For my generation, imagining that there used to be no “Summer Blockbusters” seems insane. Then again, movies weren’t quite as readily available as they are now. When a movie was released, it would basically have a tour of the coasts, then slowly move into the middle of the country. The late 60s, early 70s began to change how studios distributed films. Through an aggressive marketing campaign, Jaws created a standard for summer releases that still continues to this day. Despite the production issues (a pattern that has formed with many of this AFI films), the final product is a truly suspensful film that has caused a lot of people pause when they step into the ocean.
Based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, Jaws was directed by up and coming director Steven Spielberg. Part of the “Film School Generation”, he had worked in TV for a few years and even found a small bit of praise for his first theatrically released film, Sugarland Express. Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown took a gamble on him when they offered him the chance to direct Jaws. Young and headstrong, he proved to be the perfect person to navigated the extremely rough seas in the production of the film. With Roy Scheider as Chief Brody, Richard Dreyfuss as Matt Hooper, and Robert Shaw as Quint, Spielberg began to film on location at Martha’s Vineyard. The difficulty of filming on the ocean mixed with weather issues, uncooperative rubber sharks, and other boats ruining shots caused the production to run way over budget. Many times during the production, Spielberg even debated leaving it all together. However, he stuck with it and finished the film.
Set on Amity Island (a fictional beach town in New England), right before the Fourth of July, we are introduced to Police Chief Brody. A recent transplant to the island, he is called to the beach where the mangled body of a young woman is found. After the coroner determines her death to be a result of a shark attack, Brody begins to try and shut down the beaches to avoid any more attacks. Met with great resistance from both the community and elected officials, it isn’t until an attack during a crowded summer day that people take Brody seriously. Taking two different approaches, the mayor puts a bounty on the head of the shark and Brody calls on a shark expert. Expert Matt Hooper comes into town to witness the chaos of greedy fishermen trying to be the first to catch the shark and collect the reward. A shark is caught and killed, however Hooper makes it known to Brody that based on first attack victims body, the shark that was caught couldn’t have been the shark.
Despite trying to prove to the mayor it wasn’t the right shark and taking extra steps to ensure safety, another attack occurs. Brody and Hooper charter Quint (an excellent, extremely eccentric fisherman) to hunt the shark. Once at sea, the three men hunt the shark and eventually find themselves in a life or death battle with the creature.
The films release in the summer of 1975 was one of the first to use the “wide-release” format. This basically meant that the film was opened on hundreds of screens on the same date as opposed to a staggered opening in a few major cities then spread to the center of the country screen by screen. It wasn’t only the utilization of a wide-release that helped to set a standard for future summer blockbusters. An aggressive television ad campaign was used weeks prior to the opening of the film. Until that time, film studios still viewed television as it’s enemy. However, with new people coming into the studios, a more friendly relationship was beginning to form. The thirty second promos aired during key prime-time shows. This created the most profitable opening weekend ever until the opening of Star Wars two years later. Things were changing in Hollywood and Jaws was the film that seemed to define the change. The art house films that were dominating the scene for the past five years were on the way out. Studios were once again regaining control over their products and were going to set out on a path that would, once again, prove to be problematic.
Jaws is one of those movies that seems to always be relevant. The simplicity of the plot and honesty of the characters makes it timeless. The scene that stands out to me each time I view the film is always the “Scar comparing” scene. While the three men are drunkenly comparing scars on boat, Quint tells the story of how he was aboard the USS Indianapolis when it sank. He details watching his friend and shipmate be eaten by sharks and the fear of it being him next. What is brilliant about this moment is without it, it wouldn’t make his death quite as important and painful. The moment allows the audience to know he is more then what he seems and allow them to connect with him a lot more.
While I don’t find the film “scary” in conventional terms, it still is very suspenseful and incredibly chilling. It’s interesting to note that when it came out, it frightened many people away from the beach for the summer. Even now, you can’t go to the beach without John William’s infamous opening score running through your head, even for a moment. People will always connect to this film for the fact that it taps a nerve that we all have: fear of the unknown. The fear that what you can’t see might be what will be what gets you, no place is safe, and nature will always do what it does best: survive.