By John H. Foote
I had just turned sixteen the first time I saw Jaws (1975) not knowing the film and work of the director would alter the course of my life. The film was electrifying, terrifying and wildly entertaining, it’s two hour running time seeming to breeze past. Directed with absolute brilliance by a relatively unknown young man named Steven Spielberg, he would never spend a day for the rest of his life unknown in any capacity. This was a major directorial achievement, borne out of necessity in many ways and resolving difficult production issues as they came up.
While the film went over budget and the shooting schedule dragged on, the faith in the young director never waned among the cast and crew. Granted there was concern back in Hollywood, but those concerns were forever silenced when Sid Sheinberg threw his support behind a young, terrified Spielberg. He had insisted on shooting on the ocean despite the well documented hell such a move had been in the past. This shoot was no exception.
The film was based on the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley about a marauding Great White Shark feasting on swimmers on the East Coast. The screenplay leaned the story out, dispensed with a love affair to focus on the killings and the spiky relationship between the three men who go out to sea to hunt and kill the shark. The genius of this young director, just 26, was when the realistic looking mechanical sharks built for the film sank to the bottom of the sea, he was not fazed. Instead of showing the shark, he showed the audiences the point of vision of the shark as it cruised through the waters. We saw the opening horrifying attack on the young woman without ever seeing the shark. Treading water she is suddenly, violently, pulled under once, then again before realizing she is being eaten alive.
We saw the fin slicing through the sea, the buoys attached to harpoons they put into the creature, suddenly emerge from the sea, meaning the shark was close, and more of the carnage caused by this perfect eating machine. When a ten-year-old boy is attacked on a crowded beach, a geyser of blood erupts into the air as terrified swimmers run for their lives. Spielberg’s choices as a filmmaker were born out of necessity, but each was perfect in its execution. When we finally see the shark, all twenty-five feet of him, he is by then a formidable sight, and terrifying presence.
The trio who head out to sea to kill this creature could not be more different. Brody (Roy Scheider) is the local Sheriff, a New Yorker transplanted to Amity with a fear of the water. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is a marine biologist, an expert in shark behavior and a wise guy, but enormously likeable. The third, and most interesting is Quint (Robert Shaw) a cantankerous old sea dog who makes a living killing sharks.
The three performances of the wildly diverse actors are each sublime, each creating a full bodied, real character we identify with throughout the film. There is a very fine scene with the men, drinking one night, comparing scars, laughing, being foolish, but oddly bonding. Questioned about a tattoo he had removed Quint tells the men he was a sailor aboard the USS Indianapolis, which was hit by a German sub, and sank into the sea. For days the sailors fought off swarms of sharks that came to feast, fueling Quints’ hatred for them. His story, his telling of it, is as terrifying if not more than any sequence in the film.
And poor Quint, terrified of sharks but hunting them, will slide down the deck of his battered boat into the terrifying jaws of this Great White, being bitten in half, swallowed up for food. Ironically it is left to Brody to kill the shark, which he accomplishes by hitting an oxygen tank the creature is chewing on with a bullet as he hovers perilously close to the water he so despises. The bullet hits the tank, which explodes, tearing the shark apart with the force of the explosion, causing shark bits and blood to fall like rain.
He and Hooper, who survives a savage attack underwater in an anti-shark cage, swim back to the island, Brody joking he is now used to the water.
The great heart of the film is the characters, their diversity, their flaws and their strange coming together against a shark, to whom they come to realize they need to be terrified. Scheider is solid as Brody, family man, good cop who is an outsider to the islanders and they treat him as such. Unable to close the beaches after the first attack, he blames himself for the second, despite the behavior of the smarmy Mayor, portrayed by Murray Hamilton.
Dreyfuss is all kinetic energy as Hooper from the moment he lands in town. Watch him cut open a shark, thinking he might find a body when in fact he finds nothing, wisely telling Brody there is a monster fish out there killing swimmers. Often providing comic relief, Hooper clashes head on with Quint, which is fun to watch.
Robert Shaw was extraordinary as Quint, deserving of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, though he was not even nominated. Shaw, a playwright, actually wrote Quints’ Indianapolis speech the night before they shot it, one of the finest scenes in the film. In that hushed monologue, we learn first hand the absolute horror of a shark attack. Imagine the pure terror Quint must feel, sliding into those terrible jaws, knowing all too well what is coming?
The film was directed with taut precision by Steven Spielberg, who pulled off a miracle with the picture, shocking Universal. His devotion to less is more was genius, and the film tops many lists as the finest horror film ever made. What makes it all the more frightening was the intense possibility and startling realism. How the Academy could live with themselves NOT nominating Spielberg for Best Director, I do not understand? His direction is among the finest achievements of the seventies and his own incredible filmography. The DGA Awards did nominate him, his first of what would amount to the most by any director in history, with 12, and the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The score by John Williams is deceptive in its simplicity, perfect, becoming one of the most iconic scores in film history.
Has Verna Fields ever been given full credit for her Oscar winning film editing? Despite earning an Academy Award, Spielberg distanced himself from her, believing she was getting credit for what he had done. It was immature and foolish behavior from a young director still evolving as an artist and person. Film is a collaborative effort, which he has learned.
Spielberg went on to become one of the finest and most important filmmakers in film history. Two times he has won the Academy Award for Best Director, three times the DGA awards have honoured him as Best Director. His storytelling skills are second to none, his technical prowess remarkable and his skills with actors, long ignored are outstanding. He has nothing more to prove, staking his claim as this generations greatest director, alongside his friend, Martin Scorsese, their careers spanning fifty years.
Nominated for just four Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Score, Best Sound and Best Editing, Jaws won everything but Best Picture.
Summers were never the same as studios set up strategic release schedules from this point on. Within months of its release Jaws became the highest money maker of all time, for two years surpassed in 1977 by Star Wars, another summer blockbuster.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.