By Jonathan Reed
Jaws was the first movie in history to be labelled a ‘blockbuster.’ It broke all records becoming the highest grossing movie of all time, until a certain George Lucas created Star Wars. And much like Star Wars, Jaws has well and truly cemented itself as a pinnacle in movie-making. Forty-three years after it terrified cinemas in 1975, Jaws has maintained its undying popularity and status as one of the greatest films ever made.
Based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg kept the main premise of a man-eating shark terrorising a quaint holiday destination, Amity Island, though decided on dropping many of the subplots.
The production began on May 2, 1974 in Martha’s Vineyard, who didn’t take too kindly to having a monster B-movie filming in their backyard. Even so, the making of Jaws would prove to be problematic, with Spielberg claiming he would suffer with stress after the production had ended. From running over filming schedules, to obliterating spending budgets, Jaws was proving to be a major movie problem. Adding in the fact that the film's star, Bruce the animatronic shark, would consistently breakdown, it is no surprise that Spielberg hated the shoot of arguably his most famous masterpiece.
Ironically, it is the technical failures of the man-eating beast that has provided Jaws with some of the movies most enduring moments. From the nerve shredding scene where a fisherman, after being hauled into the ocean by the shark, is chased back to the shore by a piece of pier, to the horrifying opening of the movie, the absence of the shark was not planned. Spielberg had to think on his feet and was instead forced into alluding to the size of the shark whilst being unable to show it. Even today, it is surprisingly effective.
There are many factors of Jaws that add to its iconic status, the formidable cast, the script, the tension, though perhaps one outweighs them all. The score.
John Williams, simply by two notes, has come to define a genre of movies. Instinctively, once heard it is impossible not to see the 25ft shark stalking unsuspecting swimmers above. The score is as much a character in the plot as Chief Brody or shark hunter Quint.
Throughout Jaws’ 124-minute runtime it is hard to define a top moment, though possibly the one which comes closest, is the scene that was added after production had closed. Two words, 'the head!' The moment where audiences are shown the grizzly discovery of Ben Gardner’s bloated head, still makes audiences jump. It is perfectly executed and proves that Spielberg is an expert in suspense.
Another scene, which is worth mentioning is the beach scene early on in the movie. Spielberg cleverly alludes to numerous potential victims of the man-eating shark. Will it be the dog chasing a stick into the ocean, the teenagers frolicking in the sea, the elderly woman swimming, or the boy on the lilo? You’re left guessing, as red herring, after red herring are thrown into the mix. Is that a shark fin or an old man’s black swimming cap? A woman screams… but its her boyfriend placing her on his shoulders. Perhaps the Shark won’t attack this time?
But then, cut to a simple stick floating just off shore with no dog to be found, and then the music starts. Here it comes. And then Spielberg hits you with the biggest shock of all. Instead of making the elderly woman or the teenage couple the victim, he strikes the most unsuspecting target, the boy on the lilo. By today’s standards, it isn’t as shocking, but in 1975 this scene caused unimaginable screams and terror in theatres across the globe.
After analysis, Jaws success of petrifying audiences doesn’t come from the ultimate shock or reveal of the Shark, instead it is the build-up to these moments. The effectiveness of this is still potent today as it was all those years ago.
Throughout the years many commentators of Jaws have claimed that, though first and foremost a horror movie, it could also be classed as an adventure film. This is due to the final third of the film. As Quint, Brody and Hooper set out in pursuit of the Shark, the film develops into a quest and, for me is the secret success of Jaws.
The dynamic between these three characters is the bedrock of the movie and creates some of the more light-hearted moments in Jaws. Yet, once again Spielberg proves his worth by taking a carefree bonding moment between blunt Quint and nerdy Hooper, in where they compare scars, and seamlessly leads, to quite simply, one of the greatest monologues in moviemaking history.
The Indianapolis speech delivered by Robert Shaw is as definable to Jaws as the Shark itself, and though provides respite from the human munching monster, it is just as chilling. This is partly due to Shaw's performance as Quint. Throughout most of the film he is brutish, crude and strides with an air of arrogance. Here, we see him deliver the frightening story behind the sinking of the Indianapolis and the fate of her crew, who one by one were picked off by sharks, with a matter-of-fact tone. The calmness of which he describes the deaths of his crewman can’t help but stay with you long after the movie credits roll.
The shark itself, though compared to modern day CGI, still manages to fit the tone and texture of Jaws and it would be hard to see it replaced with a computer-generated shark.
It is of no surprise, due Jaws’ success that three sequels followed, and to many they wish they hadn’t. It is not worth going into the story of what happened after the original movie, but it is worth noting that not one of them matched the commercial or critical success of their predecessor.
Jaws has also never been remade, which to many is a sign of a movie masterpiece. After all, who else could bring those iconic characters to life and create a monster movie that excelled not only in scares, but also heart.
What Spielberg has always done expertly is bring a human element to a story. The family dynamic of the Brody’s is as natural as you will see in any movie before or after Jaws. The relationships between husband and wife, sons and father are what grounds the movie and, in many cases, make Jaws even more scary. Watching the film, you realise that the Brody’s could be any family, anywhere.
It has been forty-three years since Jaws terrified audiences across the globe. Since then, numerous shark movies with better CGI and modern-day plotlines have swam into theatres. Yet none have endured as long as the original. Jaws was the first and most certainly will not be the last, but unlike Spielberg’s classic, they won’t be remembered in the same vain. It is a testament to Jaws that even after all these years, it is still held so affectionately with generation, after generation.
An iconic movie becomes so, when you can remember the first time watching it. For me, that was with my parents, with my mother covering my eyes at the scene of Ben Gardner’s head. It scared me then and it scares me today. What Jaws is, as a movie, is more that just an iconic masterpiece of film-making, it was and still is a trendsetter, showing how great movies can be made when faced against the odds. Jaws has rightly earned its place in any greatest movie list and will continue to entertain audiences for decades to come.
Though just remember, in the words of Chief Brody: “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.”