You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: The Amity Horror of Jaws

© Universal Studios
© Universal Studios

Earlier this month, the U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph asked, “Killer shark? It must be summer.” Shark Week may not begin until August, but let’s face it: Summer is shark season. From circling fins closing a Long Island beach to an Australian man’s discovery that the music of AC/DC attracts sharks (especially — and you couldn’t make this up — “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”), the arrival of summer brings out shark tales like chum to, well, you know.

It was summer that saw the biggest and (still) best shark tale of them all: “Jaws.” Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of the Peter Benchley bestseller kicked off what we now know as the summer blockbuster phenomenon: the use of big-budget, high-concept movies as money-making studio tentpoles. But it also rocked movie audiences, rooting the notion of man-eating sharks in the popular imagination — effectively doing for the ocean what “Psycho” did for showers. In fact, the film was blamed for low beach attendances that summer.

Though killer sharks are mostly myth — one that authors from Benchley himself to Juliet Eilperin have tried to disprove — it taps into a very real and primal fear of nature. As Elizabeth Hardwick notes in her introduction to Moby-Dick -- a classic precursor to the man-versus-wild narrative of Jaws -- “Ahab has come to identify the white whale as the symbol of all the rage felt by mankind in the face of nature’s destructiveness.” The captain’s quest to destroy Moby-Dick embodies man’s desire to contain nature, a desire that shapes our fascination with its power and informs the popularity of shows like “Deadliest Catch.”

It also goes a long way to explaining how ultimately satisfying the film is. As the plot moves from the beach community of Amity Island to the fishing boat Orca, “Jaws” becomes more of a Moby-Dick-like adventure, its unlikely trio of police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), sea expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and shark hunter Quint (a perfect Robert Shaw), echoing Ishmael, Starbuck, and Ahab. When the pursuit collapses — a failing engine, the destruction of the Orca, death — Brody, a decent man bent on protecting the town despite mayoral interference and his own fear of the water, emerges as its hero by dramatically killing the shark. Earlier, he insists, “In Amity, one man can make a difference.” And it is Brody, rather than the experienced sailor or the scientist, who does so, restoring the balance between nature and man.

These are grand themes, but let’s not forget that “Jaws” remains a cracking horror film. From its simple but bizarrely effective theme to the sparing and timely use of the shark -- and, in one key moment, a disembodied head -- that gradually ratchets up our fear, Spielberg gave us a film that still has the power to thrill and terrify audiences.