by Ian Foster
At five years old I was too young to see Jaws on its theatrical release in 1975, but nevertheless I do have memories of it: playground chatter and rumour based upon experiences of older kids or siblings; the gradual emergence of toys and merchandising; and of course that iconic poster of the somewhat phallic and inconceivably large fish rising open-jawed from the depths of the ocean towards the helpless nubile female bather on the surface (equally dwarfed by the huge red letters of the title). I remember seeing that image for the first time, long before I ever saw the film, outside local independent cinemas (when there still were such things).
When in later years protective parents acquiesced to my finally seeing the film on TV, I watched with awe and wonder, revelling equally in the senses of dread and excitement Spielberg’s mechanical shark and the carnage it left in its wake imbued; and of course celebrating its ultimate demise in the explosive finale. But decades later, I have developed and maintain an enormous affection for the film which transcends the foaming blood and (now arguably hokey) rubber shark . .
Having studied film history, I appreciate how ground-breaking Jaws was in its conception and reception. Based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 bestselling airport novel, the film established the pattern for simultaneous release and saturation booking which would inform the ‘summer blockbuster’ phenomenon forevermore. I also appreciate it as an early example of ‘New Hollywood’ director Spielberg’s moviemaking, fresh from the likes of Duel and The Sugarland Express but before the sugary excesses of ET.
The runaway production on location at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, with its delays and breakdowns (primarily the mechanical shark ‘Bruce’) are the stuff of movie folk-law. Equally there are genuine moments of cinematic brilliance in the film, like the infamous dolly zoom of Chief Brody sitting on the beach which amplifies the sense of nausea as little Alex Kintner is swallowed up, lilo and all. Quint’s monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, often credited in part to another great director, John Milius, also adds to the quality and gravitas of the drama. But above all of this, the reason I love Jaws is because of the story.
At the heart of the movie, which Spielberg has acknowledged is an adventure rather than a horror film, is a dramatic narrative as simple yet profound as Melville’s Moby Dick or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. And at the heart of the story is the great ensemble of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Brody (Roy Scheider). Hooper is the brains of the outfit to a large degree; and Quint is the brawn; but undoubtedly it is Scheider’s Chief Brody who is the focus and heart and soul of the film.
Scheider, in Brody, embodies Spielberg’s everyman: imperfect but duty-bound, he’s just an ordinary guy trying to do the right thing. The shark, thankfully often elusive, for me now simply represents that unknown factor, threat or force of nature which we all must expect to face from time to time. The fact that Brody faces up not so much to his fear of the shark, but to his wholly less than heroic fear of the water to do what must be done is the essence of the drama. Painfully aware of his lack of Hooper’s knowledge and resources, or Quint’s physical prowess and experience, he nevertheless steps up to the plate and sees the job through.
So Jaws for me is the purest tale of facing the unknown – and more importantly facing your fears – with whatever limited tools, abilities and resources you have at your disposal. Not so much the heroics of the harpoon, the gun, or the ‘anti-shark cage’, as a case of splashing the Old Spice on a towel to mask the smell of fish-guts and keep right on shovelling out the chum. And as a man, in Jaws I see the man I would like to think I am from time to time (a Hooper or a Quint); and more importantly the ordinary man (Brody) which most of us intrinsically are – and I can live with that.
Sadly Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider are no longer with us; but I hope it would be some small tribute to them to know that if I had to pick just one movie to be stranded on a desert island with, it would be, somewhat ironically, Jaws.