After directing some episodic television, T.V. movies, and one feature film in the early ‘70s, a young director was making an ambitious, if moderately budgeted studio film. It was a monster move based on a best-selling book, and to say that the production was troubled would be an understatement. The weather was uncooperative, some of the cast were unreliable, and most troublesome of all, the mechanical monster didn’t work. Adjustments were made, and the young director pressed on. Nobody doubted the young man’s talent, but everyone agreed that this production was at the very least, a test. A test to see if this kid was the real deal. He was - and in 1975 Steven Spielberg established himself as a bona-fide wunderkind director when he unleashed JAWS.
Now, I know a ton of people who will argue that this is not a horror movie. Really? A monster-sized shark eating crusty old sailors, children, and doggies doesn't qualify? Just think of your reaction to the opening sequence - didn't that scare the crap out of you? What about that severed head underwater? What about that amazing 'boo' shot of the shark surfacing while Roy Scheider chums the water? It's a certainly a monster movie, ladies and gentlemen, and JAWS is also one of the best Horror movies ever made.
Aside from the scares, it is some of the quieter moments that make this film great. Robert Shaw (Quint) delivers one of the great screen soliloquies as Quint recalls his experiences on the USS Indianapolis - a speech Robert Shaw largely re-wrote himself. The scene where Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) cuts open a shark to confirm weather it is the culprit is a wonderful moment of quiet tension - we know it’s not the shark, but we really want it to be. The moment when Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) seethingly berates Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is a powerful display of hushed rage. It’s difficult to find any aspect of the film that Spielberg and his team didn’t get right.
Any discussion of JAWS, however, has to include John Williams’ iconic score. The simple two note motif that gains in rapidity as the shark gets closer has become de-facto ‘something is stalking you’ music. When Williams presented this idea to Spielberg, the director thought at first he was joking. Being the smart filmmaker that he is, Spielberg was able to see the possibilities and gave Williams to go-ahead to press forward with the theme. The result was a score that won the film one of it’s three Oscars (along with Editing and Sound).
For better or worse, JAWS ushered in the age of the blockbuster movie. From that point on, the big opening weekend and the $100 million box office mark would be the major goals of the big studios. The result has been a few genuinely classic movies perhaps, but an awful lot more that were ambitious duds. Whatever the result, our culture is a much richer place for having JAWS in it.
JAWS fun facts - Quint's boat is named "Orca" - also known as a Killer Whale. The Killer Whale is one of the few natural enemies of the Great White Shark.
The first mechanical shark that was built was never tested in water. When is was put into the water at the filming location, it sank straight to the bottom of the ocean. A day of shooting was lost so that a team of divers could retrieve it.
Chief Brody - “You’re gonna need a bigger boat…”
Hooper - “I don’t need this ‘working class hero’ crap!”
Quint - “Back home we got a taxidermy man. He gonna have a heart attack when he see what I brung him!”