Jaws as submarine movie

by Robert Willson

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 32-33
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

Peter Biskind’s “Jaws Between the Teeth” (JUMP CUT, Oct.-Dec. 1975) is one of the most thorough film analyses I have ever read. In it he assigns JAWS its fitting literary generic label, calling it “a middle-class MOBY DICK.” He accounts for the Freudian mature of the Shark, suggesting that its phallic shape poses a psychic threat to hero Brody, whose “fantasies of castration (like those of other men?) suggest impotence.” Biskind also effectively classifies JAWS with recent films that employ similar conventions. The all-male adventure plot resembles that of DELIVERANCE. The film’s disaster mood is compared to those of TOWERING INFERNO and EARTHQUAKE. And its dismemberment scenes are identified as pert of a cult whose rituals are best illustrated by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Biskind’s piéce de rèsistance is his last paragraph comparison of Brody and Jerry Ford, “a nobody who makes it while everybody else auto-destructs.” As Ed McMahon might observe, everything anyone would went to know about JAWS, the film and the cultural phenomenon, can be found in Peter Biskind’s encyclopedic article.

Not so, shark-breath, as Johnny Carson might respond. What is missing is an analysis of a somewhat obvious problem faced by director Steven Spielberg: how to depict the proper mood of menace in such a way as to arouse the audience’s latent fears of threat to the U.S. community’s safety and way of life. That is, given the Shark’s enormous size and sinister, random style of destructiveness. what filmic, as opposed to novelistic conventions were available to Spielberg to help him narrate this horrific story? Biskind considers only contemporary films in his essay, overlooking the rich tradition of adventure-destruction and horror movies whose techniques come down readymade to modern directors. KING KONG, FRANKENSTEIN, THE THING, and THE HAUNTING are only a few titles in which the dilemma of a society faced with random destruction, often unleashed by stupidity or greed, is successfully portrayed. Yet in most of these plots the destroyer is humanized in some manner, with the result that the audience can rationalize the cataclysm by blaming the excesses of science, or ambition, or corruption. In JAWS, however, the force to be dealt with is mindless, “an eating machine” in Benchley’s words, and no amount of romanticizing or rationalizing will explain away what it has done to Amity and its residents. The Shark also prowls the watery depths (and shallows, too), which differentiates it from the Kongs and Frankenstein of earlier epics.

This fact makes it into an even more demonic enemy than its predecessors because it cannot be seen as easily as a gorilla, and underwater tracking devices, as we have learned from the futile search for Nessie, are woefully inadequate.

In order to solve his problem of depicting the special nature of the Shark as an opponent of U.S. society, I believe Spielberg turned not to the conventions of horror films but to those of war movies, in particular those sagas that dealt with submarine warfare between the United States and the Axis powers in WW2. An outrageous assertion? We need only look at Spielberg’s modifications of the novel for support. The changes are purposely designed to condense and telescope the story into a battle adventure. What results is not only a tauter and more dramatic entertainment than the book but also a movie reminiscent of World War II submarine chase classics. Perceiving JAWS in this way, instead of as a pastiche of motifs from horror or science fiction films, may help to explain the impact of its major scenes as well as its overall narrative force.

Many minor touches from war movies help to create the special ambience of violence in JAWS. The enemy has no respect for women and children—they are, respectively, its first victims. No one is safe from the Shark’s sneak attack. By removing the Eller-Hooper affair from the script and concentrating on am all-male struggle against the invader, Spielberg follows a favorite cliché of war movies. Women remain on shore to welcome the conquering heroes. In World War II, mutilation, severed limbs, showers of blood were to be expected in skirmishes with “the diabolical Japanese, past masters at the art of torture.” The citizens of Amity are obviously in a war with an uncivilized, un-Christian enemy. Indeed, the scene in which the Shark throttles a young boy on his rubber raft and bathers head frantically for shore conjures up memories of similar scenes of chaotic running for cover in movies about the raid on Pearl Harbor. Though it may be stretching a point to draw this parallel, I suspect Spielberg wanted us to feel the same emotion of outrage toward the Shark’s devouring innocent victims as we do toward the stereotyped Japanese who were guilty of an equally dastardly “sneak attack.” Also, the use of floating drums to mark and slow the Shark duplicates the visual equivalent of depth charges when they are launched against a sub.

But what first made me think of the link with war films was not this invasion motif. The parallel struck me in the amazing last scene in which Brody, holding on for dear life to the mast of Quint’s sinking boat, pulls off the final round from his rifle and blows up the multi-harpooned villain. The reason the beast explodes, you will recall, is that the rifle bullet strikes a diver’s air tank resting just inside those powerful jaws. A lucky shot, I'm sure, but one which is not atypical of those made by U.S. sub commanders in such films as RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP. The air tank looks, moreover, like a torpedo, the Shark has the sire and sinister lines of a sub moving in for the kill. The immediate response of an audience trained in the style of this genre is to cheer wildly at an enemy ship’s annihilation. In fact the mindless killing force of the Shark is emphasized throughout JAWS in the same way as the killing machine aspect of a submarine—both are designed for no other purpose. We must also remember the propagandist treatment of Japanese sub commanders in cartoons and short subjects; they were invariably shown laughing satanically as they shot any survivors floundering In the water. In making this connection, I want to suggest that Spielberg was depending on his audience’s experience with sub-war movies to provide a thematic context in which to dramatize both the Shark’s obvious disdain for the rules of the Geneva Convention and Quint’s desire for a personal revenge against it.

Much of whet happens aboard Quint’s boat recalls the motifs of the “sub” genre. His saltiness is like that of a battle-hardened commander who drives his crew to a state of frenzy in order to prepare them for the big battle with an emery ship that has shot his last crew and sub from under him. Actually this role fits very neatly with the one assumed by Clark Gable in RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958). Gable practices his men day and night (until they believe he is nothing more then a chicken captain) so that they will become expert at delivering a “bow shot” (i.e., a surface torpedo hit on the bow of a target, no amidships) against a particularly lethal Japanese destroyer when it comes after their sub in the treacherous Bongo Straits. Gable believes this is the only way to destroy his nemesis and achieve the satisfactory revenge he seeks. As the plot develops a running battle grows up between Gable and Burt Lancaster, his popular executive officer, who believes Gable is becoming increasingly unstable and should be removed from command. At the moment of truth the ship’s crew, under Lancaster, performs brilliantly while Gable, who has been injured seriously, has nightmares about a telegraphic sound he cannot quite make out. As we quickly discover, a phantom Japanese sub has been following the U.S. boat, as it has all the others, and it moves in for the kill. However, the crew is again successful and the Bungo Straits is no longer known as the graveyard for U.S. subs.

While I am not claiming that Spielberg had this particular movie as his model for the last scene of JAWS, the bow shot delivered by Brody as his boat is sinking places him in a heroic stance similar to that of Lancaster in RUN SILENT. Both men must act with courage to save themselves and their crews (Hooper survives, you will recall). Yet they destroy the enemy not so much out of a desire for revenge but as a necessary act to safeguard the community. The vengeful hunters—Gable and Quint—are destroyed as much by their consuming hatred as by their opponents.

There are other intriguing suggestions of sub-war movie conventions in JAWS. Quint and Hooper jaw about various wounds they have received in battles with sharks during the all-night party before the final battle, clearly the best character-revealing scene in the film. The mood of the occasion recalls bull sessions in war films when the cynical veteran and the hot-shot recruit trade quips about each other’s abilities as soldiers. Much of the humor here smacks of military joking, the kind which belittles authority and values experience. It is during this bout of bravado that Quint recounts the chilling story of the sinking of the Indianapolis by a Japanese sub after the U.S. ship had delivered the atomic bomb to Tinian. The story is not in Benchley’s novel, but in the film it provides a clear justification for Quint’s fierce desire for revenge against the marauding shark. It is in his mind firmly linked to the diabolic enemy sub and the voracious shark pack that actually devoured many survivors from the Indianapolis. Then the sharks did what the Japanese normally do: eliminate survivors. A disturbing mood settles over the party as Hooper and Brody suddenly realize that in Quint they confront a force whose will is as dedicated to destruction as that of the shark they hunt.

It is also in this finely directed scene that we see the struggle between experience and inexperience. Quint’s intuitive knowledge of shark-hunting is set against Hooper’s bookish naiveté about the scientific value of the enemy. This struggle is a common one in many types of war movies, not just those of the “sub” genre (though Hooper’s plea for the cause of science usually comes out as a plea for the value of human life). The ironic fact hinted at in this scene, however, is that it will be Brody, the frightened, seasick landlubber, doing his duty and not joining in the booze-inspired boasting of Quint and Hooper, who must take command when the moment of truth comes. Again we recall a similar motif In war films in which the lieutenant is killed and an untested corporal or sergeant is called upon to lead his recruits into battle. Of course, ship captains who are plagued by self-doubt and guilt are legion in war movies: William Holden is just such a character-type in SUBMARINE COMMAND (1951), his indecision having caused the death of men under his command.

For the hunt itself, Spielberg may be inviting us to remember the cat and mouse maneuvering of another sub epic, THE ENEMY BELOW (1957). In this variation on the theme, subchaser captain Robert Mitchum and U-boat commander Curt Jergens develop mutual respect for one another’s instincts as they engage in a game of hide and seek in the Atlantic. (It may be instructive of our racist beliefs that the German sub commanders are always seem as deserving our grudging respect, while the Japanese are almost always depicted as fanatical.) As Mitchum, like Quint and his crew, lobs many lethal charges in the direction of his nemesis, the German sub manages somehow to escape, surface, and ram the chaser as a final act of patriotic defiance. Neither Jergens nor Mitchum are killed, but the two ships explode and sink before their battle weary eyes, and for a moment the enemies share a common ground. The mood is very close to that at the close of JAWS when Hooper and Brody gain new respect for one smother amidst the debris of the demolished beet.

As I watched the Shark play a deceptive game with its pursuers, THE ENEMY BELOW came immediately to mind. Just as Jergens’ sub maneuvers to avoid being detected, stops engines, then suddenly starts them, hides beneath Mitchum’s ship and unexpectedly surfaces, so the Shark exhibits the same craftiness in its battle with Quint. And when it is deeply hurt what does the beast do but ram the boat, seeking to devour its pursuer in one grand effort at victory. In precisely this manner, Spielberg locates a kind of objective correlative in the ramming scene to explain the Shark’s motive for swallowing Quint. Good suspense requires that two opponents in a life and death struggle have motives, and these two killers seek out each other with a relentlessness that resembles the vendettas of wartime sailors. To write off the running scene as an overdone attempt to cash in on MOBY DICK'S denouement is to ignore the equally supportable allusion to a film like THE ENEMY BELOW, where the nature of the confrontation is explained to the audience by the WW2 context. Brody’s bow shot is a lucky one to be sure, but its success could be predicted by an audience prepared in the war movie genre to believe that God and right are on the U.S. side. The shouts I heard in the theater as the Shark pieces showered into the water like shards of an enemy ship were exactly those I remember hearing as the black and white screen depicted the captain and crew of that archetypical Japanese sub scrambling to escape the rushing sea water that was taking them to the bottom for the last time.