I convinced a friend to watch Jaws for the first time recently – she’d never seen it before because she thought it sounded silly, ridiculous even. She had a point – in these days of Sharknados the very concept of this film sounds like a trashy B-movie; the title alone is a weird, horror genre choice that is very misleading in terms of the film’s content. I remember as a child thinking that “Jaws” was the shark’s actual name, and we’d refer to it as such – “that bit where Jaws eats that guy” for example. Of course, the film itself is nothing like the generic exploitation flick its title and premise suggests – no more so than Moby Dick is about a bunch of sailors trying to kill a whale. It’s a character piece first and foremost, brought to vivid life by a young director forced into being even more innovative by a torrid filming experience.

I was more surprised that she hadn’t seen it based on its glowing reputation – Jaws is generally accepted to be the first summer blockbuster, setting a precedent for American studios to hype up a high-concept film or two every summer to get as many bums on seats as possible that continues to this day. It was the highest-grossing film of all time when it came out, an accolade Steven Spielberg would achieve twice more later in his career, and launched the career of a director who has returned to its template many times, usually to great success. This all came in the face of tremendous adversity – it was a horribly difficult shoot, going well over budget and schedule, and with a mechanical shark that didn’t just fail to work a lot of the time but actually never properly worked at all.

As is often the case, from such difficult circumstances many artists end up doing their best work. Spielberg was forced into hardly showing the shark until the conclusion because the damn thing didn’t work properly, which had a nice side effect of building suspense, helped along by a brilliantly-effective score from John Williams – surely one of the most recognised in film history. This strict rule of preferring suggestion over explicitly showing much also make it a masterclass in film editing – you’ll swear you’ve seen the shark dozens of times before you ever actually do. Several classic sequences – Richard Dreyfuss dropping the shark tooth when he finds something horrible in a sunken boat, Robert Shaw’s stunning speech about the SS Indianapolis – were semi-improvised due to various external constraints, and are the best parts of the film.

Spielberg’s intuition for keeping things visceral and straightforward for his audience played a big part too – he insisted on jettisoning the original novel’s odd subplots (Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife, the mayor being pressured by the Mafia), hired another screenwriter to add more humour to the script and came up with the rather memorable addition of a scuba tank for the finale. He also instructed the costume and set design departments to try and avoid the colour red as much as possible, emphasising the shock value of the blood in the shark attacks. But most of all, this is a vivid demonstration of his ability to mount a human struggle with remarkable style and unforgettable visual flair – he took a trashy novel and made one of the defining examples of film art out of it.

The template for all summer blockbusters that followed9
Steven Spielberg kickstarting his incredible career out of extreme adversity10
John Williams showing that a simple score can still be devastatingly memorable10
Verna Fields writing the editing blueprint for Hollywood film10
That bloody shark is looking pretty damn fake these days6
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
Bechdel Test Failures
  • None of the female characters talk to each other
9Overall Score

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.