According to Ralph E. Hanson’s Mass Communication: Living in a Media World, we are experiencing a transition from the Blockbuster Era to the Franchise Era. The big budget stand alone epics are now competing with the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the box-office. Looking back, the Blockbuster Era has done so much for the Franchise Era: upgrading special effects, making unknown names big stars, and telling grand tales through multiple sequels. All of these are taken for granted in the franchise era, but the question is when did the Blockbuster era begin? The answer is over forty-five years ago with two musical notes, three actors, a then unknown director, and a mechanical shark that changed cinema by refusing to work on set.
Jaws is regarded as the father of summer blockbusters for the legacy it left on Hollywood, but how does it hold up more than forty-five years later when the Franchise Era is introducing new techniques in storytelling and movie magic?
Jaws started as a book by Peter Benchley about a killer shark terrorizing the small town of Amity Island. It was a modest financial success despite the mixed reception surrounding the story. Following the book’s breakout, producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown saw potential of turning it into a movie and bought the rights for Universal Studios.
From there, they searched for directors who could work with a small production schedule in order to capitalize on the book’s success. Then newcomer, Steven Spielberg, was eager to direct after finishing both Duel and The Sugarland Express. For this movie, he turned down directing a friend’s screenplay called Lucky Lady, but little did he know that the production of Jaws would become one of the most infamous development hell stories in the history of Hollywood.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Starting with the book, Spielberg was appalled by how unlikeable the characters were that he rooted for the shark before turning to writer Carl Gottlieb to help Benchley write a new screenplay. Many actors passed on playing the three leads, including Richard Dreyfuss, until he was disappointed in his first role in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Afterwards, he begged Spielberg to cast him.
Unfortunately, after the positive reception of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, an infamous rivalry broke out between two of the three leads. Between Richard Dreyfuss’s attention for the film and Robert Shaw’s envy, both actors were at each other’s throats. So the tension between the two in the final film is real.
“Dreyfuss would say, ‘What am I doing on this island? Why am I here? I should be signing autographs in Sardis. I should be feted all over New York City.’ He [Shaw] really thought Dreyfuss needed a slapping down. Young punk with no stage experience. Shaw would say, ‘Look at you, Dreyfuss. You eat, and you drink, and you’re fat, and you’re sloppy. At your age, it’s criminal. Why you couldn’t even do ten good push ups.'” – Roy Scheider
“That did it for Robert Shaw. That was, I think, the beginning of the great Dreyfuss-Shaw feud. Robert would basically humiliate Richard into taking a chance. For instance, Robert said, ‘I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you climb to the top of the mast on the Orca and jump off into the water.'” – Steven Spielberg
“Robert was competitive about everything and anything, and so I guess he might have been competitive about the reviews. He was an enormous personality, and he radiated it. And in private he was the kindest, gentlest, funniest guy you ever met. Then we walked to the set, and on the way to the set, he was possessed by some evil troll who would then make me his victim. I was his victim. When you’re competitive with someone who’s three times your size and who has already given one of the greatest Shakespearian performances in the world, it wasn’t hard for Robert to get my number.” – Richard Dreyfuss
If it wasn’t the actors being incompatible, the mechanical shark, Bruce, was also a drama queen. Despite recruiting legendary special effects artist Robert Mattey, who created the giant squid for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, none of the five sharks were tested in salt water, and thus it sank to the bottom of the ocean upon its first plunge. Eventually the shark made the news when a Time Magazine photographer snuck on to the set and snapped pictures of the robotic side of the animal. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the shark always broke down during filming. This forced Spielberg to improvise after relying on storyboard showing more of the creature. He instead used the camera as a point-of-view to imply the shark’s presence. At this point, all the land scenes were filmed and only the ocean scenes remained, which led to the biggest challenge outside of the shark itself: filming on the Atlantic Ocean.
Between boats sailing in the background, water currents breaking up the barge, unpredictable weather, a sinking Orca putting the technical equipment in danger, and the shark refusing to cooperate, production went over budget and over schedule.
“Get the actors off! Get the actors off!” – the production crew during the Orca sinking incident.
“F%#k the actors, save the sound department!” – Oscar winning sound engineer John Carter.
Spielberg and Zanuck conflicted with angry executives and the possibility of being replaced mid-production. One scene involving the shark cage changed the fate of Matt Hooper, who was supposed to die in the story. When a great white shark got hooked onto the cage and tried to thrash itself off the equipment, the scene was re-written so that Hooper escapes. Finally, the big contention between Spielberg and Benchley was the ending:
“The most interesting conflict, as far as I’m concerned, happened between me and Steven when it came to the discussion of the ending. Because he said to me, ‘The ending of the book is a downer. The shark gets stabbed with a harpoon, can’t hold up the barrels, and eventually drowns, spins slowly to the bottom, and the story ends. That is not a big, rousing ending, and I need a big, rousing ending.’ So he said, ‘Here is what I propose to do.’ And he told me the ending he had in mind. And I said, ‘Steven, that is completely unbelievable. It can’t happen. A shark does not bite down on a scuba tank and explode like an oil refinery.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. If I have got them for two hours, they will believe whatever I do for the next three minutes, because I’ve got them in my hands, and I want the audience on their feet screaming at the end, [Yes, yes! This is what should happen to this animal!]'” – Peter Benchley
That scene was the last shot filmed in September 1974: a shot that Spielberg himself would not be present for.
“We were on a plane back from Boston and I said, ‘How’s the last shot going?’ And he said, ‘It’s happening right now.’ And he was afraid that the crew was going to throw him into the water. So, he set it up and left. And that became a Spielberg tradition, and I think he still does it. He never shoots the last shot.” – Dreyfuss
Following several screenings, Spielberg spent three thousand dollars out of pocket to film the Ben Gardner boat scene before turning to John Williams for the score. And thus wraps up one of the most troubled film productions in Hollywood, but what about the movie itself?
Off the shores of Amity Island, a great white shark is terrorizing swimmers to death. This catches the attention of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) who wants to close the beaches to ensure everybody’s safety. But Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) refuses because the town depends on summer tourism to keep their economy alive. Looking to take care of the situation, Brody hires the young oceanographer, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and professional shark fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) to go out to sea and catch the beast following several more incidents.
Sounds archetypal by today’s standards, but the way it conveys the three leads speaks volumes of how behind the times modern creature movies are. The recent monster-verse with Godzilla and King Kong nailed the fight sequences, but the human scenes were so boring they could put an insomniac to sleep. Here, it’s astounding how much development is conveyed without on the nose exposition. Despite the conflict surrounding the shark, most of the time is spent developing the town, the community, Chief Brody, Matt Hooper and Quint. Past reviews have highlighted the terror, but the comedic bits bring levity to the situation, easing your guard before the next scenario takes you by surprise. One minute you’re shown Brody’s family life as his son mimic’s his father’s exasperated expressions. The next minute shows you the importance of tourism with crowds flocking to the beach, followed by some gruesome deaths without the aid of computer generated effects. This is classic Hollywood utilizing filmmaking tools that are always on set.
The pacing knows when to develop characters, such as Quint’s infamous USS Indianapolis speech, and when to ramp up the action on the ocean, making this one of the most concise scripts in film history. Everything on screen has a point through indirect characterization and world building, despite focusing on a small town. Even the stereotypical greedy mayor gets his comeuppance for caring more about money than people. The direction is pitch perfect in how it wants to bring us to a small town that is susceptible to paranoia and gossip. There are many longshots consisting of strong dialogue that would be edited down in several takes in today’s films. Having the camera float in the ocean plops the viewer in danger as islanders scramble to get out of the water at the sight of a dorsal fin. The locations in Martha’s Vineyard and the open ocean adds to the believability rather than having it shot in a green screen studio. The transfer to Blu-ray successfully preserves the past by polishing the picture so the blood is more saturated and fine tuning the audio with near-perfect surround sound. It’s a whole new experience in high-definition that can help you spot background details previously hidden.
Of course, you can’t talk about Jaws without mentioning John Williams’s score. Spielberg himself said the film is only half a success without the music, and he’s right. The majority of Amity Island scenes might be unaccompanied by an orchestra, but that only makes the music stand out when it does appear. Harp strings for family bonding, French horns when fighting for survival, violins when the Orca crew have the upper hand, and those two infamous notes when spotting one of the most perfect predators to ever live:
Reading the book before watching the movie, it’s surprising how many liberties Spielberg, Gottlieb, and Benchley took. And yet this is the superior experience. The characters that were once unlikeable are now relatable on multiple perspectives. The subplots that took the focus off the main conflict are stripped down to its bare essentials, making the story easier to follow. It proves that authors are capable of transitioning their own work from page to film if they know there will be changes between mediums. Knowing what went down during production makes the final product look more fantastical in how both the script and direction encompasses community, the unknown, internal politics, family life, and isolation. It’s no wonder every monster movie afterwards has failed to one up this masterpiece. Because they’re trying to be one genre while this mixes several genres: family, action, horror, and comedy.
Despite the layered characters and terrifying music, the biggest deciding factor for people on this classic is the creature itself. A nightmare to deal with on set due to not being tested in the water, Bruce forced Spielberg to improvise with the point of view shots that gave this film its horrific edge. It’s not until the hour and twenty minute mark when the shark finally surfaces and the audience is left to their own opinions. Some say its an innovative technical achievement. Others say it’s dated and looks fake, including Marty McFly from Back to the Future Part II:
Watching it again, there are parts where the artificial nature is obvious, but Spielberg films the creature with angles that masks the machine, and not just with the point-of-view perspective, a broken pier, or buoyant barrels. There’s footage of real sharks and the creature still bleeds with every gun shot and harpoon injection. The fact that they were able to get this working at thirty feet below the surface is an accomplishment on its own. And because it’s bigger than the actors, there’s an intimidating comparison even when the mouth is performing a ventriloquist act. In today’s movies where computer animation is being rushed to meet a deadline, it can look even more fake than something that’s actually on set. There have been numerous creations that have built upon this pioneering invention, but that’s no reason to discard this legendary work of art.
Jaws remains one of the cornerstones of cinema forty-five years later. Say what you will about the mechanical shark, but everything else surrounding it is top notch filmmaking that you don’t see in the franchise era anymore: human characters that are layered rather than boring, on location filming, an auteur with their own style, innovative special effects, a soundtrack that elevates the experience, immersive directing, a condensed, simple narrative, and unknowns becoming big names thanks to their performances. If you’re loyal to the book’s narrative, you probably won’t like this adaptation with all the changes it implements. But if you want to experience one of the greatest blockbusters of all time as either an aspiring filmmaker or an eager movie goer, this is the best place to start. Should it ever be re-released in theaters, don’t miss your chance to see it in its original glory. Though be warned parents, this movie was rated PG a decade before the PG-13 rating was implemented.
Pros: John Williams’s music, three leads, interconnected genres, natural human development, innovative special effects, immersive direction, on location filming
Despite all the production troubles, Jaws is regarded as one of the best movies of all time. Upon release, it was the first film to gross over a hundred million dollars at the box-office and laid the groundwork for summer blockbusters: giant films with big budgets, a gigantic marketing campaign on television, and long lines at theaters extending several blocks in length. This is a stark contrast to recent years where the summer movie season has experienced a drop in attendance. It was so successful that three sequels were produced without Spielberg that sought to capture the lightening in a bottle twice. It even capitalized on merchandise sales several years before George Lucas did the same thing with Star Wars.
When we realized what we had, merchandising was licking their lips and it was such an easy one to merchandise. It started, obviously, what everybody does with the t-shirts, but it went from there. Everything kind of mushroomed with the release of the picture. I even had a toilet seat, when you open it up, it was a big shark facing you.– Richard D. Zanuck
The movie was nominated for best picture at the academy awards. And though it lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it still won three Oscars for film editing, score and sound. However, Spielberg was disappointed that he was not nominated for best director despite all the critical acclaim.
It also inspired other studios to make their own Jaws knock-offs like Orca: Killer Whale, Grizzly, Barracuda, Alligator, and most notably 1978’s Piranha. Spielberg himself declared the 1978 film to be the best Jaws knock-off considering the competition. The film also served as an inspiration to Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was able to stand on its own and create a new franchise with its unique monster and lead character, Ellen Ripley. In 2001, Jaws was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance.
The film, along with its iconic poster, has been one of the most parodied movies in political cartoons and television shows like Robot Chicken and SpongeBob Squarepants.
In April 1976, Universal Studios Hollywood launched a dedicated section of their tram tour around the film called Jaws Lake. It would be consistently updated over the years, but sadly scrapped authentic boats from the movie, including the Orca, much to Spielberg’s annoyance.
In the 1990’s, Universal Studios opened Jaws the Ride at their Florida location and later their Japan location in 2001. The attraction took guests on a tour of Amity Island that would be interrupted by the infamous shark. Much like Bruce during the film’s production, the mechanical beast had its own problems when it came to functioning during the ride. Jaws the Ride would continue its run until Orlando officially shut it down in 2012, replacing it with the Wizarding World expansion, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. To this day, the ride is still operational at both the Japan and Hollywood locations. Following the film’s release, Martha’s Vineyard experienced a spike in tourism, and in 2005 the location held a weekend long Jaws-fest to celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary. In 2020, the city opened a Jaws exhibition for the film’s 45th anniversary.
Gottlieb would later author The Jaws Log: a book detailing all the production troubles during the making of the film. It has since become the filmmaking bible of several directors such as Eli Roth. He also co-wrote the screenplay for The Jerk with Steve Martin and Michael Elias. In 2011, he was elected the secretary-treasurer of the Writers Guild of America West.
Brown continued to produced films such as The Verdict, Cocoon, and Driving Miss Daisy. He also wrote a book called Brown’s Guide to the Good Life: Tears, Fears and Boredom. He passed away on February 1st, 2010 from heart failure and is survived by his son, Bruce.
Zanuck continued to produce films alongside Brown as well as other movies such as Road to Perdition, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Both producers won the 1990 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Following his death from a heart attack on July 13th, 2012, 20th Century Fox opened the Richard D. Zanuck production building in his honor. He is survived by his wife Lili Fini Zanuck and son Dean Zanuck, who followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a producer.
Roy Scheider continued his acting career in films like Marathon Man, All That Jazz, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. He passed away on February 10th, 2008 and is survived by his wife Brenda Siemer and three children, including Christian Scheider who went on to be a writer, filmmaker and theater-maker.
Robert Shaw continued acting until passing away from a heart attack on August 28th, 1978. He is survived by his wife Virginia Jansen, his niece Tanya Landman, his grandson Rob Kolar, and ten children, including his son Ian Shaw. Ian would adapt the production troubles of Jaws with Joseph Nixon into a play called The Shark is Broken.
Richard Dreyfuss continued his acting career with films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goodbye Girl, Stand By Me, and many more. He made a cameo appearance in the beginning of 2010’s Piranha 3D as a fisherman who becomes the first victim of the carnivorous fish.
As for Bruce himself, all the mechanical sharks were returned to the Universal Studios backlot and eventually succumbed to the detriment of time. However in 2016, one model was found in a Sun Valley junkyard where it apparently spent twenty-five years sun bathing after being discarded by the studio. The model was donated to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and with the help of special effects director, Greg Nicotero, the model was restored to its original glory. It has been on display at the museum in Los Angeles, California since April 2021.
The ending involving an air tank blowing up the shark has been debated on its plausibility. This theory was tested by the Mythbusters on their tv show, which proved the opposite. After their first test was criticized for being rigged, they tested it a second time and proved it false. However considering the anti-climactic ending of the book, it sparks an interesting debate on which ending is preferred.
While the film left a giant imprint on society, there were a few latent dysfunctions that arose from its popularity. To quote R. Aidan Martin from the documentary The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws, “Jaws essentially did for swimming what the movie Psycho did for showering in motel rooms.” Many people were afraid to go swimming after watching the movie, but that’s nothing compared to the bigger backlash surrounding sharks. The public perception surrounding sharks would forever see them as man-eating killers, not helped by the few highly publicized shark attacks around the world. Years later, Benchley admitted in a 2000 interview that if he had known the true facts about sharks, he never would’ve written Jaws:
“What I now know, which wasn’t known when I wrote Jaws, is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh. No one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction. If you bought into the fact that you had this rogue, cold-blooded killer going around hunting humans, then obviously anything you could do to stop those sharks was good. It provided cover for people who simply wanted to go out and kill sharks under the guise of somehow making people safer, which there’s no evidence that was the case at all. We have a very poor idea of even how many white sharks are out there. But along the East Coast of the U.S., white shark numbers were driven very low compared to comparable populations in South Africa for instance and Australia. So we did something here that was in attempt of reducing white shark numbers that was not necessarily done in those other locations. I don’t think they have any interest in human interaction. I think they’re actively trying to avoid them. We’ve lacked so much data that anyone can fabricate truths or untruths or speculate about sharks. We’re changing the conversation to be from the fear of the unknown to what real sharks are doing. Sharks are the lions of the sea. The ocean won’t thrive if sharks don’t.”
To give you an idea of his statement, Great Whites usually hunt seals because they contain massive fat in their bodies. By comparison, humans are pecked carcasses that would give sharks more bones than meat to feast on. As for the often reported shark attacks, these creatures taste their prey with their teeth. The first bite usually determines if they will continue to feast or move on. Shark Week proved this when a Great White attacked a nautical camera:
But because their bite force is so strong, they can leave a near death mark on victims. Benchley wrote several books on marine life such as Shark Trouble and Shark Life separating fiction from fact. He and his wife continued to advocate for the preservation of sharks, until he passed away on February 11th, 2006 from Pulmonary fibrosis.
John Williams has been one of Spielberg’s most frequent collaborators, scoring the music for all the Indiana Jones movies, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and more. He has gone on to win several Golden Globes, Emmys, and Oscars, including the best score award for Jaws. His most recent honor was in 2020 with the gold medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society and the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts.
Spielberg became a household name in Hollywood after the success of Jaws and went on to direct and produce many big hits in his career. Despite his success, he still has nightmares about the production:
“I have very, very good memories in many respects to the making of Jaws, but I have many more bad memories. Memories that still haunt my nightmares, still wake me up sweating, but the bottom line is I’m grateful because I went through a kind of baptism of water. And I came out of it, not only alive, which was my main goal, and getting through Jaws was to come out of it in one piece, but I came out of it with a career. And I will forever be grateful – no matter what I tell you about those nightmares – to the fact that the dream from the nightmare was that I got a chance to make any movie I wanted to make, and that has continued to this day.” – Spielberg