Why JAWS is the greatest film ever made (FEATURE)
When I was a child, there was a medium sized video shelf in the corner of our living room, home to around 50 or 60 different cassette tapes of many different genres and age ratings. Numerous titles intrigued me such as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, ALIEN and THE COLOUR PURPLE but none stirred my imagination as much as JAWS. I didn't know anything about the film whatsoever but I certainly remember the video cover having an immediate effect on me; the silver, holographic capital lettering over an image of a terrifying great white shark set against a backdrop of darkest ultramarine.
One windy night, my parents were watching a movie and I could hear the ominous two-tone ostinato of the JAWS theme tune thundering from below me. Not being able to sleep due to the noise, I came downstairs for a bit of company and solace. I walked into the living room and sat down on my father’s knee to watch the movie along with them. I was very much enjoying the film until one unexpected scene terrified me beyond all belief, the bloody and horrific death of the young Alex Kintner. As soon as the shark attacked and a fountain of blood turned the blue New England ocean red, I bolted behind the arm of the nearest sofa and refused to watch any more of the film whilst wiping away tears from eyes and shaking with uncontrollable fright. For years, the idea of watching JAWS would send shivers up my spine. It stayed in my dreams and haunted my nightmares and even after 6 months of watching the picture, I would quake every time I walked past the unmistakable VHS box that would twinkle in the light of our living room.
Around 5 years later, I had joined a boarding school in the beautiful cathedral city of Lichfield and every Saturday, I was able to go into the centre on a weekend and explore the numerous shops for a few hours. One day, I walked into the local branch of Woolworths and just as I always did, I went straight to the hallowed DVD aisle to check out the new releases. It was on that life-changing day that I saw a copy of JAWS on sale for £3. I had gone with a group of older boys as I was too young to go into the city on my own and they noticed the dreaded DVD at the same I did. Being of an appropriate age, they purchased the 12 rated feature and took it straight back to the boarding school common room to watch. I hadn’t seen 'Jaws' since the incident 5 years earlier and I had forgotten many of the parts that had scared me so much as a young boy. However, I braved it. I nervously sat down and watched the movie with the older boys and, just like before, the exact same moment of unflinchingly realistic death scared the living daylights out of me.
This time however, instead of averting my eyes from the bloodshed, I was awestruck by it's perverse beauty and I watched the rest of the film in a hypnotic, open-mouthed daze. Upon reaching the end credits, I came to the realisation that I had watched the first true masterpiece of my life and that I had also acquired a new favourite movie. The following weekend I gave my older friend the money to buy me a copy of JAWS (a treasured artefact I still own to this day) and from that day forward, I would watch JAWS at least twice a month and quickly learn how recite the film word for word.
For many years now, I have wondered to myself what is it that makes JAWS my favourite film? Could it be the fact that it had such a strong effect on me as a child? Could it be the fact that it was the first film I recognised as a true magnum opus? Well, after much careful deliberation and many sleepless nights pondering the subject, I have come to the decision that it is truly impossible to say why this is as JAWS is a wonderful jigsaw puzzle of many different elements that come together to create an indelible piece of art. It is the music, it’s the setting, it's the cinematography, it’s the cast, it’s the script - everything that went into the making of JAWS is pitch-perfect and has for me, yet to be matched. Spawning the modern blockbuster, the movie would go on to become the highest grossing motion picture of all time and would quickly be recognised as one of the greatest ever made in countless polls, surveys and studies.
But why did JAWS become such a cultural phenomenon whilst other high budgeted 'B' movies of the day fell by the wayside? The horror landscape at that time was practically dominated by the embryonic and increasingly grotesque slasher sub-genre while America itself was recovering from the aftermath of the recently ended and hugely unpopular Vietnam war. Surely the public wasn't ready for such a nihilistic tale being pumped into nationwide cinemas after they had already had their fair share of bloodshed. In the midst of such variables, JAWS was destined to be a flop. In fact, if the testimonies from the existing cast and crew are anything to go by, everyone involved in the making of the damn picture thought it was going to tank too. Not only were there major production problems throughout such as a soon-to-expire SAG contract, a very demanding distribution company throwing orders around left, right and centre, a $3.5m budget that was spiralling madly out of control and the eye of a then amateur director pulling the strings. But worst of all, encapsulating the calamity that was the making of JAWS there was Bruce, a giant robotic shark that just would not work. No shark meant no movie!
JAWS was only Steven Spielberg’s second commercial motion picture, the first being the wonderful 1974 neo-noir drama 'Sugarland Express' which starred Goldie Hawn and Ben Johnson. Made for Universal for a relatively small budget, SUGARLAND would prove to studio executives that Spielberg had a knack for money making, with the movie quadrupling its costs at the box office. But while SUGARLAND certainly proved to be a critical success and a minor financial boom for the company, it was still a very risky move on the part of Universal to hire the 21 year old Spielberg to direct their first truly mega budget bonanza. The most profitable films at that time were being made by older and more reputable directors such as William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Wise; filmmakers who has garnered both critical and commercial acclaim thanks to their innovation and cinematic prowess. So it was a great gamble for the world famous production behemoth to allow such an inexperienced filmmaker to take the reins of one of their most expensive projects to date which itself was based on a popular yet unremarkable potboiler of a novel by pulp writer Peter Benchley. Of course with it's major on and off screen catastrophes, Universal would quickly discover that JAWS would be their most problematic production to date and is it would inevitably turn out, the film ended up being finished 120 days over it's intended schedule, $6m over budget and Spielberg would be constantly tiptoeing around unemployment time and time and time again.
So why is it that despite all of it's major flaws and almost fatal production disasters, JAWS still remains one of the most highly respected motion pictures ever made? Set on the fictional island of Amity, the film tells the story of a giant great white shark hunting beachgoers and the efforts of it's townsfolk to kill it. In this sense, JAWS is a very typical monster movie, going through the same motions as other classic 'B' movies such as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THEM! and TARANTULA, films which put man against seemingly unstoppable aberrations of nature. But where JAWS succeeds while others so miserably failed is in it's unprecedented levels of realism and character.
A large majority of the creature features of the age spent their running times showing their respective monsters far too much while putting performance, character, setting, atmosphere and general common sense second. They also lacked any air of horror whatsoever, reverting to very typical scares techniques such as jump scares, slow build up and a woman screaming at every single possible opportunity. JAWS on the other hand still terrifies to this day because it takes its horror deadly seriously. While many remember the bloodless death of Chrissie Watkins or the nightmare-inducing demise of the aforementioned Alex on the lilo, people forget that JAWS is actually a very visceral movie a surprising level of gore. Children are dragged underwater accompanied by a scarlet plume of blood, a mangled corpse is seen during an autopsy and a recently severed leg is seen sinking to the bottom of the sea complete with bone and distended viscera - strong images for a so called 'PG' rated film! At the time I watched JAWS in its entirety for the first time, I was something of a horror coward and I remember at the time being very proud of myself that I had subjected myself to such graphic sequences and unabashed violence. Being bought up on Disney animations, I was never subjected to true horror movies except for the classic Hammer films which my Dad and I would watch religiously whenever they aired on TV. JAWS was the first true shocker I had ever voluntarily watched and the indelible effect that it had me would set me down a path towards an undying love for the entire genre as well as an undisclosed passion for cheesy creature features.
While JAWS is remembered fondly as a full blooded horror movie, it is also rightly recognised for it's talent in front of and behind the camera - and for good reason. It's cast is easily one of the most accomplished ever to feature in a blockbuster. At the heart of picture is Roy Scheider's Martin Brody, an aquaphobic police chief whose determination to seek redemption from the agnostic authority of his townspeople - personified brilliantly by Murray Hamilton’s reluctant Mayor Larry Vaughn - leads him to face his fears with unabated courage and forcefulness. Best known at the time for his role in Friedkins 1971 Best Picture winner THE FRENCH CONNECTION, Scheider was an actor of indeterminable talent and while the shark may steal the show, it is his pivotal central performance that anchors the heart of the narrative. Alongside Scheider, we have Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper, a knowledgeable shark expert who shares a psychological kinship with all of the creatures of the deep and completing the trio we have Robert Shaw as Quint, the obsessive and compulsive shark hunter who is hired by the island of Amity to kill it's carnivorous assailant.
Both Scheider and Dreyfuss deliver terrific performances but as much as I enjoy their roles, it is Shaw's Ahab-like Quint who is the true star of JAWS. A maelstrom of gruffness, anger and near psychotic relentlessness, Quint is the perfect antithesis to both Hooper's naïve optimism and Scheider's understandable fear and even second of his screen time from his ear-splitting entrance to his gory and brutal end is magnetic, mercurial and simply mesmerising. To this day, I am still shocked and quite disgusted that Shaw didn't get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the 1975 Oscars as he gives a startling performance which is not only the best of his illustrious career but one of the best ever delivered by any actor ever.
Behind the camera was an expert team of writers, set designers and cinematographers who all worked their absolute hardest to make JAWS the best it could possibly be. Utilising the beautiful settings of Martha's Vineyard to wonderful effect, director of photography Bill Butler shrouds Amity Island in a pastel suburban normality, perfectly matching the ocean and sky setting that our trio of heroes will eventually find themselves. The blues and whites of its architecture perfectly encapsulate the essence and feeling of a typical coastal town and while it is set in the United States, the atmosphere and ambience is reminiscent of the Great British coast with brass bands a plenty, sea gulls swamping scraps of food left carelessly on the sand and holidaymakers flocking to the sea whenever the sun decides to rear it's head. Much is written about JAWS but rarely is credit given to Butler for his work. For me however, he is the unsung hero of the entire movie and just as much attention should be drawn to the way the film looks as it is to the way it sounds.
Written by Carl Gottlieb, the screenplay for JAWS (which went through several rewrites and authors including Peter Benchley himself) is incredibly smart - dispensing with wit or soliloquy and replacing it with true to life conversation and realistic banter. Instead of trying to make his characters characters unbelievably hip and cool for younger audiences, Gottlieb goes for a much simpler approach, writing believable dialogue that allows his characters to have unique yet realistic personalities. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its lighter moments and indeed, there are numerous sequences - in particular the scene in which Hooper and Quint gleefully compare scars, which never fail to make me laugh. But for the most part, it is a grounded and economic screenplay whose realism makes it that more memorable and timeless. Ironically, while so many of Gottleib’s lines are iconic, the films most famous, “You're gonna need a bigger boat!'', was in fact an on set ad-lib from Roy Scheider rather than a methodically thought out piece of screenwriting genius.
We all know the trademark dum-dum-dum-dum of the JAWS theme but many forget the other truly brilliant musical accompaniments John Williams wrote for the movie such as ONE BARREL CHASE and HAND TO HAND COMBAT - compositions which fit the film perfectly yet are highly listenable when heard in isolation. As Spielberg often says, “John provided the shark I didn’t have” and its true that without the genius of Williams, JAWS wouldn’t be half as evocative, half as intense or half as terrifying. How many villainous theme tunes consist of literally two notes? That’s the magic of John Williams and it’s just one of the many reasons he remains the most popular modern movie composer.
A prolific cast and accomplished crew is all well and good but at the end of the day, a monster movie is only as good as its monster. When I was lyrical about JAWS, people inevitably complain that the shark looks fake and while true, this never fails to heat my blood to near boiling boiling point. Of course it does! it was 1975, how the hell were they supposed to make a completely convincing robot shark? The technology just didn't exist at the time. But in reality, the rubber shark designed by animatronic legend Bob Mattey, who previously made the giant squid puppet for Disney’s epic 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, did give a pretty good performance when it made its few appearances on screen. As expected with a movie made nearly 40 years ago, there are a few times when the special effect doesn’t hold up so well but for the most part, Bruce, famously named after Spielberg’s lawyer, is convincing and absolutely terrifying, with the July 4th estuary death sequence proving to be the sharks most nightmarish scene by some distance.
Despite it's immeasurable shopping list of problems and an almost undying view that the film was bound to sink just as much as his useless mechanical fish, Steven Spielberg had the last laugh. A combination of nail biting thrills, beautifully executed horror and wonderfully rounded characters was far too good to turn down and the general public thirsted for more. Making $400m at the worldwide box office, JAWS became the highest grossing movie on the planet and earned four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. It created the template for the modern blockbuster and thanks to an ingenious marketing campaign, the film became a global phenomenon. While they may have had unfounded doubts about the directors talent beforehand, Universal would go on to hire Spielberg for many more productions in the future including E.T: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL and JURASSIC PARK; both of which would become the most profitable movies of all time upon their respective releases.
With heart pumping tension, nerve jangling horror and the greatest trio of actors ever to grace a silver screen together, JAWS is a movie that will last forever. It is an extraordinary melding of a fun yet flawed book, a growing director who would soon be known as one the greatest, one of the most iconic soundtracks ever written and the undying power of self belief. Spawning three admittedly rubbish sequels and a merchandising empire rivalling that of George Lucas himself, JAWS continues to make millions of dollars a year and scare thousands of new fans young and old every day. But for all of its success JAWS was never really about money. It is, in the words of Spielberg himself, ''courage and stupidity existing underwater!'' and it is, without any question, my favourite movie of all time. Oh, and for the record Dr. Mark Kermode, it’s also demonstrably about a shark. DC.