Jaws! The performances, the shark, the music, the director, the legend. This is one of the greatest films of all time. Released in 1975 after an enormously troublesome production that seemed destined to doom director Steven Spielberg to obscurity, its $9 million budget, like, got doubled to $470 million in box office revenue after it proved to be a summer smash hit. With bloody good reason!
It’s a sensational film. Guided by an exceptional script and impeccable performances, it’s not so much about a shark but a class war played out on a boat. Bobbing about on the ocean, Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint duke it out together to get the job done, trying not to deck each other out of frustration in the process. It’s exhilarating, primal, features well-timed humour, and it’s about as iconic as cinema can get.
In essence, there’s a great deal of Moby Dick involved in the Peter Benchley novel. Inspired by the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 (four people died in relatively quick succession), and the exploits of fisherman Frank Mundus in the 1960s, Benchley set about developing his high-concept. The novel isn’t exactly amazing, but it was ideal for adapatation to the big screen – the main problem were the technological limitations of the time.
Anyway, Spielberg was drafted in to direct and Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and a young Richard Dreyfuss were drafted in for shooting at Martha’s Vineyard in 1974. You’ll know the plot – a giant, hungry great white shark begins stalking the tourist location of Amity Island, triggering off concerns over the economic run for the 4th July.
Should they close the beaches, or let everyone go for a dip? Being a professional and everything, Chief Brody (Scheider) and the Mayor battle it out. Brody then gets a bit drunk and we have an intimate moment with his family – Jaws is crammed full of such minor details that help to enrich the experience. It’s these little moments that add a great deal of weight to what, really, could have been a daft B movie.
Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss) from the oceanographic institute arrives to offer help to the police force and local government. After the shark causes a further series of tragedies, they’re then forced to hire local maniac fisherman Quint to head out to sea to obliterate the shark – all this for $10,000, a crate of apricot brandy (apricot? a bit girly Quint, no?), a colour TV, and to end “that zoning crap”.
The shark ends up being a big one (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat“) and even wily Quint struggles to take it out. Life on board the Orca boat, however, becomes more of a battle of wits between the three men, as Quint perfects his working class hero routine, whilst Brody’s sense of claustrophobia and hatred of the oceanic setting makes him increasingly paranoid. This gets on Quint’s nerves.
It works as they’re likeable characters, each with a clear cut agenda to follow – they all have the same goal, but clash due to petty differences. Now, our favourite scene that combines all this is the second chase sequence, which is exhilarating, but we can’t find the clip on YouTube… well, that’s buggered that up, then.
It’s irrelevant, as the film is a bona fide classic that will still be talked about 100 years from now. Whilst some quibble about the shark looking unrealistic (it’s really not that bad – far better than some of the terrible CGI of our era), the exceptional performances are more than enough to completely immerse you into a film so charming, engaging, and visceral. It’s wholly realistic, never debasing itself with tacky tactics or moments of stupidity. The result? We’ll be watching it for the rest of our lives.
British actor Shaw, from Westhoughton in Lancashire, died suddenly in August of 1978 aged only 51. He didn’t think Jaws would be much of a success (actors such as Lee Marvin had even been considered ahead of him), but now it’s the film he’s most famous for. Some facts: he also had key roles in From Russia With Love, Battle of the Bulge (he’d served in the Royal Air Force during WWII), and the Sting.
In the ultra-rare interview above from the set of Jaws (so it’ll have been 1974), the sound quality is poor. In the first brief section, he discusses filming Quint’s death scene. The interviewer then asks him how he keeps himself occupied during downtime, to which he jokes about his alcoholism (which contributed to his early demise only a handful of years later – he had a heart attack whilst in Ireland).
Shaw caused trouble during the production by being belligerent and occasionally drunk. Somewhat frustrated as an actor during this time (he wanted to concentrate on his writing), he helped adapt the famous Indianapolis speech. Unfortunately, for the first take he got wasted (to accurately portray Quint’s half drunken state) and screwed up the shoot – sheepishly, he apologised to Spielberg and nailed the performance the next day.
Dreyfuss got the brunt of Shaw’s playful malice. The veteran actor spent most of his time winding up the young upstart, bullying him, and keeping him on edge. It works a treat, as the bromance between Hooper and Quint is one of the highlights of the film. After Jaws, Shaw acted in eight more films before his death, the last being cold war thriller Avalanche Express (1979).
Whilst Jaws is a masterpiece that should be watched by every new generation, the 1975 summer blockbuster has also been responsible for a tsunami of horrible derivatives. Some of these have tried to be good, such as the reasonable Deep Blue Sea (1999), but others head for the “so bad it’s good” self-awareness factor – think the horrific Sharknado series. These are so terrible it’s advised you don’t watch them, unless you’re totally brain-dead.
There have been a few more serious efforts, such as the Blake Lively vehicle the Shallows (2016) – it tries very hard to be a proper shark film, but descends into stupidity fairly rapidly. In 2017, cinema fans were handed 27 Metres Down – a decent premise, it’s astonishing how rapidly it plunges into a world of fantastical vacuity. We found ourselves laughing at the intense incompetence of the shark cage company. The consistent problems are hilarious. Top rate stuff.
Jaws, of course, spawned sequels. Jaws 2 emerged in 1978 and Roy Scheider, against his wishes, was drafted back in. It’s a daft horror flick for teenagers, but has some moments of merit. This isn’t the case for subsequent Jaws films, which means (to our knowledge) there’s only one great shark movie.
Its creator, author Peter Benchley, died in 2006. Aware of the negative impact Jaws had for sharks’ public image, he spent his final decades championing the activist cause. It’s been estimated circa 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year (a figure from 2013 by the Marine Policy). Meanwhile, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) documented 88 in 2017. Worldwide. With many shark species facing extinction concerns, it’s clear who we should be frightened of.