Forty years ago, on June 20 to be exact, Jaws premiered in theaters and forever changed the summer film environment. Before Jaws came along and scared recreational swimmers out of the waters, summer film schedules were filled with lightweight, forgettable fare. Most often they were aimed at children who needed something to do in the summer. The theaters were terrific time killers and babysitters for parents so off the little ones went. Though there have been big hit films that were released during summers none of them had the effect that Jaws had.
Based on the eponymous novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws was a one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest films and a breakout hit for the then-young director. A nature/horror film, Jaws was about a New England beach community being terrorized by a monstrous great white shark that decided to use the sleepy town’s popular beach for a feeding ground. The novel was terrifying enough, but the film brought the visceral horror of the shark to vivid life and stating that it was a huge hit is an understatement.
As someone who was around when the film first came out, I can testify that the film was a genuine blockbuster. There were literal lines of anxious moviegoers that went around blocks waiting to see this film. In this day and age of multiplexes that jam several theaters with the same film, this is unheard of. Sure, there would be a line, but usually that would be on opening weekends and they hardly snake around blocks like in the old days.
As with many films since, Jaws tapped into the public consciousness in a certain way and the film had a distinct impact past the movie theaters. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so positive. Aside from the ripoff horror/nature films that followed (Grizzly, Orca, Tentacles, etc.), sharks received a very bad reputation and people went out of their way to hunt down and kill the aquatic predators, bringing down their population. People were terrified of going into the water. Their overactive imaginations kept playing scenarios of them becoming shark attack victims. This fear still persists today, but it’s more balanced as we celebrate Jaws’ 4oth anniversary.
Jaws is so revered thanks to the skills of Steven Spielberg who assembled a topnotch team both in front and behind the camera. Who can forget the stellar performances by Roy Scheider as Sheriff Brody, the everyman law officer out of his element? Or Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper the hippie marine biologist who clashed with Quint, the salty fisherman so terrifically played by Robert Shaw? The conversations and arguments between the three are beloved and often copied and honored by other films. The line uttered by Brody when he first sights the humongous shark “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” is beyond legendary.
That scene itself sold the film for me as a youngster. I actually screamed and ripped up my popcorn bag when the shark first popped it’s mechanical head out of the water as Brody was shoveling chum into the water. I never expected to see the shark because I thought that all that would be shown was just a fin. Yes, the shark is an obvious fake, but no one cares. Spielberg, stuck with malfunctioning shark robots, was forced to make do with less and it worked. So when the shark finally appears in the gripping final act, we the audience are both relieved at having finally seen the white terror and invigorated by the music, the editing and camera work. Again, Spielberg is rightfully credited for using John Williams, who came up with the famous film score, Verna Fields for the crisp editing and Bill Butler for the beautiful cinematography.
It’s hard to imagine how the film would’ve turned out if another director was used. And remember the film was so plagued with problems that Spielberg was almost fired. It’s a good thing that didn’t happen.
With Jaws’ success (it was the number one movie of all time until Star Wars came along), film studios realized what a gold mine the summer season was and soon enough we began to see the big-event films coming out in the summer. That pattern is still in effect today and will likely stay that way for a long time. Some snobs may decry this and proclaim that these blockbusters are for empty-headed masses. They’ve tried to blame Jaws for this, but they overlook the fact that Jaws is simply a great, edge-of-your-seat adventure film. That is why it has endured and I’m thankful because without Jaws we wouldn’t have so many memorable summer films.