When Jaws hit the theaters in the summe of 1975, it came after a very long and difficult production that would determine whether the young director Steven Spielberg would have a career in movies or would drift through the TV wasteland of forgotten cop dramas and canceled too earlied sitcoms.
Nicknamed Flaws by the production crew, the shooting schedule went over so much that the cast and crew ended up just waiting around. Spielberg even said it had been scheduled to shoot “pick-up shots” if there ever was a technical problem. And they had so many technical problems that all the “pick-up shots” had been filmed. Richard Dreyfus who plays oceanographer Matt Hooper said in many interviews that crew members carried radios as well as radios around all of Martha’s Vineyard which would repeatedly report, “The shark is not working,” that it became a title for a documentary on the production.
The mechanical sharks that were built for the production were often not working as the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean affected them. Producer David Brown even said during the first test the shark sunk to the bottom of Nantucket Sound. Spielberg wasn’t the first choice as the first director kept calling the shark a “whale.” Spielberg was only 27 when brought on board having to work with crew members who had been in the business for many years creating some friction.
Robert Shaw who plays the sharkhunter Quint was suffering with a drinking problem and even was drunk on set a few times having to be carried to do some scenes. Shaw and Dreyfus had as much tension off the set as their characters did on screen The Orca ship was mounted on wooden blocks but at one point it came loose and started to sink while Roy Scheider, who plays Martin Brody, chief of police for Amity Island, was sinking with it.
Problems were so bad that Spielberg refused to be on set the last day of filming because he was certain crew members would toss him into the ocean. So, he set it up and had an assistant direct it and was on the first flight out of Martha’s Vineyard. But this isn’t a post about the difficulties of Jaws. There’s a lot of those. No, it’s to show sometimes good things happen when things seem to be going wrong. There’s an old saying that movies are really made during the editing process. And while many people have credited Verna Fields with making Jaws what it was, they also must credit Spielberg. There’s a ying to the yang.
Based on the best-selling book by Peter Benchley, who co-wrote the script, it was a hard aptation. Benchley had written a book about corrupt politicians, sleazy people and Peyton Place drama along with the attacks by a great white shark. In the book, Hooper is a sleazy lothario who manages to have an affair with Brody’s wife, Ellen. But in the movie, only Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and Hooper just have a glass of wine together as they talk about sharks with Martin at the dinner table.
There was also a scene in the book where some goons kill the Brody’s cat by snapping its neck in front of their crying kids. Thankfully, that scene was cut. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) was a crooked S.O.B. in the book having gotten in over his head with the Mafia. Part of his urge to keep the beaches open is he needs every visitors’ dollar. In the movie, Vaughn is still not too likable but after the July 4 shark attack, Hamilton and Spielberg manage to give Vaughn some humanity as he tells Brody frantically smoking a cigarette, “My kids were on the beach too.”
Spielberg hated the characters in the book so much he quipped he began to root for the shark. Thankfully a lot was changed. Martin and Ellen Brody have actually moved to Amity from New York City whereas they were locals and they have two sons instead of three. Because there’s no need to hire another actor when it’s not needed. The location of the island is somewhere in New England but never determined. Amity is supposed to be off the shores of Long Island. There’s references made to Montauk and Cape Cod. And Ellen tells Martin he needs to adapted a New England accent when saying “yard” as “yaawwd.”
When the movie starts, a young woman, Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backline) goes swimming at night with a young man she is attracted to at a beach party. She is attacked by the shark and killed while the man passes out drunk on the beach. The next day when she is reported missing, Brody and his deputy, Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) find her partial remains washed up. When the coroner reports she was killed by a shark attack, Brody wants the beaches closed.
However, Vaughn and the others in town including the town newspaper publisher, Meadows (Carl Gottlieb who also co-wrote) work to make people think it was a boating accident. A few days later, when people are enjoying a nice day at the beach, a young boy, Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is attacked and killed while people witness it. His mother, Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fiero) runs ads offering $3,000 for the killing of the shark. Meadows said the ad will be with the grocery ads while he’s burying the story of the Kinter boy. Yeah, that would never happen at any newspaper I worked at.
With two people dead and a bounty advertisment in multiple publications, the island has an influx of hunters, but Quint tells the civic leaders that the shark that did it is not what they think and demands $10,000. But the leaders pass him off. A tiger shark is killed by some out-of-town hunters but Hooper feels it’s not the right one. He’s right.
Even after a local fisherman is killed, Vaughn still keeps the beaches open until some kids cause a prank leading to a mass panic. Then, the shark fills a man in a rowboat in an estuary. With their summer tourism season in peril, Brody along with Hooper charter Quint to hunt and kill the shark.
This change in plot as the setting goes from the island to the ocean is a nice transition. The first half is how the town deals with the news trying to act like it’s not a big deal or the shark will go away. The second half is where Spielberg works on the claustrophobia of being terrorized by a shark. The Orca is a small ship. Brody’s line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat” after first seeing the shark while chumming works two ways. The shark is almost as long as the Orca, but also the cramp space gives the three men and their personalities nowhere to go. They have to work together rather than against each other.
And this is where the movie really picks up. Quint doesn’t think too highly of Hooper, who comes from a rich family and considers him a “college boy.” Hooper thinks Quint is too reckless at times. And Brody, who has a fear of the water, must deal with trying to be the mediator between them both but can his inexperience hurt the entire charter?
During one memorable scene, they all bond at night after eating joking about all the scars they’ve had in their earlier years. This leads to Brody asking about a scar of a tattoo Quint removed. Quint explains he was on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a ship that was torpoed and sunk by Japan in the Pacific. It gives us insight to Quint’s madness as he, along with other Navy sailors, were left to the mercy of the ocean and sharks attacked to the injured crewmembers.
While a lot of Quint’s recounting has been debunked, it’s still haunting. Most crewmembers attacked by sharks had their arms and legs bitten off. Other crewmembers died from injuries they sustained in the blast and were fed on by the sharks. Some crewmembers in real life actually drank the salt walter and thus suffered the side effects. It’s even been reported that some members became delusional and thought they saw land and began swimming farther away only to tire and drown.
Quint shoots the shark with a harpoon that ties a barrel keeping the shark from going too far underwater. But even after three barrels, the shark still manages to flee. The barrels actually were helpful as Spielberg and his crew didn’t have to show the shark as much. It’s more scary when you can’t see what is just a few feet away. This works during the mass panic July 4 sequence as the camera is at water level. It’s what we’re not shown that makes it work. We don’t know if it’s there or not.
I’ve also noticed that of all the three main leads, Hooper is the only one who goes underneath the water. Brody is afraid of water. But when the shark jumps up on the stern of the Orca causing it to sink, Brody must come to terms with his fears. It’s literally sink or swim. Quint, even though a shark hunter, ironically is the only one killed by the shark. His name is also similar to the Spanish word “quince” which means five. Quint is the fifth person killed by the shark.
Originally, Hooper was supposed to be killed just like in the book. However, when his character goes into the cage in an attempt to stab the shark with a poisonous-tipped spear, something unusual happening during filming. In an attempt to get some real footage of a shark, filmmaker Valerie Taylor and her husband, Ron, an Australian shark expert, had a short actor stand-in for Hooper in a real cage in the waters of Dangerous Reef in South Australia.
However, as they were setting up, a real great white shark attacked the boat and the cage with no one in it, getting tangled in the wires and thrashed around. Spielberg decided to incorporate the real footage into the movie and decided to spare the life of Hooper. It’s a good change even though you can clearly tell the shark is smaller than the mechanical ones in the movies.
Jaws also ended up becoming the movie that many people say ended the Golden Era of Hollywood. Even though Spielberg and his colleagues, most notably George Lucas, have debated this assumption. Hollywood studios were making blockbusters prior to Jaws. It was just one of the first movies to make a lot of money on limited release. This was before the home video market. Believe it or not, but it opened on less than 500 theaters in North America. Such a thing would never happen today. Most movies opened in bigger markets first before they were shown around in smaller areas.
The success of Jaws helped Spielberg’s career even though he didn’t get a Best Director Oscar nomination while the movie got a Best Picture nomination. But the movie’s success launced a lot of Man vs. Nature movies in its wake. Some were good such as Piranha and Alligator. Others weren’t so good such as Tentacles and Orca.
When the studo wanted a sequel, Spielberg and Dreyfus were busy making Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Scheider initially refused but when he dropped out of making The Deer Hunter, Universal made a deal with him to do Jaws 2 to fulfill a multi-picture contract. And that movie had similar production problems and wasn’t as well received even though the tagline, “Just when you think it was safe to go back into the water,” has become more iconic.
Unfortunately, off screen, Jaws was believed to have inspire multiple shark hunters to charter boats for regular people to hunt down and kill many sharks. Other sharks were caught and their fins cut off for shark fin soup and then tossed back overboard to die in the seas. This led to a depletion in sharks to the point they were considered endangered in the 1990s. Benchley spent the last of his years until his death in 2006 actively working for shark conservation. And Spielberg and Dreyfus have both joked they refuse to go into the water at the beach because they think the sharks might want retribution.
Countless other killer shark movies have been released since 1975 including six Sharknado movies and Great White, aka The Last Shark, which Spielberg and Universal sued for plagiarism and won, which is why you may not have heard of it. It can’t legally be shown or distributed in North America. However, you can probably find it online.
But nothing beats the original. Some have argued that Vaughn and the civic leaders trying to cover up two deaths was just right for a post-Watergate audience. I admit when seeing it as a child, I’m more focused on the terror of never knowing where the shark is. But as I’ve gotten older, the actions of the city leaders are just as dangerous. Or you get more focused on Quint’s retelling of the Indianapolis as he becomes a modern-day Ahab. I think that’s what all the imitators have lacked, it has a little bit of something for everyone.
What do you think? Please comment.