Two men stand alone on a pier. One of them hooks a big slab of meat and throws it into the open water. Soon enough, something underneath takes the bait, along with half the pier, dragging one of the men into the depths. Then he swims for his life as the unknown entity chases after him. He gets out in time, but what was chasing him?
That was what I asked my 6 or 7 year old self one day when my dad and older brother were watching Jaws, when I walked into the room. At that time in my life, I had basically no idea what a shark was, much less what it looked like. Naturally, I had to wait and see what it looked like, but we had other things to get done that day and we stopped just before the trip out to kill the shark started. I don’t know how long I had to wait before I saw the beast, but it was on my mind for a long time.
It seems completely redundant to even have to describe the plot of one of the most observed films ever made. Nearly everyone knows of the killer Great White Shark (nicknamed “Bruce” behind the scenes) that terrorizes the residents of the fictional Amnity Island. How Police Chief Brody (Roy Schieder), the trusted every man, does all in his power to keep the residents safe despite the corrupt Mayor Vaughn (the perfectly cast Murray Hamilton). It all leads up to the “fishing” trip where Brody goes off with oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and veteran shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill the 25-foot man eater.
While I was not alive to see the impact that Jaws had on society, I certainly have heard the stories (mainly through my dad’s side of the family). Most consider the film to be the original summer blockbuster, as the summer months were mainly the “dumping ground” for film releases. All that changed in the summer of 1975 when Jaws was released, and it set the trail now traveled by films such as those in the MCU and the Star Wars universe.
The film also was the world’s introduction to Steven Spielberg. Though only in his 20s, this would be his second full length feature film (he had worked on various TV episodes and the TV movie Duel before his first film, The Sugarland Express.) It was here where his legendary career truly took off, though it was no easy feat.
He also does a great job of messing up our expectations. Consider when we see an overweight woman going into the ocean as long Alex Kinter (Jeffrey Voorhees) is soon to follow. Even for a kid, Alex is undoubtedly skinny, so first time viewers would understandable think that the overweight women is more likely to get eaten than the young boy. When I first saw the result as a child, I was understandably mortified.
As the film is justly remembered, so too was its rather troubled production. There were qualms with the original book’s author Peter Benchley (who has a cameo as the TV reporter) over changes in the book. These changes ranged from how the shark is finally killed to making Hooper have an affair with Brody’s wife (Loraine Gary), the latter change being a big improvement. There were also stories of working with Robert Shaw who, while obviously talented, was indeed a heavy drinker (he would die only a few years after Jaws).
Still, it was the mechanical shark that caused the most issues, making the shooting schedule last nearly three times longer than originally planned. While some scenes indeed needed the shark visible, Spielberg decided on the idea of not showing the shark during the other scenes.
This, of course, was perhaps the biggest contribution to the film’s tension that has given audiences the chills for over four decades. Our imaginations of what we fear sometimes outweigh what it actually is. What we imagine of Satan is terrifying because we don’t truly know what he actually looks like (though what he does look like would be far worse than anything we could imagine).
Most likely the scene we have our imaginations scaring us the most is the famous USS Indianapolis speech, in which Quint recalls his time on the famous sinking vessel where he was one of the few survivors that were not taken by sharks. There is much debate over the true authorship of this scene, ranging from Spielberg, onset writers, and some input by Shaw (who was himself a playwright). What is not debated is that the result is one of the very best monologues on celluloid, drawing the viewers attention every time.
Parents, it goes without question that this is one of the most intense PG rated films ever made (the only other I can think of would be The Poltergiest,), since the PG-13 rating would not come out until the mid 1980s. Nowadays, the film would easily be PG-13, though I would think watching the film with your kids around the ages of 8 or so would be okay.
It truly surprises me that I have gone the whole review without mentioning another of the film’s true key factors to success: John Williams. Like Spielberg, Williams (who has worked on all but a few of Spielberg’s films) was known around town as a talented guy, but not worldwide. That all changed when he made the simplest of concepts, and took two notes (F and F sharp) to work with. The result is the most haunting, iconic horror music in film this side of Bernard Herrmann’s work in Psycho.
The amount of films that tried to repeat the success of Jaws, from the sequels (while three and four are utterly repulsive to say the least, Jaws 2 is not half bad) to all of the Sharknados are countless. Perhaps the true reason why no shark film ever has (and never will) even come close to Jaws is that there is no boat big enough to challenge it.