Oceans of Fear

by Chris Justice

13 Aug 2009

Robert Shaw as a freaked out Captain Quint inJaws 

Fishing and stories are inseparable: They share a symbiotic relationship that only the most dependent remora or pilot fish could appreciate (you know, those funky-looking fish that follow sharks everywhere). Without stories, fishing trips quickly recede into our memory’s darkest pools, teaching few lessons, and connecting us with Nothing.

With stories, fishing trips quickly resurface on our memory’s brightest pages, teaching many lessons, and connecting us with Everything. The same holds true of fish in general: the most impressive ones – dolphins, sharks, whales, etc. – appear under dramatic circumstances that not only need, but demand narratives to amplify their character, suspense, and wild brevity.

If those statements hold water, it’s not surprising why Steven Spielberg’s seminal 1975 masterpiece Jaws is arguably the most important fish tale in American popular culture. It spawned schools of copycats, from the respectable Orca: The Killer Whale to an assembly line of cheap, schlocky rip-offs. It revolutionized the way many perceive the ocean, swimming, beaches, and sharks. It ignited a commercial frenzy of shark-related merchandise and paraphernalia and closed a door on the independent, low-budget, avant-garde strains of the American New Wave.

cover art

Jaws (30th Anniversary Edition)

US DVD: 14 Jun 2005

Jaws also infiltrated American culture with an armada of propaganda and misinformation about the ocean’s most important predator.

However, part of the film’s legacy lost in that bewildering whirlwind is this: it abounds with provocative fish tales. Essentially, Jaws is a fish story about fish stories. And the most important tale in Jaws is Captain Quint’s haunting, iconic yarn about the U.S.S. Indianapolis. His story, and the uncharacteristic solemnity in which he narrates it, is the greatest modern fish tale ever told.

Why is Quint’s tale so important and impressive?

A few answers immediately emerge, and the first is exposure. Think of how many filmgoers know the story, listening to the crusty captain while gripping their seat cushions in a deluge of ichthyologic fright. Another is the fact that Jaws is one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful films: it was directed by one of America’s most popular directors and featured two of the decade’s Hollywood heavyweights: Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. The tale was told among elite company.

Furthermore, Robert Shaw’s performance is as good as it gets for ‘70s cinema. Few actors have been better cast than Shaw was in Jaws. It’s impossible to think of anyone else playing Quint other than the curmudgeonly Shaw, and his talent shines brightest when narrating the legend of the Indianapolis.

More importantly, Quint’s tale serves numerous purposes because it’s central to the film’s narrative structure. One striking feature is how well the solemnity and reverence that characterize Quint’s tale are juxtaposed against the film’s chaos and verbal confusion. Although disharmony defines the dynamics among Quint, Hooper, and Chief Brody, Quint’s tale is highlighted by a refreshing sense of harmony.

Before the tale is told, the three men joke drunkenly in a rare moment of fun. During the story, Quint addresses the marine biologist as “Mr.” Hooper, a sign of respect during this moment of mutually understood graveness and a blatant departure from his typical barks of “Hooper!”

After the story’s conclusion, the three men sing in unison, something unimaginable prior to the tale. Although their unity is short-lived, and although Quint and Hooper antagonize each other throughout the film, their momentary solidarity is a sign that the shark – and Quint’s narrative – transformed them, bringing these stoic men emotionally closer.

Prior to Quint’s tale, stories ripen and open these men’s hearts. Before the Indianapolis resurfaces, Quint and Hooper trade “scar stories”. Hooper reveals a scar and narrates a tale about a bull shark that bit him on the leg; Quint does the same about a thresher shark that also bit his. Brody then looks at his stomach scars, presumably from a surgical procedure, but they don’t match the masculine bravado Quint and Hooper demonstrate.

Interestingly, it’s this display of bravado that simultaneously unites and distances Quint and Hooper. They share numerous similarities: mutual obsessions, leg scars, and one glorified objective: they’re searching – although for dramatically different reasons – for the same monstrous great white.

They also share an epic initiation story that launched their “shark hunting” careers. For Quint, it’s the Indianapolis; for Hooper, it’s when he was 12-years-old, not far offshore in a small boat, when a thresher shark ravaged his watercraft.

However, although both initiation stories are suspenseful, their differences reveal much about these men: Quint’s epic experience was profoundly tragic and occurred as an adult during wartime among hundreds of men; Hooper’s epic experience resulted in a happy ending as an adolescent during a moment of solitary recreation. Hooper became a solitary man working independently among a community of scholars; Quint was a naval officer working in communion with sailors who became an independent shark hunter. Essentially, sharks turned Hooper toward society; sharks turned Quint away.

Equally interesting during these “scar” stories is that Hooper twice refers to women to lighten the somber tone. Describing a wound on his chest, Hooper sophomorically suggests that a young lady – Mary Ellen Moffitt – produced his greatest scar: a broken heart. He also wonders if Quint’s tattoo states, “Mother”. Stories of man vs. shark are juxtaposed against stories of man vs. women, and in both instances it appears that for Hooper, ironically, women are the greater challenge.

Quint remains silent about these references to women, a sign that as the alpha male they don’t faze him, which his tale about the Indianapolis amplifies. Amidst danger and reminiscing about former relationships with women, the men bond further.

Hooper and Brody’s responses to Quint’s tale reveal just how sacred and reverential the legend of the Indianapolis was, is, and can be. When Hooper hears the “U.S.S. Indianapolis”, he is immediately aroused and hooked, as if Quint uttered some magical incantation or “code” about sharks. At the story’s end, the usually vocal Hooper is stunned and speechless. He knows the Indianapolis is a fish tale that can silence – like the great white shark itself – all of its competitors.

The scene’s composition is equally pivotal. If each character is an allegorical figure representing some type of legal authority – Hooper is scientific law; Quint is natural law, best understood through experience; and Brody is manmade law delivered through jurisprudential means – then it’s clear the film’s ethos argues that natural law is the most powerful. Even Hooper at one point states, “Nature has no conscience.”

In this classic scene, Hooper occupies the background, suggesting that science will take a back seat in this epic struggle. Quint is in the foreground, suggesting the most authoritative “law” is natural law, and the best way to know it is through first-hand experience. The camera only cuts intermittently to Brody, suggesting that manmade law is irrelevant or subordinate to the scene’s primary players. Jaws reminds us that scientific knowledge and manmade law cannot compete with Nature.

From Ocean of Fear

From Ocean of Fear

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