When choosing the films I’m going to highlight during this project I can occasionally feel a bit of guilt when I choose the most obvious option. There’s a certain expectation that I should try to find something of a deep-cut, a movie that doesn’t get talked about enough. But, the whole idea of this project was to talk about my favorite movies of each year, not the movie I feel deserves the most discussion. Sometimes I have to follow my heart, even if that means I’m going to be talking about a movie that has been talked to death. We’re talking Jaws today, folks, as you can tell. Which isn’t to say that 1975 didn’t put up a good fight, providing me with some other solid contenders. Because, much like damn-near every year in the 1970’s, there’s a lot of great movies getting put into the world in ’75. We could have taken a trip to the madhouse with the incredibly affecting and unnerving One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one of the few movies that I actually think is better than the book it’s based on. Or, we got have gotten downright silly and insane with the bizarre masterpiece Monty Python and the Holy Grail, giving me the contemptible mission of explaining the plot of that damned movie. We also could have slipped on our fishnets and taken a trip to the midnight movies with the Rocky Horror Picture Show, one of the weirdest and most enduring films of all time, and one of the few movies I legitimately feel deserves the moniker “Cult Film.” And, going on a shockingly similar path, we could have talked banks, yelling, and Attica with Dog Day Afternoon, a film that just slaps you in the face from beginning to end, and leaves you wanting more. Or, hey, we could have dove into the world of Roger Corman with the indescribable joy of Death Race 2000. But, the film that gave me the most heartburn in regard to picking Jaws, and the movie that I came damn close to choosing instead, was Roger Altman’s Nashville. I love Nashville, a sprawling film that really came to become the perfect example of everything Altman could do as a director while brutally satirizing the country music world, and American pop culture as a whole. It’s a hell of a movie, although one that can become a bit of an endurance test, especially if you don’t get on the same wavelength with Altman’s style of film-making. But, I think it’s a wonderful movie. But, Jaws is a perfect film. And each time I re-watch it I find myself picking my own jaw up off the floor, just absolutely blown away by what a masterpiece it is.
One of the things that I’ve found most fascinating while writing about these movies is how incredibly mundane the origins of such massive films could be. Take Jaws for example. Apparently producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown first came across the novel Jaws by Peter Benchley was when they read a blurb about it in Cosmopolitan magazine. And that blurb ended with the phrase “might make a good movie.” So, the two producers read the book, and agreed with that assessment and got to work securing the book’s film rights before it was even published. They originally wanted a more veteran film-maker to handle the movie, which they assumed would be a difficult shoot, but it ended up going to relative newcomer Steven Spielberg when he visited the two men’s office and spotted the book on their table. He read the book, loved it, and began lobbying for the movie until the producers relented and gave him a shot, citing his work on Duel from a few years prior. So, Spielberg got to work on the film, starting by stripping out a whole lot of the extraneous side-plots of the novel and tossing in a lot more humor and levity to keep it as light as possible. Spielberg then got the joy of looking at damn-near every major actor in Hollywood to fill out the cast of his film, running into the issue of almost everyone wanting to play a different character than the one Spielberg had in mind for them. But, eventually he landed on the three principle leads that ended up in the movie so that they could begin their hellacious shoot. If you know anything about the making of this film, you should know what an absolute mess it was. Primarily because of the giant robotic sharks they had built for all the action. The things just never worked, leading Spielberg and crew to have to work around a lot of malfunctioning robots, giving us the frequently shark-less movie we all know and love. And, between the sharks and the complications of filming large swaths of the movie in the ocean and underwater, the budget got pretty out of control. And yet. It worked. Boy, did it work. The movie was released in June of 1975 and became an immediate phenomenon. The movie became the highest grossing film of all time, and was almost instantly found to be the game-changing masterpiece that it has come to be known as today. It created the entire premise of the “Summer Blockbuster,” and has gone on to become one of the most singular and important films in American cinematic history. And it’s a hell of a good time.
Jaws takes place on Amity Island, a sleepy beach community that lives for the summer tourist season. But, a few days before the Fourth of July, the beginning of their busy tourist season, disaster strikes. A young woman is brutally killed and devoured by a massive great white shark while skinny dipping one night. The next morning when her remains wash up on the beach news of the attack is sent to Amity’s new police chief, Martin Brody, who has recently moved to Amity to get away from the stress and danger of being a New York City cop. And, acting reasonably, Brody decides that the city government of Amity needs to be proactive, and gets to work shutting down the main beach of the island, fearful of any future shark attacks. However, this runs him into quite a bit of resistance from the rest of the city government, especially Mayor Larry Vaughn who refuses to let Brody close down the beach just before their busiest time of year. So, against his instincts, Brody keeps the beaches open, and a few days later a young boy is killed and devoured by the shark as well, in full view of a beach-full of witnesses. This obviously causes the community to fly into a panic, especially when the mother of the dead boy offers up a bounty for the shark. This bounty turns Amity into an absolute circus as fishermen and greedy idiots from all around New England arrive to try and hunt down the shark so they can get the reward.
And, eventually, a shark is found. It’s killed and brought ashore, leading everyone to quickly claim that the menace has passed. But, that assertion is put into question when a young marine biologist named Matt Hooper arrives and maintains that this small tiger shark couldn’t possibly be the behemoth that’s killing people. Mayor Vaughn and his sycophants are quick to ignore Hooper, but Chief Brody find himself drawn in by the man’s hypothesis. The two begin working together, and find evidence that there is indeed a massive great white shark lurking off the shore of Amity, but their evidence is met with ignorance from Mayor Vaughn. The best he can do is to allow some extra beach security on the Fourth of July weekend. Brody and Hooper take what they can get, and stand watch during a very tense day at the beach where everyone is terrified of being devoured. And, after a prank led by some teenagers, the shark does show up, almost killing Body’s own children. And, at that point Vaughn finally relents, and gives Brody permission to hire a local fisherman named Quint to travel into the ocean, find the shark, and kill it.
Brody, Hooper, and the eccentric Quint then load up onto his boat, the Orca, and take to the sea, tracking down the shark that has caused so much havoc on Amity. The three men find themselves at odds with each other at first, but over their day at sea they slowly start to find some commradery. Quint is able to look past Hooper’s youth and bookishness to locate someone who actually knows a thing or two about the sea, Brody is able to deal with his fears of swimming and drowning, and Quint is able to drop his tough-guy schtick. They finally encounter the shark in the middle of the day, and are able to harpoon several barrels into it, hoping to tire the shark out. But, nothing seems to work, and as night falls the three men are forced to pause their hunt. They begin trading stories and jokes, growing closer as friends well into the night, when the shark returns, battering the small Orca, and causing quite a bit of structural damage. The next morning the men find themselves adrift with little power, a failing engine, and a sinking ship, when the shark begins returning. Hooper plans on lowering himself into the ocean in a cage in order to inject the shark with poison, but that plan goes wrong almost immediately, causing Hooper to hide in the water under the ship. And this leaves Brody and Quint to deal with an incredibly irate shark on their own. The beast ends up ramming the ship again, causing it to begin sinking, and in the process it’s able to devour Quint. Brody begins to panic at this point, and he ends up throwing a tank of compressed air into the shark’s mouth in desperation. But, sensing an opportunity, he grabs a rifle that Quint kept aboard the ship, and as the small boat begins sinking into the sea he’s takes a shot at the tank, causing an explosion that rips the shark into pieces. Brody is then able to meet back up with Hooper, and the pair begin swimming back to shore.
Really, what is there to say about Jaws that hasn’t been said? It’s one of the most famous, beloved, and influential movies of the twentieth century, and it remains one of the most enjoyable film experiences a person can have. Steven Spielberg is a truly gifted filmmaker, and this is far from the only time we’ll be talking about him in the second half of this Cinematic Century project. Because he was able to make a film that changed culture. It’s a masterpiece of tension and suspense, and the more you learn about how grueling and problematic the filming of the movie was the more you come to respect that. Because this movie should be a disaster. Nothing went right, and yet it was put together in a way that captured the hearts and minds of an entire nation, if not the world. Spielberg has always had a skill at making his incredibly complicated and intricate films seem effortless, tossing out technical marvels as if they were nothing, and delivering some of the most perfect tension this side of Hitchcock. This is a movie I’ve seen probably a dozen times, and it still gets me on the edge of my seat, drawn in by the terror, the characters, and the sheer scope that it wields. But, the key to the film isn’t the scale or the grandeur, even though that’s often what gets remembered. The real reason this movie works is that it makes you feel for these characters, it makes them feel like real people, making all of the larger-than-life action and terror feel more tangible. The scene of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss sitting around, telling stories about their scars is perhaps the most impressive thing in the film. We get drawn into a false sense of security before the rug is ripped out from below us, all while being lulled by masterful use of music, editing, acting, and writing, and if that’s not a perfect encapsulation of the entire film, I don’t know what is.
Jaws is often considered one of the most pivotal films in American cinematic history, primarily because it almost single-handedly ushered in the era of the blockbuster, pushing the New Hollywood movement away from the forefront of American cinema. It completely changed the game, causing studios to let go of the small-scale character dramas that had been dominating theaters for the past decade in order to make high-concept action adventure movies that made unfathomable amounts of money. Which, certainly can be used as a mark against the film, blaming it for the general dumbing-down of American cinema, because the flood of imitators that came in the wake of Jaws didn’t have near the technical or artistic skill that Spielberg and company lent to this movie. But, the thing I was most struck by Jaws during my most recent re-watch was the fact that pushing aside all of it’s blockbuster bluster, is the fact that it’s a very simple story. The New Hollywood movement prided itself on telling simple, human stories, told in relatable ways. And, while Jaws may not be the most relatable story in the world, it’s all backed up by a very primal and human idea. It’s man versus nature. It’s a perfect representation of the terror and existential dread that a human can face when forced to realize that we’re only technically at the top of the food chain because of our minds and our inventions. We couldn’t stand a chance against something like a great white shark if put in brutal contact with it. And, that terror immediately makes us toss an anthropomorphized sense of evil onto the animal. The shark in Jaws isn’t an evil being. It’s just a hungry animal. And yet, we can sit there and root for its demise because we connect with the people of Amity. We see ourselves in them, terrified of nature and the things our of our control. We desperately want to extend our will upon the natural world, and as history has proven time and time again, that’s just not possible. And that terror, frustration, and ennui that comes from that realization is one of the most human feelings in the world.
Jaws was written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, directed by Steven Spielberg, and released by Universal Pictures, 1975.
Categories: Cinematic Century