Film - Jaws


Shaaaaaarky, Shaaaaaarky, Sharky, Sharky, Sharky, Sharky (as sung to the tune of THAT theme) It's been Shark Week on the Discovery Channel this week so that's our excuse for letting VentSpleen remember a 41 year old film...

Calling Jaws a disaster could possibly be seen as a clear sign that I have indeed lost the few remaining marbles I have left rattling around in my head. Spielberg's classic exploration of a Great White Shark attack and the effects it had on the people who inhabit the sleepy seaside town of Amity must surely rate as one of the film greats. Jaws features time and time again in people's top 5 films ever and has spawned, to date, three sequels. Yet the film we know and love is not the film that was intended and, with a production nightmare that must rate as one of the most disastrous in cinematic history, it is testament to Spielberg's total belief in the project (belief or pure bloody mindedness) that I even have an article to write.

Bruce The Shark
The story of Jaws starts as just that, a story written by Peter Benchley and was read by both Richard Zanuck and David Brown in a single night, They both were so overwhelmed by the intensity of both Benchley's writing and the shark attack concept itself that they convinced Universal to green light the project. Both Zanuck and Brown have said on record that, had they given Jaws a second reading, they wouldn't have made the film. The technical difficulties in making the film were to prove all to real as filming commenced, John Sturges was chosen to direct but he was soon to prove irritating with his insistence on referring to the shark as a whale (Moby Dick fixation I think and there are certainly some similarities between Ahab and Quint) Sturgeon, sorry Sturges was soon dropped and Steven Spielberg was taken on. Initially Spielberg had been enthusiastic about the project but soon became terrified he would be typecast as "the truck and shark man" (having released the thriller Duel previously)

So, in May 1974, Jaws started principle filming with a budget of $3.5 million and a shooting schedule of 55 days. In reality, the budget ending up costing $9 million with a shooting schedule of 159 days. Spielberg wanted to film the shark attacks from the view point of the victims swimming as well as wider shots of the shark moving in for the kill. Three full size sharks were built with various parts missing to accommodate both the wide shots and close up scenes. The pneumatically controlled sharks, nicknamed Bruce (who was Spielberg's lawyer at the time) were supposed to move freely in the water. Jaws was intended to be a "creature feature" with the star of the show the Great White Shark itself. However, one major problem was soon to present itself. The sharks didn't work well in water and were subject to brown outs and failures due to the salty water eroding the mechanics. Spielberg's insistence of shooting the film at sea with a full sized shark led to further problems and his refusal to move to a water tank to film the scenes further acerbated the issue. Jaws was being filmed in the beautiful seaside resort of Martha's Vineyard as it was possible to film the "at sea" sequences close to land whilst still maintaining the pretence of being far out to sea. Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper) and the other members of cast would be on call at moments notice and contactable on radio. With a radio call of "the sharks working, the sharks working" followed minutes later by "never mind" As a result of this and numerous other issues like random boats appearing in shot and the Orca itself, sinking with the actors on board, led to a film which Spielberg feared wouldn't just sink the film but his career as well.


The film we see onscreen today is not what was intended, but that is also its brilliance. Unable to make the film he had envisioned, Spielberg focuses the attention on the principle characters and the effects the shark attacks have on the community of Amity. The town hall meeting scene in which failing and idiotic mayor, Larry Vaughan, is attempting to prevent the citizens of Amity from panicking is a tense one. Whilst Quint provides the solution, no one is willing to pay his high fee and further bloody attacks are the result. The success of Jaws can also be credited to the casting with Roy Scheider (Martin Brody) Robert Shaw (Quint) Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper) and Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody) arguably delivering the performances of their careers. Intent on hunting down and killing the shark that has caused so much misery, Quint, Hooper and Brody take to the Orca . The rivalry and interplay on the ship provides Jaws with the key moments of the film. Quint's retelling of the terrifying events that took place after the Hiroshima bomb was delivered by the Minneapolis are emotionally intense. They provide an insight into what made Quint the man he became and provides the reasons why he has such a burning hatred of sharks. Whilst close up shots of the shark were limited due to reliability when they happen they are still effective. Witness Brody, chumming fish entrails to attract the shark, horrified as it breaks through the water and then delivered the (ad libbed) immortal line "we're gonna need a bigger boat" Here is a movie which focuses on three individuals who are thrown together by tragedy. Bonding with their common goal and fused with blood, it provides simply some of the most gripping scenes ever witnessed.


One cannot discuss Jaws without mentioning the achievement of John Williams and his anthemic score. If the shark is relegated to a bit part then it is Williams music that becomes the shark itself. Its simply and repeated bass refrain becomes the herald before the attack. Hear the music and minutes later the Great White Shark explodes from the sea (the attack on the lilo still has such a power and, even in today's age of CGI, grips audiences over and over again) The opening attack on Chrissie is given extra poignancy especially when you consider the shark is never even seen. Here is true terror, a hidden and unspeakable force that is able to attack and kill and yet isn't even viewed. The failure of the mechanical sharks ensures that Jaws is elevated to classic movie status. Yet again, the age old adage of less is more and the unseen, the unknowable being truly more terrifying is underlined. For most of the film, William's score Is the shark (think of the chase scenes with marker barrel after barrel being tied to the beast, however you rarely see more than a fin break the surface)

Critics of Jaws have remarked that "the shark looks fake" and that is a fair accusation. Certainly when the fish bends it does have a plastic look to it. The final scenes in which the shark leaps from the water and beaches itself on the Orca has also attracted a fair amount of criticism. This I will take issue with. Sharks, and especially Great Whites, are more than capable of leaving the water in their quest for prey and even Mako Sharks have been know to land on ships, sinking them in the process. My comment on the fake look of the shark in Jaws? Watch Deep Blue Sea, where the sharks are of a CGI rendering and tell me it's a better film. Go on I dare you!

Jaws will stand for all time as one of the best examples of how a film can change during production, and for the better. It is testament to the vision and skill of Spielberg who, like Quint, refused to surrender even when the odds seemed stacked against him. Jaws is a cinematic masterpiece because, at its heart it connects with a fear that all of us have. The murky and shadowy waters that we love so much to swim in are home to unspeakable horrors. To killers that are beyond our comprehension and have power that we only imagine in our deepest, darkest nightmares. Jaws launched the careers of both Spielberg and John Williams and at the same forged one of the greatest Director and Composer partnerships in film industry. Jaws also recouped its entire budget spend within the first two weeks of its release and went on to be one of the highest grossing films of all time. Crew members referred to the films as Flaws. Flaws? it has many but ones that have come to be regarded as some of the greatest of all time.

Images - IMDB