Is Jaws just a film about a shark… or something else?

What is Steven Spielberg’s 1975 smash-hit actually about? Marxism? Masculinity? Or the bomb? Ben Dowell looks at some of the wilder theories...

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Jaws is 40 years old today – and many of us won’t forget the first time we saw that film about a seaside resort named Amity that is terrorised by a great white shark. Police chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Schneider in the film, orders the beaches to be closed, but the corrupt mayor and local businessmen insist they stay open – with tragic results.

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Brody then takes to the waters with professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to hunt down the shark and save the town.

Spielberg famously said that the movie is simply “a film about a shark” and has said that his main reason for making it was his own fear of swimming.

“I always thought that Jaws was kind of like an aquatic version of Duel,” he once said.

“It was once again about a very large predator, you know, chasing innocent people and consuming them – irrationally. It was an eating machine. At the same time, I think it was also my own fear of the water. I’ve always been afraid of the water, I was never a very good swimmer. And that probably motivated me more than anything else to want to tell that story.”

But many have disagreed.

So what are the theories? Sink your teeth into these. Some of them are hilarious.


It’s about Watergate

In the small town of Amity in Jaws, the Watergate scandal, which had just occurred, is played out in microcosm. Fearful of the drop in tourism, the Mayor (with Brody’s help early on) hides the truth about the shark attack that claimed the life of young Chrissie  (Susan Backlinie) at the beginning. Another child dies because of this lie. We are thus treated to scenes of Brody and the town officials hounded by the press, much as Nixon felt hounded by Woodward and Bernstein and the rest.


It’s about the atom bomb

The shark represents our fears about unrelenting and dehumanised killing machines.  The Cold War was at its height at the time. Simple really.


The shark us actually a sexual predator and serial killer

As with many serial killer films Spielberg places us in the shark’s perspective using underwater POV shots of bikini bodies and slender legs treading water. The killer watches and follows its prey, and then attacks with prolonged jabs, as if savouring the moment. The first victim Chrissie is not eaten straight away but bitten – as if the shark enjoyed it – so the theory goes.


No, it’s a parable about the need for order

Brody restores decency and order to the world – and he kills the shark. But while there is a corrupt Mayor this isn’t a story of the ordinary guy fighting back. It is a middle class white male fighting back and many see the film as essentially conservative as a result.

“Authority must be restored,” writes academic Peter Biskind, “but not by Quint”. The seaman’s “working class toughness and bourgeois independence is alien and frightening …”


It’s a straightforward morality tale

Critic Mark Kermode loves Jaws, which he sees as a classic monster movie “morality tale” in which the watery fate of victims is sealed because of the corruption and bad behaviour on land. But Spielberg has pooh poohed this. “The shark doesn’t care… It just wants to eat you!”


It represents three stand of humanity

Writer Neil Gabler says the films shows three different aspects of humanity attempting to solving an obstacle: science (represented by Hooper), spiritualism (represented by Quint), and the common man (represented by Brody). The last of the three is the most successful…


Other theories…

Some believe the shark represents alien menaces such as communism or the Third World to more personal dreads concerning the unreality of contemporary American life and the vain efforts to sanitise and suppress the knowledge of death. But we’ll leave them for the time being.

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What’s your Jaws theory? Or is it really just a film about a fish?