So I’m here at my computer with every intention of writing a kick-ass feature article on ‘Jaws’ and I’ve just stared at the screen for about twenty minutes, my hands hovering over the keyboard and... I don’t know what the hell to say. It’s not like I haven’t had this one ticking over in the back of my mind - I’m a raging, die-hard cinephile and I’ve been asked to write about how much I love one of the most perfect blockbuster films ever made. Why shouldn’t I have cause to be excited? But whenever I would sit and deliberate about what to say, I would keep, and still keep, drawing a blank. I mean... what is there to say? Where do you start? After forty years, what else could I possibly have to add to the hundreds of thousands of words already written about it? After all, any article on ‘Jaws’ could pretty much be whittled down to a single phrase.
‘Jaws’ is a masterpiece.
It’s not even a point that’s in contention. Of the thousands and thousands of films in existence, you can’t expect any general consensus on what’s a great film and what isn’t, but Steven Spielberg’s 1975 career-making classic is one of the few exceptions to this rule. It was the first true blockbuster, it is unanimously acclaimed, it always hits high on lists of best films of all time, it inspired an entire generation of filmmakers and, unlike a lot of films from that era, it still seems to scare the living daylights out of each successive generation. No matter how much time has passed, no matter how advanced cinema gets or how cynical the audiences have become, this one simple fact remains the same.
‘Jaws’ is a masterpiece.
I remember very vividly the first time I saw it. I was thirteen and on a school camp from rural Queensland to Brisbane. There was a VHS player and TV on the bus, and one of the boys had brought ‘Jaws’ along with him. Of course there were the teenage protests against watching an old film ("the shark looks fake!") but for some reason (I choose to believe it to be destiny), the teachers put it on anyway. For the next two hours, the bus was dead silent, each face glued to the screen. We were transfixed, hypnotised, too scared to look but too scared to look away. When Ben Garner’s head appeared from the hole in the boat, the entire bus of teenagers screamed in perfect unison. It might have been on a TV screen way too small to do the film justice, but that first viewing of ‘Jaws’ left us all (and especially me) giddy with adrenaline and excitement. I thought then what I still think now, every time I watch it.
‘Jaws’ is a masterpiece.
Released in 1975 after one of the most legendary and hellish film shoots in history, ‘Jaws’ totally redefined and perfected cinema. That might seem hard to believe for those that haven’t seen it, that a film about a great white shark terrorising a beachside community could be ground-breaking cinema, but any of the millions who have seen it will know that ‘Jaws’ is a film that defies logic and description, a piece of pure cinema that’s all about the experience. It balances drama, horror, comedy, action, adventure and suspense so perfectly that it’s no wonder that, no matter how many times you revisit it, it never loses an ounce of its power.
Based on Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, ‘Jaws’ focuses on the three men tasked with ridding Amity Island of the maniacal predator, who is taking out tourists with stunning ferocity during the busy summer season. There’s Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), the local sheriff who has moved to the island with his family from New York, even though he’s deathly afraid of open water. There’s Hooper (Richard Dreyfus), a young student from the Oceanographic Institute determined to study the shark and prove his mettle against it. And there’s Quint (Robert Shaw), a hardened and unforgiving local fisherman who declares a frighteningly gleeful challenge against the shark akin to Captain Ahab in ‘Moby Dick’. In fact, the comparison to Melville’s novel is apt – ‘Jaws’ is the classic American hero myth, man pitted against the unstoppable force of nature, which responds with unforgiving ferocity. And that’s one of the countless reasons for the success of the film - the familiarity and classical nature of its story, a group of warriors on a quest to slay the monster. It’s a tale centuries old, and taps instantly into something deep and primal in us. We sit enthralled as the shark decimates their ship the Orca, because deep down it speaks to the endless battle we have raged with our environment since time began.
I doubt anyone on the film was thinking of this though. The greatest work is achieved in a state of ignorance, and ‘Jaws’ was such an immense technical challenge for the preposterously young Spielberg that the boy who would one day be king had to rely on every gut instinct he had to make it work. ‘Jaws’ is a film clearly made from the gut, less concerned with what is appropriate than with what is right. Spielberg and cinematographer Bill Butler crafted a succession of iconic images and sequences, allowing the story to be told as potently through the visuals as through the screenplay. This accounts for the film’s international appeal. The visual storytelling is so accomplished that it abolishes language and cultural barriers, especially when coupled with its crystal clear hero-myth structure.
‘Jaws’ is a masterpiece.
Enormous complications with the mechanical shark ended up forcing the filmmakers into a decision that pushed the film even closer to perfection. Unable to show the shark on screen as much as he had wanted, Spielberg is forced to let his monster remain a mystery until the final act. It becomes a shadow, a suggestion, a series of terrifying POV shots, a fountain of blood, all the while coupled with John Williams’ iconic score. It’s a stroke of absolute genius born out of necessity. Even though the shark itself is barely seen, it’s always there, and when it finally does appear, it’s every bit as monstrous as we’ve imagined it. It’s a trick other filmmakers have copied and borrowed ever since.
As a piece of direction, ‘Jaws’ is still one of the prime examples of what a phenomenal filmmaker Spielberg is. Even at that young age, and faced with the impossible task of filming major studio effects in open sea, he never loses control over any element of the film. One of the things I personally love the most about his direction in ‘Jaws’ is his work with the amazing cast, where he fosters a sense of improvisation and collaboration. The dialogue sparkles with an immediacy and wit that has never lost its charm, and his openness encourages honesty out of the cast and an investment in the work. Not a single performer - be they star or an extra on the beach - is wasted, to the point that I reckon ‘Jaws’ has more iconic characters than almost any other film. He might have been driving a train threatening to jump the rails, but that doesn’t stop Spielberg from getting exactly what he wants. There’s never a dull moment, never a second where the film isn’t perfectly on point, never an instant where it isn’t about as entertaining as it’s possible for a film to be. ‘Jaws’ almost drove its young director insane, but that insanity is in every frame of the film and only pushes it further to some sort of hysterical perfection.
Almost everything about the success of ‘Jaws’ was positive. The film devoured box office records and won three Oscars (including one for Williams’ score), and became the first true summer blockbuster, setting a film and release formula that is followed to this day. Its young director went on to become one of the most acclaimed and successful filmmakers in history, with two Oscars under his belt and some of the most important films of all time to his name. Spielberg had set the standard for the blockbuster film, but then went and redefined it again with ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981), then again with his sublime ‘ET: The Extra Terrestrial’ (1982), and then again with his monumental ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993), which is almost a companion piece to ‘Jaws’. As for the cast and crew, ‘Jaws’ not only represented them at their best, it turned many of them, their characters, their designs, their contributions into the stuff of cinema legend.
So somehow I’ve managed to find quite a bit to say - and yet, even with all I’ve frantically set down, I know I haven’t done justice to ‘Jaws’. I know this, because putting it into words is impossible. I can’t adequately describe how much it thrills me, how much it inspires me, how much it still (even know) scares the bejesus out of me. A true work of art defies the constricting nature of a pithy essay or description. A true work of art needs to be experienced. You can’t adequately describe the sensation of watching Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ or Kubrick’s ‘2001’ or Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. And like many of Steven Spielberg’s films, you can’t adequately describe the sensation of ‘Jaws’. No film about a man-eating shark should be this accomplished, this important, this memorable, or frankly, this perfect. For anyone who has seen it, the oceans are haunted by the memory of it, of its shadow passing by, of the two growling notes that define it. No matter what I write, nothing does justice to this film as much as the film itself. And that is for one very simple, very clear reason.
It’s because ‘Jaws’ is a masterpiece.