As the American Fourth of July holiday figures solidly into its plot, what better time to talk about the first of the big movie blockbusters – Jaws – than on Independence Day? The biggest and the baddest of the sharks, a real-life monster based on a real-life incident, and the baptism of fire of one of our greatest directors – Steven Spielberg – Jaws is one of the greatest films ever made. Meet me after the jump for my thoughts.
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the film, and Jaws has been re-released to some theaters in honor of the occasion. I can imagine how it is for some folks to see it on the big screen for the first time, and also for many, to see it again. I wonder if its release this summer will have the same effect on audiences as it did when it was first released. Beach attendance was down, because people were afraid of the water, and don’t think the marketing folks had a field day with that back in the day. “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,” indeed.
I haven’t seen it recently in theaters, but just last year I did have the chance to see the film on the silver screen in a very special venue – on the TCM Classic Cruise, with star Richard Dreyfuss in the audience, commenting before and after the film. The movie was also preceded by the fan made documentary “The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws.” Narrated by Roy Scheider, the doc features interviews and rare behind the scenes footage of the classic blockbuster.
This is the one, the first blockbuster, it changed the business, it changed the way we thought as beach-goers. Jaws is the one that started it all. But really, when it comes right down to it, is there anything I can say that you folks don’t already know about this one? This is one of the top ten classic films, if not top five, and it’s one of my favorite films, and one of America’s favorite films. It is not often all of those things intersect, and here, in Jaws, they do.
It is hard to imagine a time when there really was no summer movie season, no waiting for the big summer movies, but Jaws was the pioneer that created that situation. Before Jaws, there wasn’t a big summer blockbuster season. What we are experiencing right now with Avengers, Mad Max, Jurassic World, Terminator, and even Ant-Man – all the hype, the big money, the months of previews and anticipation – none of that would exist without Jaws, because it started it.
Loosely based on the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley, which was quickly tossed early on in pre-production, Jaws was directed by relative newcomer at the time, Steven Spielberg, who during the shooting was threatened with being fired everyday. The crazy late and infamously over-budget film made him in Hollywood, made him a legend, and one of the directors in town. His previous work included the Joan Crawford segment of the Night Gallery pilot, a handful of television episodes, a couple telemovies, and The Sugarland Express.
Spielberg’s most important achievement before Jaws, and one that has serious bearing on the film, was a TV movie of the week called Duel, written by horror master Richard Matheson, based on his short story of the same name. In it, Dennis Weaver is a salesman on the road terrorized by a faceless truck driver in a gigantic tanker truck. Some folks have said that Duel is a scene-by-scene blueprint for Jaws, and even Spielberg acknowledged the similarity saying both films represent monsters targeting the everyman.
The set up is pretty simple. The resort town of Amity is set upon by a great white shark, a man-eater, and a big one. Relying on tourism and beach people, they won’t close the beaches until the body count escalates, so the police chief (Scheider), along with a marine biologist (Dreyfuss) and a professional shark hunter (the late Robert Shaw), take the battle to the shark at sea. Filmed on the water and on the beach and in the town of Martha’s Vineyard, everything looks pretty real. Even some of the residents were extras and more, including Mrs. Kitner who delivers one of the most powerful lines in the flick.
The story as it appears on the screen is vastly different from the book, and much of the horror is based on what you don’t see, a la Curse of the Demon or Cat People, because of the shark that, most of the time, just wouldn’t work. When there was no shark, they had to find another way to make a scene work. A monster you can’t see is far more frightening that the one you can, and that’s just compounded by the fact that sharks are real. The further fact that the book was inspired by a shark coming inland to freshwater back in 1916 did not help.
While the book was jettisoned, both it and Duel, as well as the needs of the crew, and their submission to the weather and the craziness of shooting much of the film on the water as opposed to a soundstage, contributed to what made it to the screen. It was almost an organic process of collaboration that made this movie, a trick that might never come together again. There was so much of the movie that was simply ad-lib or chance. From the famous shooting star to Scheider’s character and his son aping each other at the dinner table, so much was pure luck or happenstance. Many of the water sequences were rewritten on the fly because the robot shark, Bruce, wasn’t working.
More conflict in the film was actually on the set as well. Shaw and Dreyfuss may not have hated each other, but they certainly got on each other’s nerves, and fought one another constantly, making much of the tension on screen very real. Shaw’s famous USS Indianapolis speech, perhaps one of the most famous monologues of all time is one of the film’s most chilling moments, was written and re-written by over a half-dozen folks, including John Milius, and finally delivered in one take by the master actor. It is scenes like that that put the film, the director, and the actors several notches above and beyond.
Jaws is mesmerizing, and the John Williams score is one of the most terrifying and most recognizable of all time. The theme has become pop culture shorthand for oncoming shark terror or terror outright. The movie spawned three sequels, and dozens of copycats, shark-related or not. The popularity of phenomena like “Shark Week” and the recent Sharknado films make it obvious that Jaws lives on.
I watch this film whenever I pass it while channel surfing, no matter how far into it the movie is. And if it’s toward the end, I’ll pop the DVD in afterward and watch it complete. It is one of those films that just sucks you in. And in that capacity, it is almost a perfect film. From the writing to the direction to the performances, and even the mechanical shark, we can forgive poor Bruce, it is nearly a perfect film, all 124 minutes of it. Must not miss, ever.