all box office records and made a star of its young director, Jaws has been discussed as a parable of nuclear paranoia, as a metaphor for societal inequality and dysfunction, as a warning against communism, infidelity or rampant sexual impropriety or as an examination of science verses spiritualism and the dichotomist nature of humanity. Clearly Spielberg and his writers didn’t consciously throw all of this into the water but it is certainly a film that is open to various interpretations. Personally I take Spielberg at his word; I think for him it is all about the shark and the tension and spectacle that he builds around this but like several of his other films that seem to have wider readings; like Duel, A.I, E.T, War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park and Minority Report, I suspect his writers had bigger ideas that he was aware of, that he respected and deliberately worked not to quash. Seriously, any film that includes the line, spoken in Jaws by Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic Chief of Police, that ‘an island is only an island if you look at it from the water’ definitely knows about the value of viewing things from different points of view.
One of the analogies that quickly emerged around Jaws was that it reflected the corruption and cover up around Watergate. Having happened only a year or two previously this was front and centre in that first audience’s consciousness and they were able to see comparisons in the way the politicians behaved on screen and how their president had recently behaved behind closed doors. Interestingly, even though it was made four and a half decades ago, Jaws fits just as well, if not better, with the situation we find ourselves in currently. This is a film that almost invites you to relay over it whatever is currently on your mind, irrelevant of when you experience it, and that is a very rare and special thing for any piece of art.
Viewed from behind our own closed doors, with the world in lockdown, it is almost impossible not to view Jaws as a tale of nature backing humanity into a corner. Sure, the creature is a fish so if we stay in certain places we think it can’t get us but to underestimate it is foolish. There is also much in the way people in power react to the threat. Police Chief Brody, a state employee without the resources he needs to fight it, puts himself in danger to do what he can. Richard Dreyfus is Hooper, a man with his own wealth who recognises his responsibility to use this for good and Robert Shaw’s Quint is the old timer who knows he’s faced something similar in the past and is sure he can face this down too. They pool their expertise, experience and equipment but sadly they don’t all make it to the end.
Around them the public reacts and panics to different degrees to the largely unseen threat; some flocking to their families, some looking to see how they can help others and some only looking out for themselves, happy to throw vulnerable others in the way of harm. This is familiar right now too.
Then there is Murray Hamilton’s Mayor Vaughn who bears very close comparison to a certain other powerful US politician. He stupidly underestimates and denies the danger to public health, stubbornly and selfishly putting his own position and the ‘local’ economy first. When, in early July, he is advised on the value of setting restrictions then with a view to saving August only to ignore this for the short term gain and to insist everything will be alright, it is hard not to think of Trump delaying the call to shutdown and idiotically telling everyone that everything will be open again by Easter. Frustratingly Mayor Vaughn gets away with this political mismanagement, quietly disappearing unpunished into the background after some small recognition of his foolhardiness near the close of Jaws 2. Here’s hoping this bit isn’t as prophetic as the rest seems to be.
Let’s pause here to remember that back in 2006, Boris Johnson said in a speech addressed to an audience at Lloyd’s of London, that he thought Mayor Vaughn was the real hero of Jaws. Hmm! Something that has now come back to bite him.
Let’s hope that the end of the movie predicted things more accurately as this offers some hope. Ultimately those on the ground head out to beat the threat and with the public finally heeding the warnings and staying away, they are able to destroy the monster having understood its unpredictably and correctly calculated what its nature might lead it to do next.
By all accounts Spielberg rushed his 2017 film The Post through production so that it would come out fast enough to openly criticise Trump. Looking at it though it seems that he might have already created a more damaging expose way back in 1975.
The one thing we have to remember here is that after this film ended everyone thought it was safe to go back in the water but there were actually three sequels and a whole range of copycat movies, each with its own adaptation.
Still, here’s to a time when we are watching Jaws again and viewing it in an entirely different way.
Until then, stay home, stay safe and no matter what the weather does, stay off the beaches.