Movie Music Moment: Jaws ("Man Against Beast")

"Man Against Beast" by John Williams

as seen/heard in

Jaws (1975)


The effect is spine tingling. Two notes, practically lurking beyond our line of sight – hidden terrifyingly behind the dark waters of cinema and our own imaginations.  This is John Williams’ magnificent contribution to our deepest fears in the shape of a man-eating shark.

Released almost 40 years ago, this man vs. beast tale harkens back to the tales of Beowulf and St. George & The Dragon. The noble adventurer taking on the savage beast. Spielberg may receive much of the credit for the success of Jaws in bringing back the blockbuster to American cinemas, but I wish to debate that this cinematic turning point was as much John Williams’ influence as his cinema-making counterpart.

The entire first half of the film is presented as a horror film. Dark shadows and mist throughout the night scenes (including one of the most terrifying openings ever filmed), unknown terrors and scenes of panic. However, it is this scene that provides the story’s turn –what could have been a one-dimensional horror story into what is now considered one of cinema’s greats.

Here we feature Williams understated but nonetheless tension-filling Jaws theme – a seemingly discordant E to F repetition of cello and bass that is as relentless as the white-tooted fish itself. This theme always foreshadows the sharks arrival. But as the shark arrives in its full carnivorous glory, Williams also builds a second theme – the hero’s theme for Chief Brody, Quint and Hooper. Almost pirate-like, it’s music that fits into the categories of film as Lawrence of Arabia, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and King Kong (1933). It is the sound of high seas adventuring, of facing one’s fears to defeat a malevolent force. 

It is this mixture of themes that brings about the greatest feeling of difference in the film. Now it is not simply a story about killing a shark. It is a story of the awe that transpires in a human soul when it is called to a path that requires courage of spirit to overcome those unseen fears. This is what John Williams has shown musically, not simply that we too face the fear of the unseen, but that we have the courage to defeat it.

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