Chief Martin Brody is the "everyman"—the character with whom the audience can most easily identify. No special powers, no genius; just a good guy with common sense doing his job the best he can.
He's also one-third of Jaws' triple entente of Brody/Hooper/Quint.
While Hooper represents science and Quint represents tradition, Brody fills the role of law and order (makes sense, what with him being a police chief and all). Though Brody/law and order is at first unable to stop the shark's killing spree, with help from Hooper/science and Quint/tradition, it's ultimately Brody who's brought to a final showdown with the shark.
It's the ultimate good guy vs. bad guy face-off.
He may be the Chief, but as someone not born on the island, Brody's an outsider. Recently arrived from New York, he doesn't know much about island living and is still learning the ins and outs of life in Amity. His fear of water makes him even more of an outsider than he already was with the islanders. It's a definite hindrance in his job and a constant source of anxiety. It's the running joke of the film, but sometimes it's not so funny. During Alex Kintner's attack on the beach, while other parents (including Ellen) run into the waves to grab their children, Brody stays planted on the shore, gesturing frantically but unable to enter the water.
Vaughn throws Brody's outsider-ness in his face every time the two face off. He repeats over and over that "It's your first summer, y'know" and says that Brody's not "familiar with our problems!" The Brodys are well aware that they're not part of the cool kids. The first conversation they have together references how different their New York accents are from Amity's. When Ellen asks when she (and her family) will get to call themselves islanders, the answer from a local is good-natured but emphatic: "Never!"
It's partially because Brody feels like such a fish out of water—a New Yorker in a cliquey New England island town, an aquaphobe on an island—that he's unable to muster the courage to overrule Vaughn's orders before the pond attack. Only after the fourth attack does Brody really swing into action.
For a Chief of Police on an island, Brody's got a laundry list of failings. Let's take a look:
One writer goes so far as to say that Brody isn't a man at all for much of the film: He's a child, his authority ignored and his skills ridiculed. On the Orca, he's the helpless kid doing the nastiest chores and trying to win the approval of his bickering "parents," Quint and Hooper (source). In sum, the guy's got plenty of room for improvement in the traditional manliness department. In fact, that's really what this movie is about, in a way—Brody's redemption as a man.
But with all these shortcomings, he's our guy and we root for him. He's likable, fair, well-intentioned, and willing to admit what he doesn't know. The Fairness in Shmoopcasting Law requires us to present Chief Brody's good qualities after we've humiliated the guy with our list of his weaknesses, so here's the opposing viewpoint.
Brody's a protector. We assume he went into the police business because of a desire to serve and protect, and we definitely see that in his role of Chief in Amity. Maybe New York was a bit much for him, but he says he came to Amity because…
BRODY: […] in Amity, one man can make a difference.
He takes his job seriously. As soon as he gets the medical examiner's call about Chrissie, he orders the beaches closed. When Vaughn balks at closing the beaches, he reminds him:
BRODY: I'm responsible for public safety around here.
Brody fails miserably at that task at first… oops, we're supposed to be talking about his strong points. Okay, then.
Even more than a policeman, Brody's a husband and father whose first responsibility is toward his family. That's important because it means he has same concerns that most of the people in the audience have. He hints that the main reason the Brodys moved to Amity was to get the kids out of New York City:
BRODY: […] violence, rip-offs, muggings… Kids can't leave the house, you gotta walk 'em to school.
His concern over a broken swing set in the very first scene sets up Brody's preoccupation with his family's safety. After the shark attack, he insists that Michael sail in the pond rather than in the ocean, and he rushes to Michael's side after the shark attack in the pond. Until that pond scene Brody's concern with the shark is mainly a professional responsibility. But now… it's personal. He finally finds his nerve:
BRODY: You got a pen? […] You're gonna sign this voucher so I can hire a contractor.
VAUGHN: I can't… I don't, I don't know if I can do that without the clearance.
BRODY: You're gonna hire Quint to kill the shark.
VAUGHN: Aug… August…
BRODY: What? What? Larry, what are you talking about? The summer's over! You're the mayor of shark city! These people think you want the beaches open!
VAUGHN: I was… I was… I was acting in the… the town's best interest. I thought I was acting in the town's best interest.
BRODY: That's right you were acting in the town's best interest. And that's why you're gonna do the right thing. That's why you're gonna sign this and we're gonna pay that guy what he wants.
From this point on, he's a man on a mission.
To his credit, when his family's directly threatened, Brody puts the mayor in his place, closes the beaches, saddles up, and assembles his shark-hunting team. Despite his fear of the water, he accompanies Quint and Hooper on the Orca. There, he's even more out of place than he was in Amity. He clearly never got his seamanship merit badge. He can't tie knots, safely handle equipment, steer the boat, or do much of anything other than throw fish guts overboard. As Hooper and Quint swap manly stories about their war wounds, the only thing he has to show is an appendectomy scar.
Brody's the one who gets the first look at the huge shark, and it sure doesn't help his dislike of the ocean:
BRODY: [looking shell-shocked] You're gonna need a bigger boat.
Brody's knows he's no sailor or shark expert, so he accepts his secondary role on the hunt and does what he's told. But, being blessed with common sense, the Chief goes against Quint's wishes and tries to radio for help when it's clear that this shark isn't going to go down without a serious fight. Quint reasserts his authority by smashing the radio to pieces.
But before long Quint and Hooper realize that all their weapons are powerless against the shark, and Brody literally and figuratively straps on his holster. Time for the lawman to restore the peace.
Brody's journey reaches its climax when he's left alone to fight off the shark aboard the rapidly sinking Orca. He's just witnessed Quint being jawed to death and he thinks Hooper's dead, too. Clinging to the sinking and swaying mast, and making inventive use of tools Quint and Hooper left behind, Brody finally kills the shark with a compressed air tank and a well-aimed bullet. He goes from the scared, clueless landlubber to the manly shark hunter—nay, the sea monster killer; nay, the aquatic dragon slayer! As he and Hooper kick toward home in the final scene, Brody says,
BRODY: I think the tide's with us.
HOOPER: Keep kicking.
BRODY: I used to hate the water.
HOOPER: I can't imagine why.
Somehow we think the Chief will be accepted as an "islander" by the Amity folks when he gets back to shore.
Matt Hooper, a shark expert from "the oceanographic institute on the mainland," is a loveable, charismatic, cocky know-it-all who represents institutional money and the latest scientific knowledge of the day. He's been obsessed with sharks since age 12, and he's the main vehicle for teaching the audience about Sharks 101. He's also an expert sailor, having piloted yachts, pleasure boats, and scientific craft.
Cutting open a shark is just another day at the office for Hooper.
He and Brody join forces to defeat both the bureaucracy of Amity and the shark that's been preying on the swimmers and boaters. His fancy education and rich family make him an outsider like Brody, as does his rational approach to the shark problem in the midst of some pretty irrational people.
Hooper knows everything in the book about sharks, and he sports scars from previous encounters with dangerous animals. He's also young (like the field of shark study itself), which makes him fearless—maybe even a little naïve—and headstrong, with at least a hint of scientific hubris. He tells Brody,
HOOPER: You're going to be the only rational man left on this island after I leave.
He can't believe how reckless everyone is being, especially the amateur fisherman who are convinced they're going to catch a shark but can't even drive a boat:
HOOPER: Uh, you know those eight guys in the fantail launch out there?
HOOPER: Well, none of them are going to get out of the harbor alive.
On land, Hooper acts as both Brody's guide to the shark world and his conscience, prodding him to defy Vaughn and solve the shark problem. Unlike Brody, Hooper has no problem confronting the mayor about being a total idiot.
VAUGHN: I don't think either one of you are familiar with our problems.
HOOPER: I think I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and BITES YOU ON THE ASS! […] That's it! Goodbye! I'm not going to waste my time arguing with a man who's lining up to be a hot lunch!
Hooper and Brody form a strong bond that's tested at sea when Hooper chafes as Quint lords it over him. The Hooper vs. Quint conflict is one of the major plotlines in the film. Both men are brash and confident. But Hooper represents the youthful idea that technology will solve all our problems (some things never change), and Quint's the old guy who relies on traditional methods and age-old wisdom. It's intellect vs. instinct, the generation gap, technology vs. the natural world.
Hooper arrives on the scene loaded with expensive scientific equipment and a tricked-out boat, all underwritten by his personal wealth.
BRODY: Do you get the late show on this thing?
HOOPER: No, it's a closed circuit TV system. I have underwater cameras fore and aft.
BRODY: Who pays for all this stuff? The government? The Institute? This stiff costs a lot of money?
HOOPER: Well, I, uh, I paid for this stuff mostly myself actually.
Hooper's enthusiasm for techie solutions is coupled with a rich kid's sense of entitlement, which sometimes lets him take things a bit too far. At one point, he orders Brody to walk way out to the end of the pulpit of the boat (the railing at the very front of the boat) just to get a photograph that shows the scale. That's chutzpah.
Hooper is brave, no doubt about it. Going into that shark cage, knowing the size and power of the shark? Hats off to him. He's scared spitless, but he does it anyway once Quint realizes that the gang's options against the shark are getting limited. The shark destroys the cage in about two seconds. Score: Natural World 1, Technology 0. (Well, give technology some credit for getting Hooper about of this scenario alive He's wearing scuba gear that keeps him underwater until the shark's blown up.)
For all his youthful bravado and presumptuousness, we love Hooper and we're glad that Spielberg decided not to kill him off. He's smart, direct, brave, and has a wicked sense of humor. In the end, he comes to deeply appreciate Quint, especially after he listens to Quint's story about the Indianapolis. We like to think he was humbled by his experience on the Orca, but we think he left the shark business afterwards to become obsessed with UFOs.
If Hooper is the Han Solo of Jaws, Quint is the Obi-Wan Kenobi. Only instead of a light saber, Quint has a harpoon gun. Instead of using the Force, Quint uses tried-and-true fishing traditions. And instead of a kindly, white-bearded old Jedi, Quint is a borderline crazy sea skipper with a serious beef with all shark-kind.
Film reviewers tend to describe him as "salty." So… yeah.
He introduces himself like this:
QUINT: Y'all know me. Know how I earn a livin'. I'll catch this bird for you, but it ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish. […] This shark, swallow you whole. Little shakin', little tenderizin', an' down you go. And we gotta do it quick, that'll bring back your tourists, put all your businesses on a payin' basis. But it's not gonna be pleasant. I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, Chief. I'll find him for three, but I'll catch him, and kill him, for ten. […] I don't want no volunteers, I don't want no mates, there's just too many captains on this island. $10,000 for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.
One confident guy.
Quint, played by legendary British actor Robert Shaw, is everything that Brody and Hooper are not. Whereas Brody's a family man, Quint's a bachelor who broke his arm while "celebrating [his] third wife's demise" and endlessly spouts bawdy jokes. (Who could forget, "Here's to swimmin' with bowlegged women!"?) Hooper depends upon science and technology. Quint's too cool for all that newfangled stuff. Brody wants to get help, or at least a bigger boat, and get home in one piece. Quint seems obsessed with defeating the shark on his own; he smashes the radio when Brody tries to call for backup and pushes the Orca beyond its capacity.
Quint's relationship with sharks, now that you mention it, is probably what sets him apart from the others. To Brody, sharks are a frightening mystery. To Hooper, they're fascinating objects of scientific interest and respect. Quint, on the other hand, hates them—straight up, deep down, passionately hates them. His tortured history, revealed during his monologue about the USS Indianapolis, helps the audience understand his seemingly insane actions aboard the Orca.
The defining moment for Quint's character development in Jaws is the USS Indianapolis monologue. It came into being after several screenwriters wrote versions of the speech before Robert Shaw (who was a playwright as well as an actor) wrote the final version.
Prompted by Brody's question about a scar on his arm, Quint describes his experience on the Indianapolis in June of 1945, on its way home from delivering "the Hiroshima bomb." Japanese torpedoes hit the ship, which sank in 12 minutes, sending 900+ men into the water. Sharks killed hundreds of his crewmates in front of his very eyes as they waited for days to be rescued.
Quint glares ahead during almost the entire speech, as if replaying the memories in his head. Sometimes he's grimacing; sometimes he cracks a twisted smile at jarringly gory points of the story. The audience quickly sees that Quint is deeply haunted by the experience. He's on an intimate basis with those sharks:
QUINT: Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces.
As horrible as that image is, somehow this statement is just as chilling:
QUINT: You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again.
Quint keeps that promise. When it looks like the great white might be the end of the Orca and its crew, he hands Hooper and Brody life vests, but doesn't put one on himself. He'd rather drown than be ripped apart.
The Indianapolis monologue accomplishes a couple of things. First, it provides Quint's motivation for his obsession with sharks—and killing this particular one—and his refusal to call for help when the Orca is damaged. But it also makes him a more sympathetic character. If he'd only been the demeaning, raunchy, bossy, provocative guy we knew before the monologue, then his death wouldn't have been so affecting. Gory and horrifying, sure, but not as sad.
Quint escaped the sharks in 1945, but they finally catch up to him. Quint's death is the last one in the movie, and the most prolonged and graphic. In the book, Quint is accidentally dragged by a harpoon rope into the water and drowned (just like Ahab in Moby Dick). Spielberg thought that wasn't dramatic enough—thus the more Jaws-y movie death, as he slowly slides down toward the shark's snapping jaws and is bitten in half as he desperately stabs the shark and tries to fight it off. As Quint screams in terror and agony, we can't help but think about how he cheated death after the USS Indianapolis incident but succumbed in the end. It's much more tragic than if he had just drowned.
Although Jaws has a trio of fantastic leading men, there's no doubt that the star of the show is the shark. It's on the movie posters. The title of the movie is, obviously, a reference to it (in fact, many people think "Jaws" is the name of the shark). And it's the thing everyone came to the theater to see, even if it's currently "between projects," as they say.
Although the shark is famously portrayed—in true movie monster fashion—by three animatronic sharks, it's also portrayed with real footage of great whites in Australia, giving the film at least a small element of documentary realism. The scene of a shark tearing apart Hooper's empty cage is one example. In fact, although this shark just happened to swim by and get tangled in the cage, the director loved the footage so much that he made a serious plot change so he could use the footage. Since the cage was empty at the time the real shark attacked it, Hooper had to have escaped. So they decided against killing off Hooper, which had been in the original script like it was in the novel (source).
Granted, the 25-foot shark in Jaws is much larger than a typical great white shark; they usually max out at around 20 feet long (source). But such a shark could in theory exist in real life, which makes the idea much scarier than, say, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which could not (we hope).
What about the shark makes it such a captivating character? We think it's in Spielberg's deft parallel portrayal of the shark as both a ferocious animal and a terrifying, otherworldly monster.
The shark is, obviously, a shark—an animal documented and classified by marine biologists across the world, not some kind of alien or mutant or tentacled monster. Hooper gives us the basic shark lifestyle info:
HOOPER: Look, the situation is that apparently, a Great White Shark has staked a claim in the waters off Amity Island, and he's going to continue to feed here as long as there is food in the water […] A shark is attracted to the exact kind of splashing and activity that occurs whenever human beings go in swimming. You cannot avoid it. […] what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all.
The idea that a shark might prey on people is unfortunately but solidly grounded in reality. As one of a relatively few animals known to be man-eaters, sharks understandably fascinate people and scare them to death. During the opening credits, as the camera follows the shark's POV as it pushes through a forest of seaweed, it feels like we're watching a tiger stalking through the jungle. But it's just instinct and survival, just what sharks do, not malicious, planned, or vengeful.
Still, the shark in Jaws is also more than just a shark. This becomes clear from the first attack, where we don't actually see an inch of him. The fact that the shark isn't onscreen for much of the movie was a combination of serendipity (malfunctioning animatronics) and calculated mystery. In the case of the first attack, Spielberg said, "I really wanted to do it without seeing the shark […] I wanted the violent jerking motions to just start to trigger our imaginations into either thinking about what's happening below the surface of the waterline or blocking what was happening below the surface." Carl Gottlieb added, "In 1975 nobody had seen a big shark like that in a movie. Ever. We were able to hold it back [while still showing] the evidence of his strength, and the blood, and death that he caused" (source).
As a result, during that first scene, for all the audience knows Chrissie Watkins is getting tossed around by a ghost or King Kong or a dinosaur. Her attack looks like a demonic possession as much as anything, what with the screaming and thrashing and almost levitation-like effects. The shark's portrayal as an evil, menacing spirit is reinforced when Hooper compares it to Jack the Ripper. And when the shark rams the Orca, interrupting the men's singing, the effect is much like what we would see in a haunted house movie: banging floorboards, flickering lights, clattering cupboards, smashing glass, and spreading fire.
This shark isn't just hungry; he's seems to be a fish on a mission. It's as if he's trying to get revenge on the crew of the Orca and specifically on Quint, who's been killing sharks his whole life. It's this angle that's drawn comparison between Jaws and Moby Dick. Any ordinary shark would probably have concluded that the best option would be to get as far away from this boat and its harpoons as possible. Instead, it toys with the Orca, swimming underneath it, towing it out to sea, relentlessly and methodically returning and attacking until it gets its retribution. It's as if it has an intelligent and diabolical plan.
Look closely, and you'll find lots of other descriptions of the shark that scream "supernatural."
QUINT: You know the thing about a shark. He's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white.
After the shark manages to submerge with three barrels, Hooper asks:
HOOPER: You ever had one do this before?
QUINT: I don't know…
HOOPER: He's chasing us! I don't believe it!
So is the shark of this earth? Or something more? The short answer might be "yes," and that's got to be why he gives us the heebie-jeebies. That and those big ol' pearly whites of his.
This just in: Reports have reached Shmoop suggesting that Bruce the Shark resented having so little screen time in the film and managed to protest by photobombing another shark actor's 15 minutes of fame.
Mayor Vaughn is such an interesting character that we've decided to just post a transcript from an interview that Shmoop recorded with him the last time we were vacationing on Amity Island.
Shmoop: Larry. Larry, Larry, Larry… Buddy. You were so preoccupied with preserving Amity's summer resort town charm that you refused to acknowledge your shark problem until it had already killed four people and one dog. Poor Pippet. He was such a good dog. So young. So full of life. What do you have to say for yourself?
Vaughn: Yes, I deeply regret my decisions. I let the victims' families down. I let the whole Amity community down, and I'm truly sorry. Amity, as you know, means friend—
Shmoop: Don't you gimme that line, Larry!
Shmoop: Don't you dare!
Vaughn: I—I'm sorry. I just—
Shmoop: People died, Larry. Because of your actions, people died!
Vaughn: Look, what was I supposed to do, Shmoop? We depend for our very lives on the summer dollars that—
Shmoop: Your very lives? Your very lives, Larry? Are you kidding me? Are you—
Vaughn: Are you even an islander? Are you familiar with our problems? Listen, if people can't swim here they'll be more than happy—
Shmoop: You know what people depend on for their very life, Larry? Not getting eaten by sharks! People were eaten alive by this—
Vaughn: —to swim at Cape Cod, Long—
Shmoop: CHRISSIE WATKINS!
Vaughn: —Island, The Hamptons—
Shmoop: ALEX KINTNER!
Vaughn: Shut up! You shut your mouth! We had never had that kind of trouble—
Shmoop: BEN GARDNER!
Vaughn: —in these waters, and I thought I was acting in the best interests of the town, and—
Shmoop: PIPPET! QUINT! THE GUY IN THE RED ROWBOAT—
Vaughn: MY KIDS WERE ON THAT BEACH TOO! (sobbing sounds)
Shmoop: Hey, Larry…
Vaughn: (sobbing continues)
Shmoop: Larry, sorry man…
Vaughn: (big sniffle) It's just… What was I supposed to do? I was caught between a rock and a hard place. (sniffle) Or, between a shark and economic ruin. If I close the beaches, I lose my job, the townspeople lose their livelihood, and Amity as we know it becomes a thing of the past. And Chief Brody… I didn't even know the guy. It was his first summer, y'know. Anyway, I know I messed up. I just wish people would understand that I had my reasons. We all had our reasons. Whew, man. Feels good to get that off my chest.
Shmoop: Thanks, Larry. Thank you for sharing that. It must have been hard. You were under a lot of pressure. Competing interests and all that.
Vaughn: Yes. Thank you.
Shmoop: So let's talk about your anchor pattern coat.
Vaughn: Okay. Yes, well, they don't make them like that anymore…
The interview continues for some time, but we think you get the idea. What do you think? Do you buy the idea that Mayor Vaughn's a complicated character in a difficult situation? Or is he just a corporate weasel?
Ellen, Michael, and Sean establish Chief Brody as an everyday family man devoted to his kids and still in love with his wife.
Sean, the baby, is the personification of innocence and childhood as he plays in the sand and sings, "Do you know the muffin man?" And the scene in which he mimics his dad (how cute is that?) endears Brody to the audience.
Michael, the older son, is the adventurous youth whose boyhood play—and his life—is directly threatened by the shark, propelling Brody to get over his fear of water and set out on the Orca.
And Ellen's flirting, fussing, and worrying over her husband make the audience love, care for, and worry about him too. These three are Brody's insurance policy against the shark, because Spielberg knew that if Brody was killed the audience would revolt.
The shark's first victim is a classic bathing beauty. This scene owes much to a similar scene from 1954's Creature from the Black Lagoon. In classic horror movie fashion, she's killed when she runs off for a tryst with a boy. Bad idea—didn't she know about that horror movie trope? Here's a picture of the very alive Chrissie and her director preparing for the scene.
The shark's youngest victim (other than maybe Pippet, the dog, whose age is difficult to ascertain) is a boy at the beach with his mother. His death is among the most jarring of the film because it's the first one that Brody could/should have prevented. But it doesn't come without warning. Can you spot any clues that it will be Alex, and not some other beachgoer, who's about to be shark lunch?
The guy whose head floats through the hole in the hull is the same guy who brought Hooper to the island and the same guy who complains about the irresponsible fishermen hunting for the shark. When they catch the tiger shark, Brody immediately assumes that it was Gardner who caught it. And Brody recognized his boat right away when they come upon its wreck. All of this establishes that he was a well-known and well-liked fisherman, so what does that say about the shark? He can defeat even the good fisherman, not just the foolish guys in their little boats.
Poor Rowboat Guy, just trying to help Michael Brody and his friends with their sailboat. Leading up to the attack, does Spielberg drop any clues that he's a goner?
He's the Shark's biggest catch. It almost seems he has a score to settle with Quint for all the sharks Quint's killed in his career. What is there about Quint's death that's different from the rest of the victims?