This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
Of all the things that unite us as human beings, one of the most prominent is fear. Fears vary from person to person, but they apply similar amounts of pressure; that is, they can make or break a person’s character. Steven Spielberg’s suspense classic Jaws (1975) is primarily a story about fear and Man’s response to it, which is what makes it such a timeless and relatable film. The characters of Chief Brody and Mayor Vaughn react to fear in different ways, which ultimately defines who they each are as men. While an exciting thriller at its core, Jaws can also be looked at as an inspiring plea for us each to resist cowardice and be heroes in the face of our fears both big and small.
When we first meet Chief Brody, he is relaxed and quite happy to be the police chief of Amity Island, where there has not been a serious crime in years. “Be careful,” his wife Ellen tells him as he goes into work. “Hah,” he responds, “In this town?” Brody soon realizes that just because a town is free from violent humans does not mean it is free from violent animals. He discovers the remains of a young lady named Chrissie washed up on the beach and concludes that a horrific shark attack has occurred.
The money-minded Mayor Vaughn refuses to officially acknowledge that Chrissie died at the jaws of a shark, as this would mean having to close the beaches right before the Fourth of July and generate public panic. He insists on reporting that it was simply a boating accident, nothing more. Brody is uncomfortable with this report, as he knows that it is likely false, but he bends to the mayor’s authority for now.
In one of the film’s most effective scenes, Brody sits on the crowded beach and nervously stares at all the people playing in the water, terrified that a shark will attack again and prove him to be a cowardly fool for caving to Mayor Vaughn. Sure enough, the swimmers soon coming running out of the water, as a shark has just killed a boy named Alex. Stricken with guilt at his fatal failure to stand up to Mayor Vaughn about closing the beaches in wake of Chrissie’s death, Brody resolves to take serious action before any more deaths occur.
On the surface, it may not seem that Jaws has anything deep or relevant to say on the topic of fear. After all, who among us is not at least somewhat afraid of sharks? But beyond the what, Jaws skillfully examines the how. How do Chief Brody and Mayor Vaughn’s fears hinder them from fully becoming the men they are called to be?
Chief Brody has feared the water for most of his life because of drowning concerns, and having a shark in the water only exacerbates this fear. The idea of Amity Island’s trademark peace being disrupted by a man-eating fish is so horrible that he does not want to believe it is true, hence the reason why he initially struggles to take initiative in protecting his community. Ultimately, Brody realizes that being paralyzed by fear prevents him from being the selfless hero his family and community need him to be, and so he bravely joins two other men in a sea quest to kill the shark.
Mayor Vaughn, on the other hand, initially fears losing summer dollars more than losing lives. This misplacement of priorities turns him into a dishonest and cowardly political leader, a status he only defies when a shark kills yet another person on the Fourth of July and creates a huge public panic. The difference between Chief Brody’s and Mayor Vaughn’s character transformation is that Chief Brody harnesses his fears and chooses heroism out of a sincere desire to do what is best for his community, while Mayor Vaughn merely succumbs to his newfound fear of further shark attacks out of a desire not to severely tarnish his own public reputation.
Resisting cowardice is a universal human struggle not limited to primal fears like sharks or drowning or losing money. Sometimes, being courageous simply means renouncing the comforts of our cozy couches and venturing out to do something meaningful and unselfish. Whatever we fear in our day-to-day lives, we always have the power to face it head-on and let it transform us into stronger people, just like Chief Brody becomes a better man by confronting what terrifies him the most.
Jaws stands the test of time because its heroes and villains are flesh-and-blood, relatable human beings. There is something strangely soothing about watching Chief Brody look the great white shark square in the eyes and say, “Smile, you son-of-a-bitch!” before blowing it to smithereens. We are given hope by the thought that if this aquaphobic, sometimes cowardly police chief can muster the courage to defeat a murderous sea beast, we too can be brave enough to defeat monsters of fear in our own lives that try to stop us from becoming the heroic men and women we are all called to be. Cowardice will bite each of us from time to time, but it need never devour us.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.