Whether it’s a film about a shark, a film about man’s hubris, a film about ‘the bomb’, or a film about the risks of ignoring health and safety advice to catch some rays down at the beach, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of the most beloved and iconic movies of all time.
As Bruce readies up for his 45th birthday then, now is as good a time as any to look at how the story of a shark attacking a small island off the coast of New England birthed the summer blockbuster and changed cinema forever.
To begin, we need a sense of the time. Jaws was released stateside on June 20th 1975. This was the year the Watergate Scandal came to a head, ending an especially volatile time in American political history. It was also the year Saigon fell, marking the US’ defeat in the horrific two decades long Vietnam War.
With public spirits low and paranoia high, the disillusioned masses found themselves seeking something better than the world outside their doorstep.
With multiplexes popping up all across America and escape on everyone’s minds, the scene was set for a summer of cinema like nothing seen before.
Over at Universal Pictures, the opportunity to try something bold in troubling times wasn’t wasted.
Jaws’ production was legendarily challenged. Failing shark animatronics, a shoot 104 days overrunning, a final budget over 100% more than estimated, and feuding stars had all ensured the making of Steven Spielberg’s movie was to be as well known as the film itself.
Recalling the shoot years later, Spielberg would state that on completion, ‘I was sure that my career as a filmmaker was over.’
The truth couldn’t have been further from that. Even with the slew of obstacles Universal had faced, Jaws mania had already swept the nation.
Peter Benchley’s high concept novel sold over 5.5 million copies in America alone in the year between its release and the film’s, and even though critics hadn’t been entirely impressed, the public simply couldn’t get enough of Brucie.
Aware that the zeitgeist pointed towards a cultural phenomenon, Universal’s marketing department made an unprecedented move in anticipation of Jaws’ success, spending $1.8 million on a near year-long advertising campaign.
This campaign included not only an unprecedented barrage of TV spots, but also merchandise, from books to board-games to t-shirts to toilet seat covers – Jaws was everywhere before Jaws was anywhere.
The volume and ferocity of Jaws’ marketing campaign paved the way for films to be seen as events in their own right.
Because of Jaws’ success, companies like Disney invest as much in marketing their films as they do in making them today, and the revenue generated from a big release comes as much through merch and ad campaigns as it does through the box office.
Releasing in over 400 cinemas in June 1975, Jaws tore through the box office, making back its massive budget within a week, and turning the previously dry summer slot in cinema schedules into the most desired. Within seven months, it was the highest grossing film of all time.
People were watching the film, telling their friends, watching it again, and then going back for more, birthing the summer blockbuster spectacle as we know it today.
But what is it that kept audiences then, and now, going back to Amity Island for more?
Spielberg credits ‘a simple story of three guys and a boat’ for Jaws’ success, heaping the praise on Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw as Officer Brody, Hooper, and Quint, three men whose magnetic screen presence and their characters’ varying shades of heroism have made them cinematic icons.
The simplicity of the film, at least on the surface, is certainly key.
Be it down to the production issues or the lack of a script when shooting began, with Spielberg encouraging improvisation and experimentation (Quint’s brilliant USS Indianapolis speech was rewritten by Shaw on set, on the day) whilst trying out maverick methods to create tension, Jaws has a distinctive lightning in a bottle feel to it.
For example, if it weren’t for the failure of the Bruce animatronics, Spielberg wouldn’t have employed the point-of-view camerawork that is the centre of the film’s sense of dread.
The predatory, darting camera movements make us fear for Amity’s residents, whilst taking us into the perspective of an unreasoning killer.
The technique is remarkable, creating mystique around the killer, but also simply thrilling, and the likes of Halloween and Friday The 13th would go on to do the same thing to innervate and excite cinemagoers.
Further, from John Williams’ immortal two-note expression of dread, to Martha’s Vineyard’s beautiful evocation of Amity Island, to the sheer volume of iconic quotes, moments, and images held within a simple tale about a terrifying shark and a woefully ill-managed town, Jaws is at once the work of a master, and the work of a great experimenter.
The story of Jaws is simple, which is why its appeal is universal, but the style and execution is anything but.
This Best Film nominated and three-time Oscar Award winning movie is a shining example of mainstream filmmaking that is as cinematically brilliant, as it is commercially monumental.
Few films would dare change the landscape of cinema whilst also leaving fans grinning from ear to ear at the end as the hero shouts ‘smile you son of a bitch’ and blows a great white shark to pieces.
At a time where paranoia and dread were epidemic, Spielberg and Jaws did for America what Godzilla had done for Japan’s H-Bomb grief and anxiety 20 years earlier.
Jaws made entertainment out of fear, allowing people to reclaim their anxieties and experiences, and channel them into a rollercoaster ride of emotions and sensations.
Jaws is a timeless classic, the first summer blockbuster and still the best. To paraphrase Quint, this film, swallow you whole.