There are some films which come along and hook you right away. There are also films which make such an impression on you, that you can never shake off your first experience of watching them. Jaws is a film which affects me in both of these ways.
Jaws quickly shook things up when it was released on the 20th of June,1975. For starters it became the world’s first ever Summer Blockbuster. It also grossed over $100 million dollars at the box office, which at the time made it the highest grossing film ever made. Jaws would hold this title until the release of Star Wars in 1977.
Jaws made audiences around the world afraid to even dip their toes into the ocean,let alone dive in and go swimming. The film would also bring a young director by the name of Steven Spielberg to the attention of audiences around the world.
This film had a huge impact on me the first time I saw it. It was sometime around 1999 or 2000 when I went into my local Library one day to borrow some books and take out a couple of films. While browsing the film shelves, I spotted the video of Jaws. The cover art interested me and I was immediately freaked out by the photo of Chrissie on the back, in that traumatising shot of her screaming as the sea around her turns red with her blood. Fascinated, and very eager to check it out, I borrowed this film and watched it when I got home. It completely terrified me and had me on the edge of my seat throughout. It has been a favourite ever since that first time I saw it.
I love the characters and the story a great deal. I especially love how the film is a mix of the horror, thriller, adventure and comedy genres. I also love the location work. John Williams chilling and suitably atmospheric score is one of the very best he has ever composed, and his music greatly adds to the film. Can you imagine this flick without that score? The editing of Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields is also excellent and really helps build tension and excitement.
I also love how the two halves of the film are so different from each other as well. The first half is pretty much a horror film featuring some very disturbing sequences. The characters are all established in the first half and the unseen creature from the deep keeps the viewer on edge.
Our trio take to the sea to find the killer shark. Image source IMDb.
The second half of the film is all about the growing bond between Quint, Brody and Hooper. The second half also becomes quite the thriller and has a lot of action in it. When I first saw this film I was also very surprised by just how much humour is to be found in the second half, such as Quint’s outrageous sea songs and the rivalry between him and Hooper. This is in stark contrast to the grim, tense and extremely frightening atmosphere of the first half. A scene that always cracks me up in the second half is Brody’s reaction to Hooper, when he asks him to go right out to edge of the boat so he can get Brody in the foreground for scale as he snaps a picture of the shark. Brody refuses to do so. He looks at Hooper as if he is crazy, and climbs down to side of the boat(to go back up to the bridge)only to be met with the sight of Quint coming towards him carrying a spear gun. This sight forces the Chief to return to where he just came from. 🙂
The trio of Brody, Quint and Hooper are so different from each other and yet they find a way to overcome their differences, find some common ground, and most important of all work together to survive. The development of their relationship is as fascinating for me to watch now as it was when I first watched it. All the characters(but especially the main trio)are so well written and come across as being very real people who you can connect to.
The film is based upon the 1974 novel of the same name written by Peter Benchley.The author was inspired to write the book after reading about fisherman Frank Mundus, who caught a Great White shark off the coast of Long Island, New York, in 1964. Benchley imagined what would happen if such a shark started attacking bathers regularly in one location and wouldn’t go away.After coming up with various titles for his book including Stillness In The Water and Leviathan Rising, Benchley eventually decided on the title of Jaws. Upon release Jaws was a best seller. The film rights were bought by Universal Studios producers David Brown and Richard D.Zanuck, and the book would become a screen sensation when the pair produced the screen adaptation the following year. Benchley himself would go on to appear in the film as the reporter on the beach.
The author pops up in the film as the reporter. Image source IMDb.
The film sticks pretty close to the book but there are some differences to be found. The most notable difference is that Hooper survives in the film. I don’t find the characters to be as likeable in the book as I do on screen, I think that the bond between the main trio is part of the films success and I didn’t feel that growing friendship in the book. I was also very glad that the subplot of the affair between Hooper and Mrs. Brody wasn’t included in the film. One of my favourite aspects of the film is the happy family life that Chief Brody enjoys, if the affair subplot had been included then that happy atmosphere would have been destroyed. I also think the subplot would have made it really difficult to like Hooper. I also think the film manages to be more scary and thrilling overall than the novel is.
Peter Benchley would ironically spend the rest of his life trying to undo the bad reputation his novel and the film had given to Great White Sharks. Benchley became a marine conservationist and wrote books about sharks and the sea, helping people to understand these creatures and their natural habitat.Shark attacks certainly are horrific when they happen, but they are thankfully extremely rare events. Yet, thanks to the novel and this film, people are sadly now overly wary of the sea, and are also very afraid of the fascinating and beautiful creatures that live there.
Brown and Zanuck chose Steven Spielberg to be the one responsible for bringing Peter Benchley’s story to the big screen. Spielberg had been working steadily in television as a director since 1970. He had directed the Columbo episode Murder By The Book, and had also directed the pilot episode of The Night Gallery. He had also directed two very good TV films – Duel (1971)a film about a man pursued by a killer truck, and Something Evil(1972)a horror film about a family terrorised by an evil spirit. At the time of being brought onto Jaws, he had made his first feature film Sugerland Express(1974), which focuses on a couple on the run from the law. He was attracted to the Jaws project because in some way the shark pursuing its victims reminded him of the truck pursuing the man in his film Duel.
There were several writers who worked on the screenplay for the film. Peter Benchley himself wrote a screenplay for the film. Then Howard Sackler did an uncredited rewrite of Benchley’s script. Finally Carl Gottlieb(who also appears in the film as Meadows)was brought on by his friend Steven Spielberg to redraft the script. Spielberg himself wrote a script, from which came the terrifying pier sequence. Spielberg also came up with a great scene in which to introduce Quint.
Steven Spielberg relaxes on location with the mechanical shark. Image source IMDb.
In Spielberg’s script, Quint would be introduced watching Moby Dick(1956)in a cinema and laughing loudly and hysterically at what was on screen.His laughter would drive out many people sitting around him in the cinema. Spielberg approached Gregory Peck, the star of that film and the controller of the rights to it, to see if he could use the footage. Peck wasn’t against the footage being used in the context Spielberg had in mind, but he preferred that it wasn’t used because he wasn’t very proud of the film. While I do like the sound of that intro, I have to say that I much prefer the chalkboard scraping intro we got in the finished film.
Jaws would make Spielberg a household name. He really proved with this film just what he was able to accomplish as a director. I think this is one of the best films he has ever made (and that is saying something). If I had to pick just one of his films to keep, then I know that I would pick this one without hesitation. I especially like how Spielberg conveys so much horror and suspense without even showing the shark for such a large portion of the film. When he does show the shark, he does so sparingly, and therefore its appearances have a far greater impact than they would if he had constantly shown it all the way through the film.
The making of the film is quite the story itself. It was shot on location on Martha’s Vineyard and many of the locals appear in the film as extras, with local fisherman Craig Kingsbury being cast as the gruff and doomed Ben Gardner.Robert Shaw based his performance as Quint largely on Kingsbury, and some of Kingsbury’s own sayings were added to the script as dialogue for both Quint and Gardner. The land shoot wasn’t that bad, but cast and crew quickly encountered problems once filming moved out to sea. The sea conditions and the weather changed so quickly, often within a matter of minutes, meaning scenes often had to be scrapped and started again from scratch.
There were also issues with shots being set up, only to have to be stopped due to boats coming into the area and appearing on camera. Cast and crew came down with seasickness. The mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce – which had been created by Robert A. Mattey, the man who had built the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea(1954) – malfunctioned and this led to delays. At one point Shaw, Scheider, Dreyfuss and some crew members even had to be rescued by safety boats, after the boat serving as The Orca began to sink.
Despite the pressure and problems Robert Shaw, Steven Spielberg and Roy Scheider find time for a laugh on location. Image source IMDb.
Husband and wife team Ron and Valerie Taylor were hired to shoot real footage of Great White sharks down in South Australia.The couple were known for their work on the shark documentary Blue Water White Death. Carl Rizzo,a little man who was a stuntman/child double, was sent out to Australia to work with the couple. The idea was for Carl(doubling as Hooper)to be placed in a small cage underwater near to real Great Whites, in order to make the real sharks swimming past seem like they were on a much bigger scale.
One day a curious Great White shark got its nose caught on a bridle attached to the cage(empty at the time) which in turn was attached to the Taylor’s boat. The shark went wild and its thrashing badly damaged the cage. Both cage and shark hurtled down towards the seabed until the shark managed to break free and swim away. Ron, who had been below the surface at the time, caught the whole incident on camera. The footage was so amazing that in order to use it, the script was rewritten to keep Hooper alive and show him escaping the cage as the shark begins to attack it.
Towards the end of filming some footage was shot in a tank(for clearer visibility for underwater photography) featuring stuntman Richard Warlock doubling as Richard Dreyfuss for the close up sequences of Hooper being attacked in the cage. A third man called Frank Sparks doubled as Dreyfuss for the extreme closeup of Hooper’s terrified face. The final edited footage of this sequence consisted of shots cut together from the Taylor/Rizzo shoot, the Warlock shoot, and the Sparks shoot. Spielberg also re-shot the scene where Hooper and Brody discover Ben Gardner’s boat, to include Ben’s head popping out of the side of the boat and scaring Hooper. This sequence, which has become one of the most effective and memorable jump scares in film history, was shot in the swimming pool of editor Verna Fields.
Jaws is set in the American coastal town of Amity. The film opens with a young woman called Chrissie Watkins(stuntwoman Susan Backlinie) going for a moonlight swim in the ocean. What starts off as quite a beautiful scene quickly turns horrific. Poor Chrissie is grabbed from beneath the waves by something unseen. She screams in agony as she is dragged around, and finally she is pulled beneath the waves and all we can hear is the splashing of the waves.
Chrissie is attacked.This is the image I saw on the back of the video I rented. Image source IMDb.
If I was putting together a list of best film openings, then this one would feature very high up on the list indeed. The opening attack sequence bears many similarities to the sequence in The Creature From The Black Lagoon(1954), where Julie Adams takes a dip in the black lagoon of the title, and is watched and pursued by the Gill Man monster living beneath the lake.
The next day Chrissie’s remains are found washed up on the beach and the police are alerted. Chief Martin Brody(Roy Scheider)discovers her death was due to a shark attack. He has to try and persuade mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton)to close the beaches to prevent any further attacks. Vaughn refuses and a young boy is killed very close to the beach in a truly disturbing scene. As the shark attacks mount up, and become more disturbing and graphic each time we see them on screen, Brody and Vaughn hire experienced local fisherman Quint(Robert Shaw)to hunt and kill the shark.
Brody and Quint set out aboard Quint’s ship, The Orca, to search for the shark. They are joined by young shark expert Matt Hooper(Richard Dreyfuss)who comes equipped with specialist technology and equipment to help them find the shark. Quint and Hooper rub each other the wrong way right from their first meeting, this leads to many funny scenes as they argue and try and outdo one another. The trio soon find the shark they seek(or rather the shark finds them)leading to a terrifying finale.
There are so many memorable moments in this film and the following are some of my favourites. Quint’s Indianapolis story. The estuary attack(this is the first time we see the shark and it is so disturbing). Quint scraping the chalkboard in the meeting to get some attention. Hooper and Quint’s tattoo stories(love the way Dreyfuss laughs in this scene, it cracks me up every time).Hooper and Brody discovering Ben Gardner’s boat. Hooper’s argument with the mayor and his shocked reaction to what the mayor says back to him. The scene with the two fisherman on the pier who almost get attacked by the shark. The “You’re going to need a bigger boat” scene.
Roy Scheider as Chief Brody. Image source IMDb.
Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss are all at their very best in this film. Roy Scheider’s Brody is not only the hero of the film, but he also represents us in the audience. His character is an everyman who is thrown into an unusual situation made worse for him by his fear of drowning. As the film goes on we see Brody having to conquer that fear in order to be able to survive. Brody is my favourite character in this and I love the way that Roy plays him. Brody is a good man and a quiet hero. Roy does such a good job of portraying him working hard to overcome his fear to be of great help in the second half of the film. Roy also improvised that famous line of “You’re going to need a bigger boat”.
Robert Shaw steals every scene he’s in, as the hot tempered and fearless, Quint. Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden were the first choices for role of Quint, but I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role like Robert Shaw did. He provides many of the films biggest laughs, but he also gets to deliver the most moving and powerful scene in the film, the famous Indianapolis speech. Robert’s performance in that scene should be used in an acting master class. The way he delivers those lines, coupled with the look on his face, is what makes that moment so powerful to the viewer.Quint’s vivid descriptions of what he and his crewmates faced conjures up some very chilling images indeed.
Robert Shaw as Quint. Image source IMDb.
This famous scene was in Howard Sackler’s version of the film script, but it was much shorter than the scene we know now. Spielberg then asked director and screenwriter John Millius to expand on Sackler’s scene. Eventually Robert Shaw(who was also a writer) took a crack at rewriting it, and it is Shaw’s rewrite of Sackler and Millius’s contributions which appears in the film.
Quint is the most fascinating character in the whole film for me. He has made it his life’s mission to kill the creatures that killed so many of his crewmates during the Indianapolis sinking. Most days he goes out to sea and faces his deepest fear. His fate is rather fitting as he meets the same end is friends did. As sad as his death is, you also know that it is some ways a blessing, as he will no longer suffer by having to live a life haunted by the memories of that incident.
Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper. Image source IMDb.
Richard Dreyfuss is essentially the comic relief role in this film, his laugh always cracks me up because it’s so infectious. There is more to Matt Hooper than comedy though, he is also a dedicated shark expert and really knows his stuff. He loves these creatures and is fascinated by them, but he knows what they are capable of and doesn’t underestimate them. He and Quint both know what sharks can do and both know much about them and their habitat,in the end this shared knowledge and experience lead them to respect and like each other after a somewhat rocky start. I also like that Hooper is quite a young man who is an expert in his field and absolutely owns that fact. Hooper is unafraid to stand up to older authority figures(Mayor Vaughn for example)and call them out and challenge them.
There’s fine support from Lorraine Gary as the fun and loving Mrs.Brody, and Murray Hamilton as the unwise and arrogant Mayor Vaughn. Even the extras and bit part players stand out and are memorable in this. Who could forget Alfred Wilde as “Bad Hat Harry”? 😁😂 The film proves that less is more when it comes to making monster movies,and I think that there is no way this film would be as good with a CGI shark.
Inevitably the idea of sequels surfaced and the studios saw money. These ideas should have remained submerged. The film has had three sequels, none of which match the quality of the original. Jaws 2 is just about passable, it has its moments and some of the original cast return which is nice to see. Avoid 3 and 4 though, as they are in the so bad they are laughable category(joining the likes of Exorcist 2 and The Swarm on the “what were they thinking when they made this?” shelf). 3 has some bad special effects that look they were lifted straight from a 1980’s computer game. 4 features sharks that can roar, target specific humans, and do all this for the purposes of revenge(I’m not making this up.) Stick with the original is my advice.