You’re gonna need a bigger screen: next up on Series Spielberg is the ultimate blockbuster, the big kahuna, the granddaddy of them all: Jaws. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, we are taking a look back at each film in the career of Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker who is most often credited with the creation of the blockbuster, and no other film better signifies this than Jaws. If you, dear reader, have not had the pleasure of partaking in this magnificent gem, I have three words for you: watch it now. For the rest of you, sit back and read more to better appreciate this film’s grandeur.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Before Jaws, Steven Spielberg was barely known among film audiences, let alone the film industry. After Jaws, though, that would all change in a big way. Steven found out one day that producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown were looking to adapt a novel named Jaws into a movie, and he lobbied for it hard. Being similar in nature to his first production, Duel, as they both pitted “leviathans” against “everymen,” Steven felt the project had his name on it. Being set on the ocean though, Steven would soon find that he had bitten off more than he could chew.
The film was based on a novel by longtime shark enthusiast Peter Benchley, whom Universal landed a movie deal with even before the book’s publication. Benchley was hired to write the first draft of the screenplay. Spielberg himself wrote a draft of the film, and though it wasn’t used, some concepts from it made their way into the movie. Playwright Howard Sackler ghostwrote a draft of Jaws, but it was comedic writer-actor Carl Gottlieb of The Odd Couple who wrote the final treatment of the movie, supervising improvisation on set and incorporating it into the script.
Jaws tells the story of a great white shark that begins feeding on the residents of the humble resort community of Amity Island. It’s up to new police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to protect the town’s inhabitants, while also weighing the competing interests of keeping the beaches open to ensure Amity’s economic survival during the crucial summer tourist season. When the shark doesn’t go away, he embarks on a hunting voyage with marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a local fisherman known simply as Quint (Robert Shaw).
The visuals, dialogue, music, and bare elements of Jaws are so powerfully iconic that they are permanently emblazoned on the American pop culture landscape. The film’s legacy is an influence so dominant that it has molded the motion picture industry today: big-budget escapist spectacles that are released during the summer, which prior to the movie’s release was considered a cinematic dead season. Boy did things change. Jaws kicked off Steven’s career as a maestro of popcorn moviemaking, and it’s all largely in thanks to the film’s excellent craft.
Partly why Jaws works so well is because it both functions in a great many ways, and yet it is so elegantly simple in its design. In its stripped-down essence, it’s a story of man-vs.-fish. In that sense, it’s a natural follow-up to Steven’s debut with Duel, but it’s also different in many ways. It’s a thriller. A comedy. A horror film. An adventure story. It’s all these things in one, and yet, it doesn’t over-extend itself trying to do too much, and that’s the beauty in its premise. Jaws is man-vs.-shark, and that’s all it needs to be to become a once-in-a-generation classic.
You wouldn’t know that if you were on the film crew though. Stories of the movie’s production troubles are legion in movie-lore, most of them relating to the difficulties of shooting on the ocean, as well as trying to get the mechanical sharks to operate. Steven’s M.O. so far had been to achieve maximum realism by always shooting on location, and until now, it had mostly worked out for him, but his confidence would come back to bite him with a vengeance on the set of Jaws. Strangely enough, however, it’s the production issues that made Jaws as great as it is today.
Spielberg’s tendency to obscure his villains, such as the trucker in Duel, and now the shark in Jaws, has often been compared to Hitchcock in its style. This wasn’t, though, his original intent with this film. Had CGI been available, Jaws would probably have lost a lot of its tension, but thanks to faulty mechanical sharks that would never cooperate, Steven decided to lean into the idea that the unseen and the imagined are always more powerful than the seen, leading to some of the most effective scares in the history of cinema when the shark does, in fact, show its face.
One of the most intense and scariest sequences in the film, is when Matt Hooper faces off with the shark from inside the shark cage. It’s one of the only scenes in Jaws to be shot in a studio in a production tank, and to feature actual shark footage. It’s an example of how in the film Spielberg orchestrates suspense in masterful fashion. He also uses gore sparingly for maximal effect, such as when Quint slides into the shark’s mouth and is eaten alive. And the film features one of the most thrilling endings of all time, when Brody detonates an oxygen tank in the shark’s mouth.
But also what makes the film so great is its perfect casting. Roy Scheider serves wonderfully as the film’s emotional anchor. An inspired change from the novel makes him an island transplant that can act as an audience surrogate, as is the alteration that gives him a timeless bromance with Richard Dreyfuss’s delightfully lively Matt Hooper. But the best performance in the film comes from Robert Shaw’s foul-mouthed Quint, who chews up more scenery than the shark as he spars off with the two other leads, and delivers one of the most chilling monologues ever.
Jaws can be viewed accurately as a buddy film or a straight-line adventure story, but critics have gleaned several interpretations over the years, one as being a rejection of post-Watergate cynicism where middle-class heroes prevail against oppressive evil. Jaws strikes as alarmingly relevant in the age of COVID-19, when public officials are weighing the odds on a deadly force impacting economic success, with vulnerable human lives serving as their gambling chips. We can only hope that our prospects will turn out greater than those of the swimmers on Amity.
And we can’t forget about the value of composer John Williams’ score to the film’s success. The theme of Jaws is one of the most iconic in motion picture history, and teaming up for the second time after the Sugarland Express, it’s a partnership that would benefit both John’s and Steven’s careers immensely. Spielberg saw a baptism by water of sorts while filming Jaws, but it was an affair that would work out gloriously well for the young filmmaker, catapulting him to national fame, as well as giving him invaluable learning experience for a prolific career to follow.
After examining one of Spielberg’s best masterpieces, we will take a look at his maturation with another one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.
Universal Pictures, Zanuck/Brown Company.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley.
Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, and Murray Hamilton.
Released June 20, 1975.