On 20 June 1975, something came from the water to change the landscape of summer movie releases forever. 40 years on, and, rubber shark aside, JAWS is still an astounding piece of filmmaking, a masterpiece that bridges classic Hollywood and the modern blockbuster. It’s easily among Steven Spielberg’s most accessible, enjoyable and enduring works, which says something considering the length of his career and the variety of movies he has directed.
For those just hearing about these new-fangled things called movies, Jaws tells the story of a really big shark terrorising a small coastal community at the height of the holiday season. After a series of grisly deaths and the general atmosphere of panic rising, a cop, a marine biologist and a salty seadog set sail to find the shark culprit and destroy it.
Iconic scenes, characters, dialogue and especially John Williams’ spine-tingling score aside, what Jaws really is is a masterclass in pacing. Rarely has a film been built so perfectly around a classic three act structure, acts that flow beautifully, feeding back and forth to further inform plot and character. The first act is a delicious character-driven identify-the-monster mystery. The second act sees things really get out of control and characters put through the wringer. The final act sees the hunter become the hunted in a high-seas adventure, where our characters are forced to work together to outsmart and defeat their foe. You may have noticed the importance of character throughout the story, and we are giving a trio of lasting, complex and fascinatingly different protagonists in Brody, Hooper and Quint, performed impeccably by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.
Our heroes are a flawed bunch. Chief Brody is a nice guy driven to do the right thing, but he also has a certain disdain for the community under his protection; Matt Hooper knows his stuff and has youthful charm, but is also reckless and can be patronising to those less-educated; Captain Quint has been doing what he’s doing for a long time and is among the best at it, but he has demons to deal with and an intense dislike of those of a different class and/or background. These character flaws and abrasions come up time and time again as the trio prepare for their quest and ultimately have to work together when they set sail, but it all truly comes to a head in the infamous SS Indianapolis monologue delivered by Quint. Their differences are put aside as Brody, Hooper and Quint get sloshed, and a new respect and understanding comes about from Quint finally opening up about exactly why he hates and fears sharks so much.
It’s really quite incredible that Steven Spielberg still has such affection for this, his most traumatic work that had another potential disaster waiting for him round every corner. The on-set stories are legendary, from the near-constant loudspeaker announcement that “The shark is not working!” to Robert Shaw’s alcoholism and detest (duly reciprocated) for Richard Dreyfus, to the project going stupidly over-time and over-budget, resulting in Spielberg nearly being fired before he was allowed to complete the movie. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s tenacity and creativity that he managed to turn many of the film’s apparent weaknesses into strengths. The animatronic shark didn’t work, so we rarely glimpse it and our imaginations is left to do most of the hard work. Shaw hated Dreyfus, so there’s a palpable tension in Quint and Hooper’s relationship, with Brody (and Scheider) forced to play struggling peacekeeper.
Jaws is a film that lasts, a film just as thrilling and engrossing on the fiftieth watch as the first. There are few films I can quote verbatim, but Jaws is one I still love to challenge my dad to a quote-off, to see who will draw a blank first. The shark was always a bit rubbish, but the rest of the overall package is still so satisfying to experience time and time again. The film is still held in high regard for good reason, and is such a key influence to contemporary filmmakers today, from Bryan Singer’s production company Bad Hat Harry to Spielberg referencing it himself in TINTIN. Here’s to another 40 years of cinematic dominance, and in that time surely we’re gonna need a bigger movie. SSP