Three Men and a Shark
Last week I saw Jaws on the big screen for the first time. I love Jaws but hadn’t seen it in years. Since revisiting it I can’t seem to get it out of my head, for a lot of reasons, “Wow, it’s such effective horror and they show so little”, “I wonder how they made a full-sized shark puppet jump onto a boat” – mainly “why do I have such a huge crush on Richard Dreyfuss?”
Seriously though, I was taken aback by the gentleness that seems to exist in this film dominated by male characters and culminating in a shark exploding. A shark explodes. It seems like the ultimate macho film; three men head out to sea to kill an unstoppable eating machine. A shark explodes! And yet I couldn’t help but feel that this movie had something to say about macho action hero clichés.
Let’s start by looking at our three men….
Firstly, Chief Brody is not the rogue cop who plays by his own rules, in fact he waits until he gets the Mayor’s permission before organizing the shark hunt in earnest. Brody is a family man, afraid of the water, who came to the island to get a more peaceful life for his children, to make a difference in a community in a way that can’t be done in New York City.
He is not the stern commanding father-figure of oh-so-many films; he is soft-spoken. The emotional low-point for Chief Brody comes after the death of Alex Kintner, a symbolic failure of fatherhood paralleled later by Brody’s own son’s near death at the jaws of the shark. And how does he react to this emotional rock-bottom? By asking his youngest son for a kiss, “because I need it”.
Criticise Spielberg all you want for sentimentalism; how can you not be touched by this scene? Ultimately, it is paternal protectiveness that convinces our hero to go after the shark, not righteous blood-lust or vengeance.
Oceanographer Matt Hooper is, to be blunt, a nerd. Rich, educated and aloof, he could easily be the villain in another film and most certainly is not action movie hero material. He’s all “city hands” and insecurity, trying at every opportunity to prove his masculinity.
But he can barely stomach the autopsies he performs whether it’s on a human or shark, and his big heroic moment – going down in his shark cage – ends in Hooper dropping his poison dart gun, just like he dropped the shark tooth he recovered from the fisherman’s wreckage.
In both cases he flees. Despite all of this, the film wants us to believe that Hooper is just as macho as Quint – he couldn’t stomach the autopsies but he can manage Quint’s homemade whiskey and can match Quint tit-for-tat in battle scars (We’ll come back to that scene later).
Hooper is, upon first viewing, candidate for “most likely to die” but ends up being surprisingly bad-ass. He challenges our perception of outward masculine presentation, undermining macho ideals – for example poking fun at Quint when he crushes his empty beer can and Hooper crushes his Styrofoam cup in retaliation.
Quint, on the other hand, is all masculine presentation and bravado. He drinks, he fights, he sings dirty sea-shanties, he hunts sharks for a living for God’s sake!! I’d argue that it’s Quint’s macho behaviour that leads to his tragic end.
He never wanted any help on the voyage (“I don’t want no volunteers, I don’t want no mates, there’s just too many captains on this island. $10,000 for me by myself”) and when Brody tries to call for help Quint destroys the radio. He’s a go-it-alone, old fashioned kind of action hero. He doesn’t give up, pushing his boat harder and harder risking livelihood and ultimately life itself to kill a shark.
‘Mr. Hooper, that’s the USS Indianapolis.’
Now, we can get to that iconic scar sharing scene. The men have failed in their attempt to kill the shark, and retreat into the ship to drink and prove their masculinity is still intact by showing the physical scars left behind. Quint begins the proceedings, because of course he does.
Hooper keeps up though, with just as many scars, and finally after butting heads since meeting the two men find common ground and a shared respect for one another. Meanwhile, Brody stands to the side, he considers showing his scar too but decides against it. It’s a surgical scar and there’s no macho points to be gained from boasting about that.
It’s not until Hooper jokes about the scar of a broken heart that Brody can loosen up and ask Quint about the scar on his arm, which opens the floodgates for emotional vulnerability far beyond the traumas of ex-girlfriends. Quint delivers his harrowing monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
This is the scene that inspired this article; in the midst of horror and action in shark attacks and hunting, here is a tender scene of the men joking, bonding, getting drunk and singing together. It’s intimate, almost bordering on homoerotic as Hooper and Quint embrace and giggle together. Out here on the ocean, the men can let their guards down and drop the pretence of masculine posturing to speak openly about heartbreak and trauma.
The story of three men fighting a force of nature
This is the heart of Jaws. It’s a story about three men trying to destroy a force that makes them feel helpless. The great white shark is just as insurmountable as white masculinity, and maybe in defeating one they can conquer the other. Despite macho personas, education, and nobility, these men are as helpless against the shark as anyone else, and that is part of what makes the shark so horrifying to the audience.
There’s a reason that macho Quint suffers the most gruesome, prolonged death. I remembered the horror and the monstrous shark but forgot that the most famous ‘shark movie’ of all time is essentially a character study of three men.
The gentleness of Jaws also comes in its theme of community and belonging. All of the trio are outsiders. Brody isn’t a native islander and is afraid of the water. He left New York to make a difference in a community and is told that he’ll never be a real local, he’ll never really fit in on Amity Island.
Hooper is an outsider, aloof and separate. Quint is a lone sea-captain, intimidating to the locals and tourists alike. Yet, in each other these men find a sense of belonging and camaraderie. Take for example, the scene where Hooper arrives at Brody’s dinner table.
Brody pours a glass of wine for himself, his wife, and Hooper. Hooper is directly aligned with Ellen Brody in this scene, even jokingly playing the part of wife by asking ‘How was your day?’ It’s a moment that reinforces our questioning of masculinity while also sparking the friendship between these men. The men are all different but all find common ground and understanding, it’s a powerful and tender presentation of male friendship.
A product of the 1970s
Without doubt Jaws s a product of the 1970s, it paved the way for all the excessive summer blockbusters that followed, yet it’s distinctly different from the glorified masculinity that populated so many Reagan-era action flicks.
These men are not unstoppable forces like Robocop or Terminator, nor are they towering bodybuilders. They are more akin to the every-man schlubs of Ghostbusters. Is Jaws a revolutionary take on gender and macho action clichés? No. As critic Julia Patt points out, all the women in the film are relegated to the roles of “wives and mothers or victims”.
In the end Brody feels like a typical action hero, rifle in hand and spouting one-liners. (Did I mention a shark literally explodes?) But, importantly, it is a mild-mannered father afraid of the water that kills the unkillable shark, paddling off into the sunset with a know-it-all oceanographer.