Steven Spielberg burst onto the theatrical film scene with the original summer blockbuster, Jaws. When one normally reads a review of that movie, it is framed—for reason I simply do not get—in terms of a horror movie. I’ve never really gotten why Jaws makes list of scariest movies ever. Of course, that famous movie about the shark attacking Amity Island also lends itself quite well to a psychological reading of the text, placing the shark within its confines as a horror movie character as the Other that must be destroyed or annihilated before its threat to the normalcy of society succeeds in tearing it apart. But I reject that reading as being far too facile.
Better, I think, is to take the shark at its most contemporary symbolic. What do we call a salesperson who preys upon the witless dupes who don’t know any better? Yeah, a shark. A shark is someone—often a lawyer—who has no scruples and looks out only for himself. In other words, join me now: a capitalist! But a Marxist critique of Jaws must dig much deeper than mere symbolism. How? By coming up on shore to look for sharks. Let’s face facts, the real villain—the truly frightening creature—in the movie isn’t the shark. The shark, after all, isn’t acting out of malice, but only survival. He is pure instinct, going to where the food is. On the other hand, take the Mayor. This guy is the real shark here; he cares not a wit about the fact that a man-eating shark is terrorizing the island, gobbling up naked girls here and little boys there (even the death of a little dog doesn’t bother this dude). What is really at stake for the Mayor in Jaws isn’t the loss of population, but the loss of summer profits. I come from an area where it’s summer ten months out of the year. It always amazed me that the summer season on Amity Island didn’t even seem to start until July 4th. But now, of course, I realize that winter weather presents a very small window of opportunity that far north. You either make your money during that window or you die.
That small window for profits is all-important to the Mayor in Jaws. His job depends upon getting re-elected and in turn that chance for re-election depends not upon keeping the population at full number, but on making sure those cash register ring and ring throughout the summer season. That, in a nutshell, is what Marxist critique is all about; following the money and finding how economics drives the narrative. A shark in the water doesn’t make for a great movie; witness the multiple sequels. Yes, there is much to be said for the fact that the original bears the talents of Spielberg, Dreyfuss, and Shaw, but ultimately what turns the original from a rather mindless updating of the 1950s style beast from the fathoms type movie is the introduction of a dramatic dialectic that posits two opposing interests against each other. There is the humanistic concern of Chief Brody and Matt Hooper and then there is the capitalist interests of the business owners and the Mayor. It is here where the true genius of Jaws lies.
One of the film’s audience members who recognized the Marxist critique of capitalist interests that drive the conflict at the center of Jaws was Fidel Castro himself. It is said that Castro told Francis Ford Coppola that Jaws was one the best American movies he’d ever seen, containing as it did a strong indictment of the moral chasm at the heart of the free enterprise system. Even the ending presents a celebration of liberalism over conservativism. In the end it isn’t the capitalist entrepreneur Captain Quint who kills the shark and saves the town, it’s slightly more liberal Chief Brody and the seriously more liberal Matt Hooper who swim triumphantly toward the shore as they wonder what day it is.
That day, in fact, is one of reckoning. Jaws contains the irony of being one of the most commercially successful films ever while condemning the very excesses for which it is celebrated.