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JAWS Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary As The First Ever Summer Blockbuster


June 19, 2015

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“We do not just fear our predators, we are transfixed by them. We are prone to weave stories and fables and chat endlessly about them.”
– Peter Benchley

One summer night on Amity Island, a young woman goes for a moonlight swim, one from which she would not return. As she swims she is viciously attacked by an unseen force that drags her below the dark surface of the water as her blood curdling screams for help go unheard. When police chief, Martin Brody, and his deputy find the young woman’s remains, they realize they have a real problem on their hands. It’s a problem that is confirmed, when the coroner tells Brody her death was the result of a shark attack.

Brody jumps into action bound and determined to shut down the beaches to avoid any further attacks or deaths. But before he can even get started he’s headed off by the town leaders, led by Mayor Larry Vaughn. They try to convince him that his reaction is knee jerk at best, and even the coroner recants his original opinion by stating that the girl’s death could have been caused by an accident involving a boat propeller and not a shark.

This would prove not to be the case when a young boy becomes the second victim of the shark, as he is attacked and killed in broad daylight in front of a beach full of horrified witnesses. The boy’s mother offers a bounty for the shark, which culminates in a frenzied and chaotic hunt for the predator by many local and out of town “fishermen”. One group of fisherman catch a tiger shark that is quickly assumed to be the culprit. But Matt Hooper, a young shark expert brought in by Brody to help with their shark situation, is not convinced their problems are over yet. Furthermore, Mayor Vaughn denies Hooper the opportunity to prove that this tiger shark is not the one in question.

Later that night Hooper and Brody perform their “half assed autopsy” on the tiger shark, proving once and for all it wasn’t the predator responsible. They also patrol the area where the shark has been hunting and make another gruesome discovery that proves the enormity and destructive nature of this animal. When they confront Mayor Vaughn with the facts, they inform him that not closing the beaches is like “ringing the dinner bell”. Vaughn further proves that he is worried more about the towns financial well being than the physical well being of any potential victims by vehemently expressing that the beaches will be open on the 4th of July for business.

Brody and Hooper take steps to maintain a semblance of safety for beach goers, by employing shark spotters and patrol boats full of armed deputies. Despite this effort nobody seems to want to go into the water until Mayor Vaughn urges (strong-arms) one of his colleagues and his family to go in the water. Soon after many other follow suit, and everything seems fine until a fin glides between many bathers creating a chaotic exodus of swimmers as they retreat to the safety of the beach. The patrol boats converge on the shark to discover its a hoax being pulled of by two boys with a false fin.  While everyone is regaining their composure from the incident the real shark capsizes two boats in a nearby estuary and claims another victim, and then quickly disappears back to the open ocean.

This incident serves as the last straw, as Brody demands that Vaughn sign off on hiring a local fisherman and experienced shark hunter named Quint to find and kill this shark. Brody negotiates with Quint over the terms of the job and convinces Quint, who reluctantly accepts, to allow Hooper to join them on the hunting charter.

They gear up and head out to sea and begin chumming to draw the shark to them. It starts a game of cat and mouse, that causes the three man crew to question whether they are the cat or the mouse. When they finally get a real good look at the enormous great white shark, they begin to realize they may have bitten off more than they can chew. As the battle between man and fish unfolds they realize they are not dealing with a mere shark but a force of nature the likes of which no man, fisherman, or ichthyologist has ever encountered before.

June 20th will mark the 40th anniversary of Jaws and its long-enduring legacy of causing people to fear going into the water. When it came out in the summer of 1975, it became the first real summer blockbuster in the history of motion pictures. Jaws earned a box office total of $123.1 million in its initial theatrical release, which in today’s money would be as much as $556.4 million.

The film was not only a commercial success, but a critical one as well, as it garnered Oscar nominations for Original Score, Film Editing, Sound, and Best Picture. It won three richly deserved Oscars out of the four nominations, with John Williams winning for his incredible musical score, Verna Fields for her editing efforts, and Robert Hoyt, Roger Heman, Earl Madery and John Carter for their sound design and editing. Unfortunately it lost out to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the Best Picture category.

It really is a testament to everyone involved in the movie, that it became such a monumental success despite the fact that it was a much maligned production. This was a film with an initial shooting schedule that was to start May 2nd of 1974 and run for 65 to 70 days total. As it would turn out, the film wrapped on October 6th of 1974 after 159 grueling and torturous days. Shooting time was not the only thing that went way over what was originally planned either. The film was originally budgeted at $4 million, but with prolonged production time and practical shark effects, which alone cost about $3 million to create, the budget ballooned to over $9 million. By the end, director Steven Spielberg was afraid that if the crew didn’t decide to kill him for the schedule overruns and the overall arduous task of completing principle photography, he would never work in the motion picture industry again.

The root cause of the shooting delays and increased production costs, was the fact that the mechanical sharks used in the film were often not functional. This made it necessary for Spielberg and his crew to figure out a way to make the film work without a major visual presence of the shark until later in the film. They ended up running very quickly through scenes that didn’t require the shark, so when it came time to shoot scenes involving the shark they had to get really creative. The use of Williams’ brilliant score along with visual devices that implicitly simulated the presence of the shark ended up working very well.

There are three great examples of how Spielberg and his production crew made this work. The first was during the attack on Chrissie Watkins at the beginning. The audience first gets a view of the victim from the point of view of the shark as Williams music looms in the background raising the tension. As she begins to be thrashed around by the shark that is not visible beneath the dark surface of the water the music becomes as frenzied as the action of the scene. The second occurred during the scene when two fellows decide to use a beef roast on a chain to go fishing for the shark off the end of a pier. The shark isn’t seen but it pulls the pier apart as it takes the roast connected to the chain. Couple the visual of the pier being towed by a shark you can’t see towards the two men who have fallen into the water, with Williams’ intense and driving score and again it creates a tense and scary visual with no shark needed. The third instance was the use of the yellow barrels that Quint employs to tire the shark and bring it to the surface. Initially the audience sees the shark, as Quint shoots the barbs into the shark to connect the barrels, but from then on out the shark is not visible when the barrels appear. It does however still serve as a visual cue that the shark is there, swimming below the barrels and waiting.

Now even though Jaws is an action based thriller, it relies heavily on the quality of the acting to draw the audience in completely. And even though Roy Scheider may be a logical center on which the audience is intended to focus, it truly is an ensemble piece. Every member of the featured cast gives wonderful and genuine performances. Scheider, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Richard Dreyfus and Murray Hamilton make up the the beating heart that truly brings the movie to life. But even the supporting actors, no matter how small their roles may have been, gave incredibly memorable performances as well. As is the case with a lot of Spielberg’s films it’s the supporting cast that really add a real and human element to his movies. Most of them were names many probably hadn’t heard of, and some likely didn’t act in anything else after Jaws.

As with many adaptations from novel to the big screen, Jaws needed to be trimmed and also reworked in areas to tighten it up to fit into a watchable time frame.  Even with some of the very glaring differences from the source material,  the movie’s overall story doesn’t suffer. It also serves as a reason for people who haven’t read the book to actually go back and do so.

Peter Benchley was responsible for the first drafts of the script, but Spielberg and the producers felt some changes did need to be made. They shopped around the script to the likes of John Byrum, Howard Sackler, Richard Levinson and William Link to do rewrites on the script, all of whom declined. Spielberg then turned to Carl Gottlieb to  polish the script and add some humor, in order tho keep the film from being overly intense and entirely too dark. Gottlieb instead ended up rewriting the entire script, with some dialogue polishing done by John Milius.  In the end, almost 30 new scenes made it into the movie that were not originally in the novel. Gottlieb did end up writing a script that was not only compelling, but also incorporated enough levity to keep it from becoming too dark and possibly unpalatable for audiences

A particularly great aspect of this movie is the dialogue, because of its natural and realistic flow. But another facet of said dialogue, is that Jaws has always been a highly quotable movie. From “Y’all know me. Know how I earn a livin'”, and “That’s some bad hat, Harry”, to “I think that I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and BITES YOU ON THE ASS!”, people will always throw around lines from this movie. The most recognized quote from the movie, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, was an ad-lib line that came right off the top of Scheider’s head in the moment. It was such a perfectly comedic line that occurred following a very shocking moment in the movie, that Spielberg left in.

One of the most amazing parts spoken in the entire movie had to be Quint’s U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue. It tells Quint’s harrowing tale as a survivor following the sinking of the ship by a Japanese submarine, after delivering bomb components for the Hiroshima bomb. It was originally written by Howard Sackler and was then heavily expanded upon by John Millius. Ultimately Shaw, who was something of a talented playwright, rewrote the monologue himself. When Shaw delivers the monologue, it is truly touching and it gives the first and last glimpses of Quint’s venerability. Despite speculation as to who should ultimately get credit for the speech, Gottlieb has always contended it should go completely to Shaw. Despite the inaccuracy about the date of the sinking, it is a perfectly beautiful and melancholy on screen moment.

As for the end scene of the movie, Spielberg felt he book’s ending was much too somber and did not provide the kind of “tent pole” moment he was wanting. As ridiculous as Spielberg’s proposed ending may have seemed to Benchley, when they discussed it, he was quoted by Benchley in an interview as saying, “I don’t care. If I have got them for two hours, they will believe whatever I do for the next three minutes, because I’ve got them in my hands and I want the audience on their feet screaming at the end.” In an ironic turn, Spielberg left the end sequence, which he fought so hard for, to be shot by the second unit director. And as the scene was being shot, Spielberg was on a plane back to California. For 40 years, audience reactions to Spielberg’s desired ending have continued to justify his faith in the fact that the movie needed to end with a bang…so to speak.

Jaws is not just an incredibly thrilling and also terrifying movie, but also a cultural phenomenon that has endured for 40 years and will continue on for much longer. It was a movie, that for all accounts should have failed, but due to the tireless efforts of an incredible director, the producers, the cast and crew, this movie overcame overwhelming odds to become a cinematic classic. It has served as an inspiration to a whole generation of filmmakers, whose collective passions for making movies ware stoked by Spielberg’s epic shark tale.  Such a classic deserves to stand as it is, without the insult of potentially being remade, rebooted, or rehashed.

For its 40th anniversary, Jaws is being re-released nationwide in select theaters. Visit the FATHOM EVENTS website for locations, showtimes and tickets.  

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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