Rise of the Summer Blockbuster: The Birth of Jaws

Jaws poster

VHS Revival Revisits the original summer blockbuster. Need we say more?


Some films have such an influence on you it can feel like there was never a time in your life that you hadn’t seen it; you’d been born knowing its nuances and meanings, almost like a parent in the way it helped to form your beliefs.

I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom Jaws was their first experience in true terror. After its release, a whole generation of kids were suddenly petrified of going into the sea and an entire species was vilified, but as well as bringing horror into the family home, Jaws gave birth to the modern blockbuster.

When Universal producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown independently read Peter Benchley’s Jaws, they had no idea that they were about to change the direction of cinema. Settling on the unknown and still in his 20s Steven Spielberg as director was a masterstroke of fortune and trust that would lead to the creation of one of THE greatest films of all time. Plagued by trouble during production – escalating budgets, technical problems, re-writes and a bloated shooting schedule – it became a lesson in putting faith in a talented director who can work around problems and make the best of a difficult situation.

jaws

Universal had created a horror legacy from turning popular literary figures into horror icons, and they did the same here with a wonderful opening scene that perfectly reflects the unstoppable force of nature embodied by the shark. Unseen by the audience but brutally effective, it represents the terror of ‘what lies beneath’. If horror directors such as Dario Argento portray mirrors, windows and glass as the reflection of good (or the revelation of evil), then Spielberg did the same with water, introducing a protagonist who was afraid of it yet surrounded by it, making this a film about overcoming fear before the shark is even introduced.

One of the things the movie does so well is use music as a substitute for the monster. It’s nigh on impossible to shake the two musical notes that escalate and reverberate throughout the film, signalling the deadly menace and intent of Spielberg’s most famous beast. John Williams’ score is so effective that it’s easy to forget that you don’t get a good look at the shark until well into the second half of the film, a decision made relatively early due to multiple problems with various mechanical sharks.

Jaws Mechanics

Spielberg very nearly walked away from production, fearing he would be typecast due to the thematic similarity between this and his unnervingly assured debut movie Duel – ironically the reason his interest was piqued in the first place. Spielberg has shown time and time again how good he is at building tension, with a keen eye for the set piece. I still remember the first time I saw this film and the scene that affected me the most was when the two fishermen try to catch the shark with just a rubber ring and a side of beef. His use of substitution is incredibly effective. The music and the broken jetty double for the shark as sound and vision, the panic in the two men’s voices as the driftwood gets closer and the music gets louder and more frenetic. I found it almost unbearable as a 7-year-old. It gave me nightmares despite ending on a jocular “Can we go home now?” just to ease the tension.

Hooper – Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all.

In a sense, that scene encapsulates a movie that is very much split into two halves. The first half sets the scene on land by dangling the Sunday roast as we see a number of kids and holidaymakers as bait for the shark. Afterwards the film ventures away from the jetty, leaving good old terra firma for the big wash in the second half of the film as our ‘odd trio’ of the world weary Flint (a scene-stealing Robert Shaw), marine biologist Hooper (a brilliantly vulnerable, understated and almost comic performance from Richard Dreyfuss) and Chief Brody (Roy Scheider going against type as a modestly competent police chief).

Jaws Cast

The book plays heavily on class divide and, although this is largely excised in the movie, key elements remain. Quint is the tough, working class man with a chip on his shoulder, holding Hooper’s hands and telling him “You’ve been counting money all your life” whilst Hooper is the privileged, educated gentleman who has inherited his fortune and uses technology as his tools, replying to Quint “Hey, I don’t have to put up with this working class hero crap”. Brody, essentially classless in his role as police chief, acts as mediator between the two as it falls on him to destroy the shark and reveal the failing of the class system and its ultimate reliance on authority figures.

This dynamic in the second half beautifully complements the carnage of the first. On the beach the solution is obvious, don’t go in the water, and it would be all too easy (as we saw in Joe Dante’s surprisingly good pastiche Piranha) to keep the film on the shoreline for maximum shock value. But what Spielberg and co-writers Gottlieb and Benchley do is move away from the crowded and familiar safety of the sandy shore to create a microcosm of suspense and tension between three characters who all have different motivations . . . Quint’s in it for the money and the challenge, Hooper for the research and Brody for the safety of the people. It also hems them in as they enter the domain of the monster. If you’re on the beach and there’s a monster in the water, just play in the sand and soak up the sun . . . but where do you go if you’re already in the water and miles from shore? It all becomes ominously claustrophobic when you’re trapped in a confined space and Brody’s ad-libbed “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” is a classic moment in cinema.

Jaws flee

There is one scene in particular from that microcosm, I’m talking of course about Quint’s Indianapolis monologue. Shaw is an accomplished writer as well as an actor and re-wrote this monologue to deliver one of the standout pieces of dialogue. For a brief moment, we forget about the menace outside and witness one of the characters internalise his struggle with demons that influence his actions right up to the end of the movie, an experience that shapes the vivid persona that he brings to the screen. Apparently, Shaw worked with a local fisherman who taught him to walk and talk like a man with sea legs; Spielberg gave him a small part as Ben Gardner, the character whose head pops out of the boat for the movie’s infamous ‘jump scare’.

Quint – Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then… oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces.

As groundbreaking as the movie is, perhaps its biggest legacy is that it served as a blueprint for the archetypal summer blockbuster. One of the first high concept movies which can be described in a single sentence, it marked a move away from historical epics and sweeping romance to action-based movies aimed at a mass market. Though the formula has become more cynical over time, recycling and sometimes eating itself (Armageddon and Deep Impact, Independence Day and War of the Worlds, Spiderman a . . . erm . . . The Amazing Spiderman), the huge amount of money thrown at summer movie marketing and advertising continues to this day.

Jaws theatre

Blockbusters aside, the movie is also a classic horror about nature fighting back against humanity in the form of a giant and monstrous creature, a theme we’d seen many times before with the likes of King Kong. It also reflects his TV movie Duel, which pits an everyman against an unstoppable assailant, this time on dry land with a truck instead of at sea with a shark. Both films play on the primal fear of being hunted, reversing man’s natural role as the predator and exposing our vulnerabilities, a fact foreshadowed by the shot of the boat framed in the jawbone of a long-dead shark. The sound effect at the end of ‘Jaws’, as the remains of the shark sink to the bottom of the ocean, is an altered version of the noise Duel’s truck makes as it drives over the clifftop.

If I were to criticise the film at all it would be in regards to society’s altered perception of sharks as killers when most attacks are rare cases of mistaken identity. The creatures, which are incredible examples of evolution, have been demonised to the point of being listed as a vulnerable species. This decline in numbers has happened since the 70’s, and although global warming has no doubt played its part, these beautiful, fearsome creatures only have two natural predators . . . killer whales and man.

Jaws Shark

Despite being a family film, Jaws raises that old question about what makes a horror film. The movie features most of the tropes you would associate with horror, so there is a strong argument that it be regarded as one of, if not THE most successful horror film of all time in terms of box office and reputation. It’s also a perfect example of relentless tension and taut direction, of delivering timely scares and critical suspense levels. In an era of CGI and mega bucks superstars, it sometimes takes a reflective look at where the modern blockbuster originated to see that the best of them generally have neither of those elements.

They might not quite make them like that anymore, but Jaws is still essential viewing and remains as effective now as it was then, and largely because of that fact.

Simon Towers




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