The film that made Steven Spielberg a household name is so ingrained within the public consciousness it’s unlikely that anyone reading this has not already seen Jaws (1975), or is at least aware of its significance in popular culture. How many other films would you recognise by simply humming two notes of music?
Based upon the 1971 Peter Benchley novel of the same name, Jaws was horror movie magic just waiting to be filmed. Universal Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck certainly thought so, but when they both happened across the book the obvious problem was immediate to them both; how does a director go about telling the story of a killer shark terrorising the inhabitants of an American coastal town? Figuring they would cross that bridge when they came to it, the pair immediately purchased the rights to Benchley’s book before it hit bookshelves in February 1974.
One man who was keen to make the movie work was Steven Spielberg. Spotting plot themes similar to his successful television movie Duel (1971) the young director pushed for the job. He was awarded the director’s chair but in a change of heart grew sceptical of the project, not wanting to be typecast as a filmmaker. Brown and Zanuck convinced him to stay though. Benchley’s novel was a success, quickly hitting the top of various bestseller lists. The film already in pre-production, the pressure was on Spielberg to deliver a movie that lived up to the book sales.
Keen to turn Jaws in to a more efficient fright machine, Spielberg did away with a number of the novel’s subplots; out went the Brody’s marital problems, the Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody affair, and the political ins and outs of Amity Island. The director also wanted to start his film off with a big scare, to hook the audience. By contrast Benchley kicked off his book with a vivid description of the shark.
Stating later that ‘We all know what it’s like to go swimming, but very few of us have actually come across a shark’, but also suffering from a mechanical shark that failed to work more often than it did, Spielberg kept his killer hidden from view for opening kill. Following the skinny dipping Susan Backline, the visual horror of the opening attack remains below the water line. Our imaginations are left to run riot, visualizing what is happening out of sight as Backline’s Chrissie Watkins is eaten alive.
To achieve the right effect Backline was strapped into a harness that was linked to cables and an anchor on the sea floor. Two crew members were then positioned on the beach and ordered to run back and forth on Spielberg’s command, creating the desired ‘jerking’ motion of the victim in the shark’s mouth. Backline to her credit sold the moment as if her life depended on it, though genuine discomfort from the harness rig aided her cries. Never has a more bloodcurdling scream been captured in the movies.
It was and remains the greatest cinematic attention grabber ever; just five minutes gone and Spielberg already had the viewer in a terrifying grip. Again, partly motivated by a prop shark that caused the crew endless headaches, the Great White was kept out of sight for most of the movie, wonderfully building the anticipation. It’s not until the last quarter of the movie when the shark is revealed. Coupled with a joke line from Scheider ‘Come on down and chum some of this shit’, and a notable absence of John Williams’ ominous score, the audience is unprepared for the shock in store. It’s a shock scare that matches the death of Chrissie in the opening scene. And these are just two of the amazing scares on offer.
Outside of Spielberg’s what’s-not-shown scares there are some truly gruesome moments that pay off the cloak and dagger approach; witness the severed leg of one unlucky yachtsman, the head of Ben Gardner complete with missing eyeball, or the sticky demise of Quint. There was even a scene that Spielberg decided to alter, the original shot of Brody’s son Michael encountering the shark deemed too excessive. In this regard Spielberg was fully aware that his audience expected some messy munching at some point and he was determined to provide them with more than adequate fare. But even with these gory death scenes the scares hold true, the viewers pulse quickening whenever a character goes near the water.
If the film provides excellent scares today, spare a thought for the audiences of 1975. Before they even saw Backline eaten alive they were terrified by the teaser trailers. ‘When the water is warmer, when the beaches open this summer, you will be taken by…….Jaws!’, ‘It is as if God created the Devil and gave him….Jaws!’, ‘See it before you go swimming’ growled the trailers. It was enough to give anyone nightmares before they even got to the theatre. The trailers also provided the public with their first encounter with that tremendous John Williams soundtrack.
When Williams first played the notoriously simple combo of notes for Spielberg, the director thought he was playing a joke on him. After hearing the theme over the top of footage though he realised that it was the perfect aural accompaniment for the story. Half of Jaws’ power to thrill is in the soundtrack. Spielberg utilised it as a tool to provide clues as to the next shark appearance, the tempo of the notes quickening as the next attack becomes imminent. Having established this rule by the half way point of the film, Spielberg then tricked viewers and had the shark appear when there was no music at all; see Quint and Hooper pulling in the fishing line from the back of the Orca. It was also a filmmaking lifesaver for Spielberg, offering another option to indicate the shark on screen when the mechanical shark broke down during filming.
The success of a scary movie often lies with the actors and their ability to sell the story. The acting from all those involved with Jaws was tremendous. There are so many great character moments, the sort of scenes that would go on to be one of Spielberg’s key trademarks, it’s easy to see why Jaws managed to escape the confines of the often maligned horror genre. See the touching scene at the dinner table between Chief Brody and his young son, or Hooper, Quint and Brody comparing old war-wounds in the Orca’s cabin ‘I’ll drink to your leg’.
These scenes provide an excellent aside in what most horror film fans would regard as the more humdrum parts of a movie. The human element so firmly grounded by these wonderful scenes of exposition, we truly fear for these men when they are finally pitted against the beast. The excellent script even manages to add a little humour to proceedings, but only in the appropriate places. Look out for Hooper enquiring of a local fisherman ‘Can you tell me if there is a good restaurant on the island? ....Yeah, you walk straight ahead’. Jaws received the ultimate critical acceptance when it was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award in March 1976, only the second horror film to be nominated following The Exorcist (1973) two years prior.
As is now widely known, shooting the film was not nearly as joyous as watching it was. The various model sharks that were constructed for the film failed to work more often than they did, and it was only the relatively shallow waters off of Martha’s Vineyard where filming took place, a depth of only thirty feet up to twelve miles out to sea, that saved the movie from becoming a total write-off. Spielberg’s nickname for the shark was the ‘Great White Turd’, whilst Richard Dreyfuss stated after reading the script that he would rather see the film than take part in making it, as it ‘would be a bitch to shoot’. Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck also thought that the shark would drag their films careers to the bottom of the Amity waters. As filming slowly progressed they started to think there was no way an audience would be scared of a shark that they obviously knew was fake; how wrong they were. Jaws became the first movie to break the $100million mark in box office takings, and with its 20th June release date it inadvertently created the ‘Summer Blockbuster’ movie phenomenon that we know today.
It‘s rare for a horror film to capture the public’s attention so, and a horror film Jaws most certainly is; a killer of mystical proportions that remains hidden until the film’s conclusion, grim death scenes, bleak soundtrack, reluctant hero stepping to save the day. Spielberg himself saw the film as a remake, of sorts, of one of his earlier films, Duel (1971), the story of a commuter tormented by a mysterious oil truck. A tight, tense, and gripping film, it is one of the hidden gems of cult chiller cinema. Spielberg labelled Jaws as ‘Duel for the sea’, and as he managed to turn the ordinary petrol truck into terrifying villain, so he redefined the shark. Before Jaws it was just another inhabitant of the sea. After Jaws it was the man-eating killer extraordinaire. In much the same as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) turned the mundane task of taking a shower into a potential life threatening experience, so Spielberg changed how many of us view swimming, the ocean and the untold dangers it holds. Sadly, it did sharks themselves few favours and the wonderful creatures were hunted after the film's release like they'd never been before, thrill seekers desperate to have their own Quint style showdown with the supposedly deadly leviathans. So appalled was he by the impact his book had on shark numbers, writer Benchley dedicated much of the rest of his life to sea creature preservation.
After such astounding success Universal Pictures demanded a sequel. Recapturing the magic of the first outing would be no easy task though. Various members of the original production team banded around ideas for what the next tale should be. One of the more intriguing proposals was to make a full film of the USS Indianapolis tragedy, as per Quint’s haunting monologue aboard the Orca. The studio dismissed this idea as too much of a departure from the first film. It was then mooted that a sequel would feature the sons of Quint and Brody hunting an even bigger Great White. In the end Universal played it safe and returned to Amity Island. Three years after the original Jaws 2 (1978) hit cinema screens with heavy product advertisement, one of the best movie taglines of all time (‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…’), and high anticipation from the audiences the world over.
The production process for the sequel was almost as arduous the first film’s had been. Spielberg wanted nothing to do with making another shark movie, whether battered by the process of making Jaws or simply not wanting to repeat himself. Director John D. Hancock was originally brought in to direct, but when the producers were unhappy with his work he was asked to leave the production. French director Jeannot Szwarc eventually took over the directors chair, agreeing to take the job only on the basis of some further script re-writing. Making a believable sequel would not be easy; how often can one small town become the victim of a killer shark? Not copycatting the original film would also be difficult. Considering the difficulties, Szwarc and his scriptwriters handled the task admirably, creating a film that felt fresh, and one that paid homage to the stellar original.
Setting the film in Amity meant that Chief Martin Brody had to return, as did his family, with his young sons at the head of the Great White’s menu. Foreshadowing the slasher trend that was to follow Halloween (1978), the story writers added an element of the stalk and slash genre by having the shark menace a group of young teens. The movies first two acts follow a familiar course, with unexplained attacks and Brody struggling to convince the mayor that they have another shark problem. The finale also heads out to sea once again but does so with just the right amount of variety to keep the story compelling.
Thankfully Szwarc’s had a handsome budget to work with and produced some brilliant moments of filmmaking technicality. Witness the point of view shots as we hover above the shark’s main fin, or the terrifying close call when Mike is heaved back into his sail boat, narrowly escaping the animals gaping mouth. There were also a number of thrilling set pieces which for those fans hungry for more shark action were impossible to resist. The water skier chase is as gripping as anything from the original film, and the final stalking of the boat party makes for a riveting climax. Add another superb display from a top notch cast and some lovely little nods to the first movie (the divers investigating the Orca wreckage, the yellow floating barrel turned into a flower pot in Brody’s garden, the phone call from Hooper, Brody’s ‘Man of the Year’ award) and the resulting picture stands one of the most underrated sequels of all time.
Jaws 2 performed well at the box office, $208million from a $30million budget, and Universal decided there was yet more money to be made. Brown and Zanuck had what they believed was an excellent idea for a third film. Under the title Jaws 3 People 0, they wanted to make a spoof of the first two films. The studio was having none of it though, and did not want its million dollar franchise made fun of in such a way. As it turned out, Universal made a pretty good job of ruining the series’ reputation themselves.
Part three followed in 1983, Jaws 3-D (1983). The fact that the movie flirted with the early eighties reinvigoration of the ‘3-D’ concept, with cinema patrons donning red and blue ‘3-D glasses’, was the least of its problems. Chief Brody and Amity Island were dispensed with, replaced by his sons working at Florida’s Sea World. Continuing Jaws 2’s theme of making the titular shark even bigger with each outing, Jaws 3-D featured a beast the size of a double-decker bus. Despite its size, the behemoth of a shark delivered few scares and few kills. Too much noodling at the theme park bogged down the first half, while the second half pushed realism aside for a fantastical climax that somehow managed to bore just as much as the first half. It seemed director Joe Alves, production designer on the first two instalments, had his hands tied trying to shoehorn in as many three-dimensional effects as he could, all of which ended up looking hokey. Even the series tradition of excellent taglines was lost, ‘The third dimension is terror’.
Somehow things got worse in 1987 with the release of the laughable Jaws: The Revenge (1987). Somehow Joseph Sargent was coaxed in to the director’s chair and he was lumbered with a script not even a child would have concocted. The movie’s tagline gave fair warning, ‘This time it’s personal’. Lorraine Gary returned as Ellen Brody, along with the Brody boys, but Roy Scheider wisely chose to stay away, his character having been killed by a heart attack. Quite astonishingly Sargent had to sell the idea that the shark had a personal vendetta against the Brody family, or so Ellen would have us believe. The concept was idiotic and made for one of the most ill-judged sequels of all time. The only thing that makes the fourth instalment even remotely watchable is the presence of Michael Caine and Mario Van Peebles, hamming up a storm in support roles.
Parts 3 and 4 aside, Jaws 2 often indulges my want for more solid Amity Island action, so high is my regard for the original story told there 1975. Despite Jaws’ obvious ability to chill an audience, the film was the first scary movie I watched as a child and really enjoyed. There was no hiding behind a cushion and no scampering off to bed half way through. The film’s magic worked on me wholesale, and I had to see it right to the very end, and then go back and be scared all over again. Many years on I have still not grown tired of visiting Amity Island and the shocks it has in store. There was a very good reason why 1975 was not the year for swimming; if you don’t know why, pour yourself a pint of red wine and settle down for an evening with Jaws.
See also Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3-D (1983) and, Jaws: The Revenge (1987)