Jaws (1975) Director: Steven Spielberg
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat…”
Based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel of the same name, Jaws is the classic horror film about a massive great white shark plaguing a summer New England resort town. Benchley, who later regretted creating fear-based literature focused on sharks, makes a small cameo as a reporter on the beach in the film. He co-wrote the screenplay (as well as several follow-up Jaws movies). Jaws was the notable originator of the summer blockbuster, a trend that would soon follow with other release strategies, such as Star Wars.
The setting is Amity Island, a small tourist town off the New England Coast (shot on location at Martha’s Vineyard). It is nearly the 4th of July weekend – the height of the tourist season for the year. At the beginning a young girl goes skinny sipping at sunrise after happily departing a teenage beach party with her drunken beau, but she is brutally attacked and killed by a shark. The brand new police chief originally from New York, Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider – his most notable role), decides to close the beaches, until he is pressured into leaving the beaches open by the mayor of Amity who fears businesses and tourism will suffer. A bounty of $10,000 is placed on the shark, and an oceanographic expert named Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) arrives and grows gravely concerned about the situation. A group of fishermen believe they have caught the shark, but then Brody and Hooper travel in his boat at night to discover a sunken ship that is torn apart with a huge great white shark tooth stuck in its hull. Hooper quickly swims back up after seeing a floating dead body. Still the Mayor refuses to close the beaches. So the beaches become crowded with people for the weekend until a couple of boys play a prank with a faux shark fin, while the true shark strikes and kills a kayaker in the shallow bay where Brody’s son is playing, sending the boy into shock. Now the film becomes personal for Chief Brody. He convinces the Mayor to hire Quint (played by Robert Shaw of The Sting, A Man for All Seasons, and From Russia With Love fame). Quint is a grizzled local sailor who has hunted many sharks. Brody, Hooper, and Quint set out in Quint’s boat, ironically named the “Orca,” and soon they discover the shark to be about 25 feet long, to which Brody makes the famous line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat…”
They attempt to track the shark by shooting him with a harpoon gun attached to floating barrels. In one of the better scenes in the film, both Hooper and Quint spend the night drinking and exchanging battle scars and stories while Brody listens. Quint reveals himself to be a survivor of the tragedy aboard the USS Indianapolis, a ship carrying vital pieces for “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb to a US base in the Philippines, but on the return trip it was torpedoed by the Japanese. While bobbing in the water, many of the men were picked off by sharks (hence why Quint has such a vendetta against sharks). Nearly 1,200 men went into the water, only 300 or so survived. Back to the film plot, suddenly, the shark returns and starts ramming into the hull as in the story of the Essex, and Quint is driven mad (like Captain Ahab) to kill the shark. He destroys the boat’s mode of communication, and the “Orca” begins to take on considerable water. Quint tries to drive the boat back inward rather than out to sea (at Hopper’s suggestion) but in a mad state, he burns out the engine by pushing it too hard. In a last ditch effort, they send Hooper down in a shark cage with a poison-tipped spear, but the shark utterly decimates the cage. Hooper hides in a cove underwater (in the original script he dies, but they re-wrote this portion after capturing excellent footage of a shark attacking an underwater cage off the coast of Australia). As the boat is sinking, the massive shark continues to destroy the boat and he violent bites Quint in half and kills him. Brody shoves one of the scuba gas canisters into the sharks mouth, and as the boat is nearly sunk, he floats downward with the crow’s nest shooting his gun, until finally a bullet strikes the tank in the shark’s huge mouth and it explodes, sending bits of bloody shark all over the area. Brody and Hooper laugh while swimming back to shore via the floating barrels.
Spielberg initially had to be convinced to continue with the project (he didn’t want to be a type-cast director), and he didn’t find some of the subplots in the novel to be particularly interesting or convincing. He is quoted as suggesting all the main characters in the novel are extremely unsympathetic, Spielberg was actually hoping the shark would kill them all in the end. The film became bogged down in budget and timing issues, it was slowed due to New England weather issues as well as mechanical issues with the shark.
Amazingly, the shark does not appear until two-thirds of the way into the film (a la Hitchcock). What we do not see is truly frightening. At the outset, in which the nude woman is swimming in the ocean, she is attached to a crane device that has yanked her underwater without telling her, thus creating the true effect of terror. John Williams, of course, composed the remarkable Academy Award-winning score, which includes the dramatic dual note crescendo of “E to F” or perhaps “F to F#.”
Jaws is still a fun and shocking monster film. It is a simple and relatable horror film, perhaps that is why we enjoy this iconic film. The popular fear of sharks is coupled with the feeling of being safe in a quiet little tourist town, like Martha’s Vineyard. It is not a great work of art by any means, but Jaws is a delightful blockbuster film (one of many blockbusters for Spielberg). One of the great techniques of horror films, as exemplified in Jaws, is when the audience becomes aware of a serious threat prior to the actors. In the first part of the film, the audience discovers the true gravity of the situation along with Chief Brody, but he soon feels relieved when a shark is caught, and now the audience is aware of the danger (more so than Chief Brody). We begin the film feeling a psychological safety/kinship with Chief Brody, and then those feelings move to Matt Hooper for his intelligence and understanding of the situation, and finally we feel secure with Quint and his vast experience on the ocean. However gradually as the movie progresses, all the feelings of safety disappear as the boat sinks, Quint is violently killed, and Brody and Hooper are left exposed in dangerous waters. This is the key to the tension in the story.