Spielberg: Jaws

I first saw Jaws at the cinema on its initial release as an eight-year-old (whoops I’ve just given away my age) and its one film which made a lifelong impression on me. Following this I wanted to become an Oceanologist (this never happened) and ironically I developed a lifelong respect for sharks. Even viewing the film today it is still quite a stirring and surprisingly shocking that it only received an ‘A’ certificate given its blood, severed limbs and shocking moments. The early seventies, while Hollywood was reeling from financial crisis after financial crisis, produced a number of blockbuster films that did not have a large cast of famous star names but instead focused on publicity and acting. Steven Spielberg represented a new wunderkind of directors that included among others Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas who became a lifelong friend of Spielberg’s. But Spielberg was in a different league. As would his career would pan it became apparent that he tapped into a childhood sensibility that would become more evident in later films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and ET: the Extra Terrestrial (1982) as well as the Indiana Jones films and other later films and, unlike Scorsese who dealt with his Italian-American identity Spielberg never really dealt with Jewish identity until Schindler’s List (1993), although there is a certain amount of schmaltz to his films. By the eighties no summer holidays were complete without a multiplex release from Spielberg. However, that is not how Spielberg’s career began. The film that was released has sometimes been labeled a horror film, a disaster movie given that the stable communities portrayed became unstable, a monster movie or just categorized as a blockbuster. Earlier films by the director included TV made horror and supernatural films such as Something Evil and Duel, the best known of all made for TV movies from the seventies. After making his cinema released feature film (although Duel did receive a limited cinema release following its success), The Sugarland Express in 1974, Spielberg embarked on making Jaws for Universal studios with production backing by Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown. In 1973 Spielberg was to make a biopic TV movie for Universal television on the life of Thomas Crapper, the inventor of toilet! But when Spielberg walked into Zanuck’s office, Zanuck proposed a feature film based off Peter Benchley’s best selling novel, ‘Jaws’. For Zanuck, Spielberg’s work on Duel and The Sugarland Express had displayed his talent for building tension and the performances that he can draw from actors. And he proved that Zanuck and Brown’s instincts were correct.

The original shooting schedule was to be 55 days, but the film making problems that the film presented meant that it stretched into 159 and, it has to be said some of the credit of the final film must go to Zanuck and Brown for not scrapping the film and putting their faith into Spielberg. The films initial budget was $3.5 million. The final film cost just over $10.5 million to make and in by the end of the season in the US alone it grossed a record breaking $129 million. But not only this, it had a huge marketing hype around it from T-shirts, poster, mugs and any other items the poster image could be printed on to draw in large merchandising revenue with its image of the jaws of a large Great White Shark about to eat the unsuspecting swimmer on the surface, above her the cherry red angular letters JAWS written at the top. This dispels the myth that George Lucas had invented film merchandising with Star Wars just two years after Spielberg’s film although even Spielberg’s film was overshadowed by Lucas’ film. The audiences were both charmed and shocked by Spielberg’s film and much of the dialogue and monologues of the film went into film lore, not least of all Robert Shaw’s grizzled fisherman’s tale of the USS Indianapolis, as well as much of the everyday dialogue from Benchley and Carl Gottlieb that went into the film. After this kids were afraid to go into the bath tub, let alone the sea. Bill Butler’s tense cinematography from a point-of-view perspective, Verna Fields’ expert visual editing and John Williams’ unforgettable score must also take much of the credit in creating the atmosphere and adding to the film success – making this very much a collaborative effort with even Spielberg admitting that half the films success was down to Williams’ score. However, as everyone who has seen the film knows, the films only real let down is the too oft seen, clearly mechanical rubber shark known to the crew as Bruce that fails to stand up against the CGI available today – and this is what caused Spielberg his most technical problems as well as the bad weather hampering filming at sea with Martha’s Vineyard standing in for Amity Island.

The plot itself barely needs replaying: the local community of Amity Island comes under threat from a large Great White Shark threatening the summer tourist season with Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) trying to calm the local community and learn about the big fish himself. A hunting frenzy then takes place acting like a modern day peasant community with pitch forks killing any shark they say. Brody assembles a hunting party consisting of himself (with very little in the way of sea legs), a marine biologist called Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a grizzled old shark fisherman called Quint (Robert Shaw) aboard his boat Orca. This is where the film totally changes pace from threatened community disaster film to monster movie.

The end result is an absolute corker of a film with Dreyfuss’s marine biologist appearing more like a sensitive cerebral type and is very much an alter ego for the wunderkind. Jaws was released to huge critical and commercial success as already mentioned from a director who never wanted to make a critical success that was a commercial flop. For a large part of his career this has been a wish come true as he has produced more truly great films than truly bad ones. What followed were a slew of copycat creature features from King Kong (1976) to Orca – the Killer Whale (1977), The Deep (1977) and the inevitable Jaws 2 (1978), the beginning of what would become an appalling franchise of films. Sadly one of the other legacies that followed in the wake of Jaws were the feeding frenzy that went into hunting sharks, the prices on shark teeth and people’s fear of these magnificent creatures.

Chris Hick

Share this!