JAWS: THE MOVIE AND ITS ARCHETYPES
The Movie and its Archetypes
I arrived home on Thursday after what seemed like a long day and actually long week of work ready to settle in for what I hoped would be a perfectly mundane Thursday Night Football game between the Patriots and Giants. After preparing a relatively good evening meal as I sat down, I discovered the movie Jaws was on which felt like a great way to await the game. Coming out in 1975 Jaws was the first summer blockbuster and at the time it was the most intense movie I had ever seen. Many who saw the movie jokingly responded with the vow we’d never go swimming again including in local lakes and ponds. But on Thursday I expected to be mildly bored and not very impressed. Much to my surprise I discovered a movie of many symbols, icons and archetypes.
The movie centers around four characters: the shark, the sheriff Mathew Brody, boat captain Quint, and the young scientist Matt Hooper. Each is an archetype at its core. The shark is evil in its essence as a relentless predator wreaking havoc in an ocean side town. The three men are asked by the town to hunt the shark down before it ruins the summer tourist season. In an amazing reversal of the expected plot line the shark attacks them relentlessly pursuing them throughout the movie. Even their relatively large boat is no match for the shark which it ruthlessly shreds into pieces. Evil returns again and again. The film ebbs and flows with the presence of the Shark. The humans on the beach refuse to give ground. They refuse to give up their vacation. They are unwilling to see that they are out matched. The local mayor and town council want the profit from the summer tourists so they refuse to close the beaches. The combination of an unyielding predator, human arrogance and greedy politicians turns into an evil stew. Three heroes go out in the ocean to save the community from the chaos.
The boat captain, Quint (first name is not given) played by Robert Shaw, one of the enduring characters from movie history, is a wizened, cynical fishing boat captain with a specialty in hunting sharks. He is often compared to the maniacal captain Ahab from the Novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. He is our inner rogue who faces death with hatred and desire for revenge. We learn in a wonderfully acted monologue he was a survivor of the sinking of the Battleship Indianapolis in July of 1945. Because of miscommunication the catastrophe was not reported and the men floated in the Ocean for several days while being attacked by sharks. This trauma led Quint to a life of thirsting for vengeance on every possible shark in his path. This leviathan was to be his ultimate retribution. He is on a self-destructive mission seeking freedom from the trauma which eventually leads to his death and almost to the death of the other two. He is not only a rogue but a prisoner of the trauma which he could never let go of and leads to his death.
Sheriff Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, is the consummate public servant seeking to fulfill his role and protect his town from the ravages of the shark. He is the inner hero willing to face death in the process of doing the right thing. The first time he sees the shark up close he is in shock and utters the oft quoted line to Quint, “You are going to need a bigger boat.” He reminds me of Percival, Knight of the Round-table, dutifully seeking the Holy Grail in hopes of saving Camelot after King Arthur’s death.
The third person is Matthew Hooper, played by a very young Richard Dreyfuss. He is a recent graduate with a degree in marine biology and is eager bordering on arrogant. He wants the thrill of chasing this gigantic shark. He is that young, naive part of us that is unable to see the danger he faces until it is almost too late. At first it is clear to Hooper that Quint is more than a little bit crazy and Quint initially can hardly tolerate the young whippersnapper. Perhaps Quint initially sees a vision of his younger self in Hooper which he simply cannot tolerate. One of the arcs of the film is their gradually evolving respect for each other. Among other things, this is also a male bonding story. (I am sure if it was remade that at least one of the crew would have been a woman.)
Again and again the shark rises from the ocean’s depths which throughout all literature are a symbol of the depths of the psyche. Each time the crew relaxes the shark returns. The relentless rhythm of this is highlighted by the musical score with its three-note repetitive theme reoccurring very time the shark emerges. The combination of the evil leviathan and self-destructive Quint trying to face his trauma in the form of the gigantic beast which has haunted him for decades is the movie’s center. He dies in a bloody and grotesque scene which felt quite inevitable. He is the image of humans compulsively battling old demons, trauma and wounds in ways that prevent healing. Like Captain Ahab of the of the whaling ship Pequod in Moby Dick Quint dies. The other two are miraculously able to swim to shore when the shark is killed by Brody.
Although it is not part of the movie itself it is worth noting that Peter Benchley who wrote the bestselling novel on which the movie was based later regretted it since it set off a frenzy of reckless, brutal shark hunting. He even established a foundation to protect sharks. This frenzy of human destructiveness arising not from the ocean but from the human psyche is an important part of the entire process.
Symbols, images and archetypes surround us. The psyche keeps them stored and available for us when they are triggered by external events. These images take the movie from the realm of mere horror to the more meaningful symbols revealing deep aspects of life.
The movie ended. I switched to the channel for the football game and was sound asleep before kickoff.