“Martha’s Vineyard has everything. Clear skies. Gentle surf. People flock to its Atlantic beaches every summer to splash in the waves. But there was apprehension in the air at the weekend after multiple warnings that one or possibly two great white sharks were cruising the waters close to its beaches.” (Leonard Doyle, The Independent).
I don’t know about you but the prospect of some deathly pale unfortunate, splashing about in their bright yellow Speedo’s, is quite a grim visage in itself without adding the image of said unfortunate being taken apart by a 14-foot Great White. That being said, and by way of a muse, it was this report that drove me to put virtual pen to paper and give my sickeningly biased, and love-soaked opinion, on what has been my favourite film for as long as I can remember… Jaws.
Never has a film affected me more, and on so many varying levels. I can’t quite remember when I first saw this movie, who I was with, or any of the subsequent nightmares. I know I was young and I know it scared the hell out of me. I would hazard a guess that over the past thirty years I’ve watched it more times than I could honestly consider healthy… I remember one particular summer when I watched the thing once a week!
Regardless of my own prevailing nightmares, a relentless fear of water, and a continued fascination with sharks, Jaws was a seminal movie for many others and has directly shaped the way modern cinema offerings are produced, marketed and ultimately released.
Made in 1975, it was the first movie to be dubbed a summer blockbuster, the first film to be released nationally or ‘wide released’, the first to be distributed and marketed simultaneously (a practice that still continues today), and the first to cross the $100 million dollar profit mark. While we’re on a stat trip I’ll have it noted that Jaws eventually grossed approximately $470 million worldwide – that equates to almost $2.5 billion in adjusted 2014 dollars. That’s higher than Titanic, The Avengers, and sits just below the biggest grossing film of all time, Avatar – and all without the need for stupid 3d gimmicks to increase the ticket price.
Now for the history bit…
Peter Benchley’s novel was already flying off the shelves before producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown received the option for it. Knowing it would make a great movie, but unsure of how it could be filmed, a ridiculously young Stephen Spielberg stumbled upon the pages and foolishly signed up to direct. Shooting the movie began in Martha’s Vineyard before either final draft or the model sharks had been completed, and with this foolhardy optimism, the cast and crew began an estimated 55-day principle photography shoot – a shoot that would eventually wrap on day 159!
The months that followed saw the overall production budget spiral, the model sharks frequently malfunction, the script re-written several times (and by several different contributors), the expiration of the Screen Writers Guild contract, relationship tensions between ‘the veteran’ Robert Shaw and ‘cocky upstart’ Richard Dreyfuss, to say nothing of the growing distaste shown by the wealthy inhabitants of Matha’s Vineyard towards the cast and crew of the movie – as David Brown acknowledged, ‘… [The residents] didn’t particularly care for a movie invasion, and didn’t like to see an artificial shark parked in the sea channel where their homes faced!’
Groundbreaking cinema obviously requires you to break some ground, what those associated with Jaws failed to realise is that you also need to break parts of yourself too! A tough shoot, tougher environmental factors, and some difficult cast relationships, the making of this movie could be mulled over for many hours and indeed has via several books and a few documentaries. However, while all of these varying autopsies of the film are worth a look, and thoroughly cover the making of Jaws, I want to explore some of the reasons why this film is the classic it is, and perhaps more importantly how it continues to thrill all who see it – including myself.
‘… the screams started, and they never stopped …’ These words, offered by David Brown when asked to talk about the initial test screenings, still ring true today and is one of the film’s greatest achievements. I struggle to think of another movie, ticking the boxes that Jaws does, that could equally stand the test of time with such command and grace. It’s amazing how this film had the same effect on my nephew (aged 14) only last year, as it did with me over 28-years ago (and also aged 14 at that time) – and let’s not forget that my teenage nephew is a child of the modern comic-book movie invasion and has been fed CGI and digital movie-making from an early age.
Often cited as an action movie, other times a thriller, occasionally by some as horror, and with strong elements of comedy and well-mapped suspense, Jaws manages to cloud any kind of genre definition. I’ve seen the movie plenty of times and still don’t know what to term it. As a child I remember being completely terrified by certain parts of the movie (severed head mysteriously left in a boat anyone??). As I got older the film broke into two sections, the build-up, and the stuff on the boat. As that impressionable child, the part on the boat was always my favourite, as I started to appreciate movies for their story-telling and dialogue; the build-up became my preferred section. These days I love it all equally.
Suspense, horror, action, comedy, buddy film, guys on a mission, a family terrorised – it has all of the above. Now tell me that’s not good entertainment?
Talking of covering all bases, Jaws leaves nothing to chance, especially in its casting. The three principles (excluding the shark) worked to perfection. In-fighting aside, Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw played their parts in such a way that audience empathy is secured within seconds of meeting them. As an ensemble cast I struggle to think of any better, and they own the screen with their charm and credibility.
In fact, all characterisations are on the money and are never allowed to detract from the story. Every second of this movie is there for a reason with nothing on show that could be deemed as excess baggage or self-indulgent filler. The Mayor, the various fishermen, the families affected by the events, all is perfectly pitched and totally in sync with both the actual surroundings depicted in the movie and the audiences’ own preconceptions of life in a small town undergoing such an ordeal.
Waxing lyrical any further on individual cast members, and whilst easy to perform, is too obvious. Anyone who has seen this film knows just how good they all are, and how they enrich the story and take it beyond the simple monster movie it could have been. It’s like asking someone to make the noise of a shark coming at you… everyone does the dur-dur, dur-dur, dur-dur theme tune. Just like the string arrangement played during the Psycho shower scene, these things leave a mark on your subconscious and are never forgotten.
Even that half submerged camerawork is now an industry standard when shooting anything at sea – forcing the audience to engage with the events on screen as if right there.
For me, and what makes this film great, is that it has it all going on – all the genre stuff, great acting and direction, picture perfect locations, that relentless soundtrack and the overall primeval fear of the last great predator on Earth chasing you down.
There is an elemental terror about what is under the waterline, and Jaws exploits this again and again, through changing generations and cultures, using subtle camerawork, strong narrative and enduring performance.
Who needs a bigger boat?
Paul Millard 2014
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