What Do the "Jaws" Movie and WWII Have in Common?

Or put differently, what does the Jaws shark symbolize?



This question is worth asking because Jaws taps into troubling questions about stereotypes, war, and culture.

The obvious place to start is the scene where Quint, the fisherman, describes the shark attacks that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine.


Quint says, "Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. It was comin' back from the island of Tinian Delady. Just delivered the bombthe Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour."

For anyone who knows WWII history, it's obvious that Quint is referring to real events, the actual sinking of the Indianapolis after it delivered the atomic bomb. It's less obvious that Quint is creating an unconscious equation between sharks and Japanese soldiers. What Quint says 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'"could just as well have been describing the WWII American stereotype of the "inscrutable" Japanese soldier with lifeless eyes. Furthermore, through such stereotypes, both the shark and the Japanese soldier were made out to be an enemy that suddenly attacks the nation on its own soil (the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor, like Amityville being attacked on the 4th of July), and, more specifically, a relentless enemy that hides in the water (a Japanese submarine, the shark attacking Amityville).

Japanese Submarine, 1941. Flickr, Marion Doss.






Shark fin. Flickr, Anita363.

Part of the power of Jaws, then, is that it allows Americans to explore their complicated feelings about war and cultural stereotypes. If the film had been explicitly about WWII, it probably wouldn't have reached as many people.. But as a movie about sharks, some viewersthe ones who unconsciously resonate with such symbolismare allowed to reflect on some of the most terrible, confusing aspects of "the Good War."

In particular, when the shark gets blown to pieces at the end of the movie, viewers are encouraged to feel that such destruction was necessary—while in real life polls show that Americans have felt increasingly conflicted and regretful about dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. Even those Americans who felt that dropping the bomb was necessary may have later recognized, at some deep uncomfortable level, that Americans lost the moral high ground when we killed thousands of women and children. Killing all those civilians, we violated a basic moral rule that had been in place throughout our entire history as a nation. Of course, many Americans don't like to talk about this ethical problembut most do like watching this movie and rooting for the destruction of a shark that was hellbent on killing us, including our children.
Hiroshima bomb cloud, U.S. government photo.

Jaws ending.


Recognizing the Shark
It gets even more complicated when you consider American attitudes toward German soldiers in WWII. For example, here's what one American soldier remembered about a battle on the front lines near Cologne, Germany:

"We were passing the Germans we killed. Looking at the individual German dead, each took on a personality. These were no longer an abstraction. These were no longer the Germans of the brutish faces and the helmets we saw in the newsreels. They were exactly our age. These were boys like us. ...Once the helmet is off, you're looking at a teenager, another kid." Robert Rasmus, interview reprinted in Studs Terkel's book The Good War: An Oral History of WWII.

This soldier's story sounds like Quint's points about the shark's eyeshow they seem "lifeless," or as this soldier put it, like "an abstraction." German soldiers with helmets that hide their eyes also fit Quint's image of the shark, which is the underlying stereotype of all enemies in modern Western warfare: lifeless, inhuman, animalistic.

U.S. wartime poster, 1942, Office of Emergency Management..

But as noted by the American soldier, all this changes when the enemy helmet comes off, when you get up close and see that the supposed monsters are just teenage boys like you. Quint notes this same type of sudden switch in perspective when he says, "Until he [the shark] bites 'ya and those black eyes roll over white..."

In other words, Jaws and WWII both create strange oscillations between media stereotypes and individual personalities, abstract concepts and real beings. The shark seems dead but then you realize how alive he is...just before he kills you; WWII enemy soldiers seem like abstractions, but then you realize they're humans...just before you kill them.


Hope for Humanity?

I find it comforting to hear the American soldier (Rasmus) say he eventually recognized the humanity of the German soldiers.

American helping wounded German soldier, 1944. Army Surgeon General, National Archives and Records Administration.
Unfortunately, such recognition of common humanity happened less often between American and Japanese soldiers, apparently due to racial biases and the brutality of the fighting in the Pacific, but I would hope that such biases are being left behind by now.

Anyone want to suggest other stories of soldiers who have recognized the enemy's humanity? I like those stories.

Further Reading:
My post about USS Indianapolis Survivors and Their Tears

Does the Jaws shark have the eyes of God?

Robert Willson Jump Cut journal article, where he explores the resonance between Jaws and submarine movies.

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