More than four decades ago this summer, Steven Spielberg’s suspense thriller, Jaws, took the world by surprise as the pulsing two-note theme and the invisible aquatic menace plunged audiences into paroxysms of exhilarating terror. The instantaneous popularity of Jaws (1975) made it the highest-grossing film of all time (until Star Wars came along). Aggressive marketing and wide release dubbed Jaws the first of what is now known as the summertime blockbuster, and its commercial success remains well-matched by its historical impact. Jaws is a film that scars as well as scares, having driven swimmers out of the ocean and compelling them to malign the Great White shark for decades since. Though identified within the specious genre of horror, there is a surprisingly profound symbolic quality to Jaws that raises it above the mindless monster-slasher. It is not a shallow picture (despite the deep defects of the mechanical shark). The 27-year-old Spielberg, embattled as he was with production setbacks, probably did not intend to create a fable for modern society with Jaws; but his dedication to telling a story well elevated a potentially campy movie to a film with a cultural message that remains relevant to this day.
The value of Jaws as a cinematic social symbol, or film fable, lies in the phenomenon that the artistic expressions of popular culture—however wild or weird they may be—often unconsciously express remedies for popular corruptions. It is on a subconscious, allegorical level that Jaws is noteworthy, tapping into the primal corners of human existence and human economy.
The storyline is straightforward. The island town of Amity relies on its tourist season for survival. But when a woman’s remains are washed up at low tide, and the coroner assigns the cause of death as a shark attack, the chief of police, Martin Brody, (Roy Scheider), closes the beaches. The mayor protests the decision, convincing the medical examiner to assert that the tragedy was due to a boating accident and demanding that the beaches be kept open for the sake of summer dollars. After three more fatalities, however, the shattered town hires a hardened fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw), to catch and kill the shark. The final act launches upon the high seas, as the crazed captain, joined by the rugged police chief and a quirky marine biologist, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), hunt down the brutal leviathan in a desperate struggle that skillfully employs conventions from Moby-Dick and The Old Man and the Sea in a Hitchcockian chess game of man pitted against nature. It is straightforward storytelling; but by remaining true to the tale and keeping the narrative of characters and conflicts clear, the solidity of the film opens it to interpretations that go beyond the surface.
Forty-one years after its box-office-breaking release, Jaws still resonates with viewers and withstands serious analysis. One line of interpretation that renders the film a relevant and powerful piece for those engaged in the battle for Christian culture is the theme of a society determined to willfully ignore a prevalent, pervasive threat to humanity instead of facing it and destroying it. In the case of the plot, the problem of the shark is in almost every way undeniable and one that does indeed promise to destroy. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be steel themselves to explain it innocuously away, by hook or by crook. This pattern is only too familiar nowadays. From Benghazi to healthcare reform to the LGBT agenda, lies and false attitudes constantly downplay the dangers that threaten to tear civilization apart as it floats between Scylla and Charybdis, between modernity and collapse; and all for the sake of money, uneven-keel economics, and political correctness—until all are awash in disaster—even blood.
Jaws is a fable, or cautionary tale, for our times. Today, people commonly turn a blind eye and a blind mind to the plagues that threaten to destroy Western culture and human identity, and that move silently beneath the face of placid waters. But the jaws that gape beneath that surface are devouring jaws. The sacrifice of innocence for the sake of money and machinations must give us pause, as Hamlet says. Nature can, in fact, breed monsters. With the fall of nature, nature is no longer always natural. She can betray man, and it is her betrayals that man must resist at all costs. As in the film, the only way to counter such infiltrations is to take the risk of heroism—which is difficult in a society that champions insipid tolerance. The time has come to to call evil “evil” and to declare boldly, for instance, that a man is a man; a woman is a woman; the Truth is true; Goodness is good; and Beauty is beautiful.
The precedents of denial run deep, however. If a cure to the unhappiness threatening society is inconvenient to the markets, the malady is simply ignored—even though it is everywhere and obvious. What else can explain frantic Islamophilia in the hateful face of ISIS? Or the sanction of the secret slaughter of abortion? Or the normalization of both pornography and feminism? These are deep and dark waters. Evil lurks within their depths, seeking to devour like a lion as St. Peter wrote—or like a shark.
In spite of its pop-culture status, the message of Jaws yet rings clear: The ordinary man can rise to an extraordinary occasion and restore sanity and peace to a society slipping into a violent disorder, which is as indiscriminate in its victims as a killer shark. This old-fashioned American theme charges head-on against the newfangled American paralysis and pusillanimity that fears litigation if the truth is spoken, or blacklisting if a stance is taken.
After four decades, we are still going to need a bigger boat. And the only boat big enough for our predators is the Barque of Peter. And we all must sign articles for the voyage with the readiness to destroy that which would destroy us—and to do it with a will. In the salty cries of Captain Quint from the bridge of his creaky craft in Jaws, “Daylight’s wastin’!… Front! Bow! Back! Stern!… C’mon, chief, this ain’t no boy-scout picnic. I see you got your rubbers. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
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