It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.
There have been movies in the summer for almost as long as there have been movies, but there really weren’t summer movies until Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws. Two times over-budget, three times over schedule, and with a production that at various times infuriated producers, actors, crew members, and locals alike, the film released in 1975 onto an unsuspecting public — and movies would never be the same again. Far more than just the first summer blockbuster, though, Spielberg’s second theatrical feature is as thrilling and warm a cinematic experience as you could hope to find.
Forty-three years later, and Jaws is still every bit as exhilarating as it was when it first took a ginormous bite out of the box-office.
The story is simple yet ridiculously effective — a shark threatens the lives and livelihood of a beachside community, and only the combined yet frequently clashing talents, personalities, and persistence of three men can stop it. The small, oceanside town of Amity Island is preparing for the summer influx of tourists who come every year to fatten the town’s coffers with expendable income, but when a newcomer to the area threatens to derail the bounty all hell breaks loose. The unwelcome visitor is a twenty-five foot Great White shark, and while the toothy “Squalus” is a rarity in these waters it quickly establishes its intention to remain as long as the food supply does.
A young woman is killed leaving only box-sized remains to wash up on the beach. A good dog is swallowed (offscreen, because Spielberg is no monster). A boy is turned into a crimson geyser while paddling on an inflatable raft. A fisherman is beheaded (offscreen, because Spielberg added the head in a reshoot). A good Samaritan is dragged from his capsized rowboat and devoured as his dismembered leg sinks to the ocean floor.
The shark means business, and with its last act of carnage still dirtying the water the film shifts gears at its halfway point and heads out to sea. Three heroes board a trawler named Orca and leave the safety of land behind in order to end the nightmare. They fight but bond quickly with each other (and with audiences), and once they make contact with the shark — and the shark makes contact with the deck of the boat — it becomes clear that they might not make it back to the beach alive.
The film is a blend of suspense, thrills, and adventure, but while every moment is necessary and effective its greatest strength rests in the performances and chemistry of its leads. Forget the three Rs you learned back in school as this trio is far more deserving of your attention: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw each bring their distinct characters to life with personality, charm, and purpose, and as outstanding as they are individually they delight and mesmerize in the film’s back half as a cranky, charismatic, and irrepressibly bonded threesome.
Chief Martin Brody (Scheider) is a man well out of his element — he hates the water — but he put his family first and left the crime-ridden streets of New York City for the safety of Amity. “It’s only an island if you look at it from the water,” he says by way of an explanation, but when bite comes to swallow he pushes through his fears to face the unexpected threat. Scheider gives him personality (watch as he uses the crosswalk even as the road is closed to vehicle traffic), humanity (see the scene where he notices his son imitating his gestures at the dinner table), and quiet insecurity (look at his face as he lifts his shirt revealing an appendectomy scar while the others compare “war” wounds). Credit is often given to Die Hard (1988) and Bruce Willis’ John McClane for creating the “everyman” suddenly forced through circumstance into epic acts of heroism, but for my money, Brody beat him to the killer punch(line) by thirteen years. Welcome to the party, pal, but don’t forget to “smile, you son of a bitch.”
Hooper (Dreyfuss) arrives to town as a frenzy builds among fishermen hoping to earn a reward by catching the killer shark (or blowing it up with dynamite), and he’s immediately marked as a brainy elitist and just another outsider. As with Brody, his concerns and suggestions to Amity’s mayor (beautifully played by Murray “Amity, as you know, means friendship” Hamilton) are ignored forcing his hand towards trying to help stop the shark himself. A friendship built on humor and situation grows quickly between Brody and Hooper, and their interactions reveal them as men who’d rather be elsewhere — but as long as they’re here they’re going to prove themselves. Hooper’s witty, a bit over-confident is his technological doodads, and a character you want desperately to survive. Thanks to a failure in securing footage of his character’s death — the stand-in was undersized to make the shark look bigger, but he refused to shoot a key scene leaving only a shot of the shark tearing into an empty dive cage — he does just that and lives to swim another day.
The rough around the edges (and everywhere else) Quint (Shaw) is a prickly prick early on as he attempts to parlay the death of a young boy into a payday, but the final voyage of the Orca reveals he’s not just an asshole — he’s an asshole with history. There’s charm to his crude songs and sayings (“Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women!”) and grit in the way he antagonizes Brody and Hooper — the latter to the point that Shaw famously harrassed Dreyfuss even when the cameras weren’t rolling — but he becomes all too human during the late-night scene where he and Hooper compare scars from moray eel bites, bull shark scrapes, thresher shark tail, and that heartbreaker Mary Ellen Moffat. Laughter, drink, and song create a raucous gathering, but it falls away to silence as Quint recounts his experience as a seaman on the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II. The true story of torpedoed sailors left floating in the sea for days at the whim of thirst, weather, and bloodthirsty sharks informs his character with immense motivation and pathos.
Rather than be a disposable jerk, Quint becomes a man whose death hits hard. His violent demise in the shark’s razor-lined maw is accompanied by his desperate flailing and terrified screams. It’s here where the shark’s unlikely behavior and sketchy appearance, as well as the lack of a score telling viewers how to feel, should leave the scene exposed, but instead, Quint’s death is laid bare before us — and it is horrifying.
That’s yet another testament to the film’s power and success as big entertainment. Its special effects are as far from flawless as our heroes are from shore, and while no one would confuse the shark here for a real creature it’s wholly effective as part of the bigger picture. The performances leave us caring about these people, Spielberg’s direction (and Verna Fields‘ editing) shows an early mastery of set-pieces and pacing, and his insistence that they film on open water as opposed to a tank succeeds in creating the illusion that they’re far from safety. We’re so entirely caught up in these people and their situation that not even a malfunctioning prop shark can knock us out of it.
And laid perfectly over it all is John Williams‘ iconic score. His music for Star Wars gets more attention in part because people too often reduce Jaws‘ score to the instantly recognizable “duun dun, duun dun.” That’s still a perfectly realized composition used beautifully during the shark’s hunting scenes, but Williams delivers music elsewhere that’s just as rousing and triumphant as the best of Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Look and listen no further than the barrel chase sequence for an example of pure audible energy, joy, and momentum.
I could go on as the film’s two hours are filled with memorable scenes, sequences, and moments — the stunningly crafted beach set-piece where little Alex Kintner gets eaten, the powerful arrival of a grieving mother slapping a police chief who knows he’s failed her, the mayor forcing his underling to show everyone it’s safe by leading his family into the water, the awe-filled overhead shots of the shark gliding just beneath the surface, the underwater jump scare with Ben Gardner’s head, Brody’s reaction to the shark popping up while he chums — and they collectively work to make the film an eminently re-watchable piece of entertainment. None of these beats grow stale or tiresome no matter how many times you experience them.
Jaws is endlessly exciting, surprisingly funny and sweet, and a guaranteed piece of pulse-quickening fun. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” but luckily you’re not gonna need a better summer blockbuster… because you most certainly won’t find one.