We all know Mayor Vaughn is the real reason behind the people of Amity Island being served up as smörgåsbord.
Kevin Maher’s video essay “The Real Villain in JAWS” looks at the unexpected antagonist that has cropped up in every Jaws copycat for years. But what makes the bad guy of the original blockbuster so unequivocally awful?
Like most creature-features, Jaws carries a hefty warning about the corruption and greed of those in charge — the same themes can also be seen with the Weyland Corporation in Alien, for example. In the case of Jaws, the shark, “Bruce”, although named after Spielberg’s lawyer, cannot really be the villain here. He’s just hungry, and the humans came into his home to begin with.
Logically, an animal can’t have malicious intent, despite what Jaws: The Revenge would like us to believe (that shark really swam all the way to the Bahamas to seek out members of the Brody family…also RIP Michael Caine). Instead of pinning it all on the shark, though, Jaws wants you to know there’s a much more real and sinister evil lurking in its waters. This toupée-sporting villain is named Larry Vaughn, mayor of “shark city”, and he wants those beaches open no matter the cost.
Does he want them open because he feels bad that kids and families won’t have a fun summer? Are there hidden altruistic motives, like a son whose dying wish is to spend one last Fourth of July on Amity Island’s famous beaches? Nope. Mayor Vaughn just wants those “summer dollars” — even if it means throwing his citizens and unsuspecting tourists to the sharks (or just the one, 3-ton shark in this case).
The Mayor’s stubborn and increasingly infuriating refusal to close the beaches, and his denial of the danger people are in, are impossible to ignore while watching the film. He even uses his influence to convince the coroner to amend his report of “Bruce’s” first victim, saying it could have very likely been a boating accident rather than a shark attack. The Mayor advises Chief Brody not to panic, giving what he surely thinks is a wise statement:
“You yell barracuda, everyone goes huh? What? You yell shark… we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
Again, neither panic nor concern for the well-being of others is really what’s on the mayor’s mind. He emphasizes that they need to keep the beaches open for the holiday because Amity is a summer town, and tourism is therefore their biggest source of revenue. He goes so far as to lie, on camera, to reporters on the big day itself. He boasts that Amity fishermen have “caught a large predator” which he claims “supposedly injured some bathers.” At this point, those maybe-injured bathers are a girl so chewed up her remains fit inside a small bucket and a little kid whose body was never recovered but who we see eaten in one of the most tense scenes in Jaws. What a guy.
Most importantly, what the film wants us to know about the mayor is that he is almost entirely motivated by greed and by a desire to keep his governmental seat. Even when he finally gives in — after seeing a man eaten alive on the Fourth of July — he is already muttering excuses to himself and trying to find a way to avoid blame. Brody is able to use this desperation to get the panicked mayor to sign a contract so they can hire Quint to kill the shark.
This is an important moment for the police chief as well, as the mayor put him in an especially unfavorable position both by his disagreement over closing the beaches and the death of the young boy that followed. It’s clear that Brody feels no sympathy for the panicked politician, most likely still feeling the slap in the face he received from the deceased boy’s mother.
It’s a testament to the character-building talents in Jaws that we are so clearly able to distinguish the genuine altruism of the town chief of police from the mayor, though they are both key persons in power. Chief Brody is an instantly likable character from the moment he and his idyllic family are introduced, while the problematic nature of the mayor is revealed as events progress. In fact, Brody appears to be on good terms with Vaughn, up until he too realizes how far the man is truly willing to go in his denial.
Even when realizing that he is in the wrong and that innocent people are dead because of him, Mayor Vaughn worries over his position. He ignores the advice of professionals, like oceanographer Matt Hooper, who begs him at one point to realize that the bite radius of the shark caught does not match the victims. He ignores all reason, and instead clings to his own selfish denial.
This villain formula translates over to countless other creature-features, and, as Kevin Maher so accurately points out, almost every shark movie to date. This corrupt public servant creeps into films like Jaws because the filmmakers know there is nothing scarier than someone in a position of power who refuses to do what’s right to protect the people underneath him.
This is a villain who in their own selfish interest, as oceanographer Matt Hooper so accurately put it, would rather ignore a problem “until it swims up and bites them in the ass.”