In 1975 the culture of filmmaking was forever changed. Pop culture gained a new element that involved an almost pathological fear of water and we would forever associate two distinct notes with impending disaster. We also saw the first massively successful feature from the director that would define his career through massively successful films. The summer blockbuster was born, the name Steven Spielberg meant something and we would never go near the water again.
It’s hard to imagine the success of ‘Jaws’ given that it had such a troubled shoot. Famously of course the mechanical shark malfunctioned and as a result the script had to be re-written to incorporate less of the shark to make up for it. During this turmoil Spielberg was told numerous times by studio executives that he would never work in the film industry again. But ‘Jaws’ would go on to become the highest grossing film of all time upon its release, becoming the first film to gross more than $100 million.
When you look at it that way it can be very easy to forget that even without its commercial hyper-success, without the extraordinary history of the film’s production and without the association of the most successful director of all time, Jaws is a masterpiece.
Let’s start with that shark (and I say the shark because contrary to what casual movie goers will tell you, the shark is NOT CALLED JAWS). The tension builds and builds throughout the film as we see the aftermath of its monstrous attacks, we hear experts describe its ferocity and the fear it instils amongst is prey. The most frightening aspects of ‘Jaws’ are when the shark is not even visible, merely close by and aware of an imminent attack. Instead of showing us the shark from the outset Spielberg employed a number of methods to allude to the size and strength of the shark such as debris being dragged behind it, the impact of it crashing against Quint’s boat and another shark that we are told is only a fraction of the size of the one they’re looking for. It’s only made better by that incredible John Williams score.
Any other director might have featured a tense, prolonged and obvious build up to the shark’s first appearance. The problem this would create is that no matter how dangerous or horrifying the shark is it would ultimately disappoint as it could never live up to the hype. But Spielberg drops the shark when you’re least suspecting it, a moment of calmness punctuated by the true magnitude of what our heroes have to face is perhaps the scariest, most shocking and thanks to that iconic line ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat’, the most darkly humorous moment of the entire film.
Speaking of those heroes, another key feature of Jaws was the multiple re-writes it went through to change the characterisations and attitudes of the various characters. Spielberg described the characters in the book as being so unlikable and unsympathetic that ‘I was rooting for the shark’. These characters exemplify how despite the well-directed action of ‘Jaws’ and the frightening scenario it presents, we only really become drawn in due to the excellently crafted characters. There’s a likability and relatability to them as Hooper, Quint and Brody set out to take down the shark there’s a sense of danger because not only is the danger real, but it directly threatens these characters that you’ve grown to care about. From that earlier scene at the dinner table you know Brody is a devoted family man that is loved by many people and is only trying to do what’s right. You sympathise with him when he’s blamed for the death of that young boy by not closing the beach. By the end we’re not necessarily celebrating because there’s a dead shark, we’re celebrating because it means the characters are safe and have survived the ordeal.
Perhaps the best scene of the film comes from those three characters sitting down to discuss their various experiences with sharks. We have Quint’s haunting monologue that further raises the stakes, a little divulging over each character’s personal experiences and all wrapped up with some sea-shanties (alright it sounds better on the screen). It encapsulates the sense of various genres and characters brought together by this force of nature.
‘Jaws’ could have been so many lesser things, a standard 70s disaster flick or with the production problems, just a disaster of a movie. But Spielberg’s less is more approach nudged the film into an entirely different genre, going from thriller to horror to character study and back to horror again. It sets the standard for all Hollywood blockbusters and we owe them to this film that first rolled onto the screens 40 years ago.