Jaws, the blockbuster blueprint: Reliving Steven Spielberg's First Ten Years (1971-1982)
This is the movie that gave Steven Spielberg the ability to have a free hit for his next few movies, including his next ambitious project that would take us into out of space. But first a close encounter of the ocean kind...
The movie is quite simple, it's about a shark that becomes an ultimate killing machine and to quote Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all”
The stories about the trials and tribulations of making Jaws are as well-known to most moviegoers as the story about the big fish itself. There was the mechanical shark that refused to work (which changed the movie completely) and the shoot that was supposed to last 55 days but ended up lasting 159. Producers Zanuck and Brown deserve credit for not pulling the plug on the expensive disaster, or at the very least replacing their young protégé with a more experienced director. They instead encouraged Spielberg to stick with his vision.
Despite countless articles of film analysis, which come up with theories behind the real meaning of the film, including it being about modern male masculinity, the cold war, President Nixon (which is pretty spot on) and the obsession over materialism.
Steven Spielberg said himself “I always thought that Jaws was kind of like an aquatic version of Duel,”
“It was once again about a very large predator, you know, chasing innocent people and consuming them – irrationally. It was an eating machine. At the same time, I think it was also my own fear of the water. I’ve always been afraid of the water, I was never a very good swimmer. And that probably motivated me more than anything else to want to tell that story.”
However, there are layers and depth to this classic movie which rises it above what could have been a water based slasher movie, the movie rip offs that followed goes to highlight the fact Jaws is more than a monster movie.
The real monster is not the shark, but the Mayor of Amity Island, whose decision to keep the beaches open is not only ill-fated, but also has a political motivation. Mayor Larry Vaughan is basically Amity's version of Nixon, as he consistently cites "the public interest" - much like Nixon's "national security" - to justify the numerous activities of his administration. This same public interest is why Amity officials do not close the beaches and also why they tamper with the medical report to conceal the first shark attack.
It is entirely a political decision that places the interests of the island’s business owners ahead of the safety of its consumers. The fear of losing precious profits from the 4th of July holiday crowd ultimately winds up biting the Mayor on his behind and ironically costing him far more than if he had simply done the right thing. This image of the Mayor of Jaws town was used more recently by critics of officials in charge during the last few years with COVID 19 and the world wide pandemic.
The first part of the film is an out and out slasher movie, it’s Michael Myers but under water with an unseen stalking evil presence that is picking victims at random, a young woman, a man, a beef joint and even a boy (which post parent Spielberg would not have done, he was more edgy in his early films) it’s this attack and the aftermath where the film shifts.
Consequently, the requirement for suspense significantly decreases. Nevertheless, Spielberg used yellow barrels to suggest the shark's presence, displaying the art of what we don't see to the very end of the movie.
It stops being a story of fear and dread and turns into an action drama adventure, akin to DELIVERANCE, focusing on the themes of bravery and maturation. Like Deliverance the characters contain a mixed bunch of personalities, arrogance, anger, self destruction, overconfidence and the everyman.
Hooper represents arrogance, Quint represents anger and revenge, Brody represents humility and the power of overcoming fear.
Despite the fact that Quint and Hooper have many differences (they hate each other!), they share more in common than with Brody. Both engage in a sort of maritime machismo, exchanging tales and recounting injuries they have sustained while working in the sea. While Brody, scared of the water and with limited swimming capabilities, looks on warily. Brody is the odd one out of what could become almost a movie about male friendship.
However, it is this odd man out who is willing to change, Hooper’s arrogance and confidence in his equipment let him down and Quint lust for revenge drives him to self destruction.
Like Spielberg's first feature "Duel" the main protagonist is an everyman, one who starts off scared and is forced to become the reluctant hero. It’s Brody that eventually faces his fears and the guilt of his past mistakes that wins through ”'... in Amity, one man can make a difference.”
Bill Butler's cinematography, which was all done with hand-held cameras in the days before the Steadicam was invented is truly remarkable, John R Carter's sound design even won an Oscar and John Williams' iconic score is still used today to evoke a sense of dread. Verna Fields' work as an editor is also noteworthy. The acting of Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw as the grumpy Captain Ahab-like Quint was top-notch and the script was superbly structured. Moreover, they cleverly kept the shark mostly out of sight until the very end.
It still looks great and the 4k restoration pops with 4th of July celebrations and glorious gory details. The sound in dolby is amazing and that famous duh duh is even more menacing, the shark still looks fake when it turns up but your son invested by then it really doesn't matter.
When it was all said and done, Jaws had swam away with a whopping $485 million in the box office and spawned a massive marketing campaign with all sorts of Jaws-related memorabilia including t-shirts, mugs, towels and inflatable shark toys. It was the beginning of the summer blockbuster and movie merchandising.
This week's sketch... And Painting!