JAWS: Celebrating 35 Years Of Terror

Posted June 20, 2010 by Ryan Ferrier at GiantKillerSquid.com

On June 20, 1975, the movies were changed forever. We became afraid to go in ocean, and we loved that fear. Like sharks crazed at a drop of blood in the sea, audiences furiously charged movie theaters in droves to witness Steven Spielberg’s thrilling Jaws, the story of Chief Brody vs. The Shark that terrorizes a small New England beach town.

Jaws is far more important than just a killer-animal movie. It’s masterful storytelling and filmmaking at its best, putting a then relatively unknown Spielberg on the map, launching his career into mega-stardom and ensuring we’d see such culturally important films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Jurassic Park,Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Not only was the world’s most recognized director established, but the Hollywood summer blockbuster trend was born. A whole two years before Star Wars, let it be known. Jaws set into motion the seasonal climate for genre films and is the reason we get summers – not this one, sadly – where every Friday brings a new, action-filled, big-budget thriller to the theater. From 1978 and on, movie studios would base their yearly marketing strategy around the summer months (May – August, typically), with only the biggest feature falling closest to the fourth of July.

Breaking records is a common occurrence nowadays, but when Jaws hit screens in the summer of ‘77 Hollywood hadn’t yet seen those kinds of numbers. Being the first film to open nation-wide, on hundreds of screens across the country, Jaws saw record-breaking returns. With the number of screens showing the film increasing from 464 to 675, the film also became the largest distributed film of all time. People cite Star Wars as the film that took marketing and merchandising to a new level – which it certainly did – but Jaws was the film that started it all, with television spots hitting prime-time starting days before the release. The promotion for Jaws was akin to that of a great white shark attack: fast, from out of nowhere and impactful. For the following weeks since its release, Jaws continued to shatter box office records, becoming the first film to pass the $100 million mark. Though year after year, with huge franchise names and effects-laden films knocking Jaws further down on the all-time grossing list, none have had a fraction of the cultural significance of Spielberg’s classic. Today you’d be hard pressed to find someone of any age who doesn’t immediately recognize John William’s iconic ‘duh nuh… duh nuh’ score, or so perfectly quotable lines like “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.

The film is more than its marketing, more than the first blockbuster or one summer’s perpetual fever. We can’t, after all, equate money with quality. But Jaws was different. WithJaws, you know when you’re watching it that you’re seeing a damn fine film, a film that was made with passion and with performance in mind. Nothing was slapped together or compromised. In a time where special effects were still rudimentary and relatively unexplored, the task of bringing to life a twenty-five foot man-eating shark was a daunting one, and Spielberg and his team knew it. While I still stand by the “rubber shark”, Spielberg understood his limitations and used them to the film’s advantage. He scared us senseless before we had even seen the damned thing. And when we finally do see the beast… well, you have one of the greatest film moments of all time. You can almost see Brody’s face turn white.

Which brings me to the performances in Jaws. Roy Scheider embodies the blue-collar leading man in Martin Brody. The town doesn’t understand him, he’s nearly driven mad by this shark, and he makes it all so believable. He is the center of the film and the perfect protagonist. Richard Dreyfuss, who later appeared in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, nails the nervous side-kick with all the answers archetype, while bringing total originality to the role. If it weren’t for Robert Shaw, I would want to be Dreyfuss’ Hooper every time I step in a boat.

The real gem of the film is Quint, the rugged, seasoned seaman, the captain of the Orca and the man who leads Brody and Hooper in finding the shark for three, and catching and killing him for ten. If aliens were to come down to Earth and ask me to show them the greatest performance in existence, I very well might play them Quint’s monologue, or any of his scenes for that matter. Robert Shaw quite simply lived this character. The moment he scrapes his fingernails on the chalkboard at the Amity town hall meeting when we are introduced to the ship captain, the game changed. What started as a tale of terror and unknown and helplessness now became one of desperation and drive and man versus beast. Quint exists for one reason only, to live in the face of death. Death with black eyes and row after row of razor-sharp teeth. Quint exists to live off the land, doing as he sees fit, and when he stumbles upon this town, ravaged by a force they can’t even understand let alone control, he sees his opportunity to part the clouds, stand defiantly on the deck of his boat, rest his boot on the biggest killer in the sea and shout “fuck you”. Or at least die trying. You couldn’t replicate this kind of performance even if you tried.

The journey Jaws took to get to the screen wasn’t easy though. Between daily last-minute script polishing and troubles with the three mechanical sharks, the film found itself facing multiple delays. Universal, as any studio would, began to put the heat on the crew when the budget grew and the release date came closer. What started out as a $4 million film, apparently ended up costing $9 million. It all worked out in the end however, as the failing mechanical sharks pushed subtlety into the film, and the increasing delays allowed for a dynamite script. And, well, we know how it turned out for the studio and investors on the film and for the crowds in the theaters – what we received could very well be the perfect film.

Although Jaws would go on to spawn three sequels – the underwhelming Jaws 2, the horrible Jaws 3D and the downright ridiculous Jaws: The Revenge – the franchise would forever be known, and continue to be known for the first film, which shocked audiences and raised the bar for thrilling story-telling. Decade after decade, generation after generation, Jaws remains an untouchable classic and equally as memorable and recognizable.

The moment I first saw the film, on a big ‘ol rented VHS machine back in the early 80’s, I knew that Jaws would forever be at the top of my favorite movies of all time list. It’s just too good not to be.

Happy 35th birthday, Jaws.

TRIVIA

  • Peter Benchley, author of the novel the film is based on, wrote three drafts of the screenplay before detaching himself from the film. He does, however, appear in a cameo in the film, as a newspaper reporter.
  • The role of Chief Brody was originally offered to Robert Duvall. The actor was only interested in playing Quint, who had already been cast.
  • Spielberg originally wanted Jon Voight to play Hooper. Richard Dreyfuss initially passed on the role, before taking his crazy pills and realizing what a mistake that was.
  • The three mechanical sharks were named ‘Bruce’, after Spielberg’s lawyer. A fourth shark was created for Universal Studios Theme Park. Each shark required 14 technicians to operate it.
  • The film was famously shot at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
  • Just how delayed was the film? The shoot was scheduled for 55 days and ended up taking 159.
  • The film won Academy Awards for Film Editing, Original Score and Sound, and received a nomination for BEst Picture – it lost toOne Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Apparently, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss did not get along during production. That tension between them in the film? Slightly real…

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