By Carter B. Horsley
of being eaten alive by a large animal is none too appetizing.
Indeed, it is gruesome, terrifying and the stuff of nightmares.
"Jaws" is Steven Spielberg's wonderful
film based on Peter Benchley's thin and not very good short novel
based on a legendary shark hunter in Montauk, Long Island. The
locale of the movie the fictional island of Amity presumably somewhere
off the New England Coast. (Amityville is a real town on the south
shore of Long Island. Benchley, the son of famous humorist Robert
Benchley, was a co-writer, along with Spielberg, Carl Gottlieb
and Howard Sackler, on the movie's script and also has a cameo
role as a journalist.)
There are five main characters: Martin Brody,
the new sheriff of Amity, played by Roy Schneider; Quint, the
shark hunter, played by Robert Shaw; Matt Hooper, a marine scientist,
played by Richard Dreyfuss; Mayor Larry Vaughn, played by Murray
Hamilton; and the shark, which in most scenes is a mechanical
"Jaws" is a variation on a theme
man against nature - explored most gloriously in Herman Melville's
masterpiece, "Moby Dick," and Ernest Hemingway's slight
novel, "The Old Man and the Sea." "Moby Dick"
is an extremely rich, complex and very philosophical work that
dissects the human spirit and ponders the depth of meaning in
life. "The Old Man and the Sea" is the lonely and simple
tale of one individual out to snare a big fish.
"Jaws" takes something of a "Don't
Fool with Mother Nature" approach and while it certainly
does not make light of that well-known advertising phrase, it
is not a morale tale but an adventure yarn that consummately delivers
the goods thrills in brilliant cinematic fashion.
While the mere mortals cope with the danger
at hand a giant white shark that has staked a claim to their territorial
waters and evidenced an appetite for human flesh it is Spielberg's
use of superb cinematography by Bill Butler, a great and very
memorable score of John Williams, and very impressive special
effects that elevate this film to the heights of cinematic horror.
In his fine review of the film ( http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/2000/08/082001 ), Roger Ebert notes that "There
is a story that when producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown
first approached Spielberg with an offer the direct the film of
Peter Benchley's bestseller, he said he would do it on one condition:
that the shark not be seen for the first hour." The shark
does not "surface" visually in the firm in the first
80 minutes, although its presence is very much felt.
Spielberg's second Hollywood film. He had directed Goldie Hawn
in "Sugarland Express" the year before and had also
done a made-for-TV movie thriller, produced by Zanuck and Brown,
called "Duel," about a runaway truck in 1971.
In his lengthy review of the film ( http://filmsite.org/jaws.html ), Tim Dirks notes that Benchley's
book and Spielberg's movie "borrow from the exploits of diver
Peter Gimbel's shark expedition recounted in the documentary film
Blue Water, White Death (1971), and from Peter Matthiessen's
1971 non-fiction book Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great
Glistening seas, intensely bright sun and the halycon beach days
of summer are quickly established by Spielberg and the opening
scenes invoke the carefree attitudes of youths on vacation. The
idyllic setting, however, is quickly broken when a young girl
goes for a night swim ahead of her inebriated boyfriend who passes
out on the beach. She swims out and suddenly is violently pulled
down in the water and thrashed about and carried off at remarkable
speed. She flays at the air and screams, but is doomed to an excruciating
Part of her body later washes up on shore and is found and the
sheriff writes up the cause of death as a "shark attack,"
but the community's medical examiner subsequently changes that
to "a boating accident." The sheriff wants to close
the beaches, but the Mayor advises him that he does not have such
authority and that it would cause unnecessary panic and severely
hurt the community's economy that depends on summer tourists.
The next day the shark attacks and kills a boy swimming with many
others at the crowded beach and his mother posts a $3,000 bounty
on the shark. The mayor agrees to close the beaches for a day
but at a town meeting Quint, a local shark-hunter, says he will
capture and kill the shark but for $10,000. He tells the gathering:
"Bad fish! Not like goin' down to the pond chasing bluebills
or tommycats. This shark will swallow you whole. I don't want
no mates. There's too many captains on this island. Ten thousand
dollars for me by myself. For that, you get the head, the tail,
the whole damn thing."
That night a couple of local fishermen throw a large piece of
raw meat with a large hook in it attached by chair to the end
of a pier in the hopes of getting the bounty. The shark takes
the bait and pulls the pier away from its moorings only to turn
about and pursue one of the men who had fallen into the water.
The man manages to get out of the water in time.
The sheriff begins to read up on sharks and decides to call in
a scientist from a nearby oceanographic institute on the mainland.
The scientist, played from a bearded Dreyfuss, quickly concludes
that the attack on the girl indeed had been from a shark, a big
Bounty hunters, however, have caught a 12-foot tiger shark and
the mayor is greatly relieved but Hooper is skeptical because
its bite radius does not seem big enough to correspond to the
victim's wounds and he tells Brody they should cut open the shark.
The mayor, who was standing nearby, however, interjects that he's
"not going to stand here and see that thing cut open and
see that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock."
The boy's mother approaches Brody and slaps him in the face stating
that he knew the waters were dangerous.
Hooper joins Brody for dinner with his wife, played by Lorraine
Gary, and they discuss the fact that sharks keep swimming around
in places where the feeding is good and Hooper and Brody then
decide to cut open the dead shark on their own and they only find
some fish and a license plate. Hooper insists they call out on
his boat to look for the larger shark he is convinced is still
out there. They go out to where the shark had been and come across
an abandoned fishing boat and Hooper jumps into the water with
his scuba gear to investigate and finds a large shark's tooth
embedded along the size of a large hole in the hull and the severed
head of the boat's owner floating inside, which so shocks him
that he drops the tooth and rushes to the surface.
They next day they tell the mayor that the beaches must be closed
but the mayor remains stubborn opposed. Hooper tells the mayor
that "we are dealing with here is a perfect engine - uh,
an eating machine."
The beaches are filled with people but no one dares to enter the
ocean until the mayor insists that one of his friends go in. A
few minutes later, however, a large black fin is spotted in the
water heading for some swimmers and an alert is sounded and people
scramble to get out of the water only to discover that the fin
was fake and just a prank by two boys with snorkels. Next, someone
spots another fin not in the ocean but in a pond-estuary moving
towards some children near a man in a small boat. At first the
spotter's alarm cries are ignored but Brody hears them and realizes
that his son is among those children and dashes wildly over to
the pond. The shark bypasses the children but attacks the boat
and bites off the man's leg.
The new incident enables Brody to convince the mayor to hire Quint
to go after the man-eating shark. Since Brody is making the charter,
he insists that he and Hooper accompany Quint on his boat, the
Orca, the next day.
Quint is gruff, cantankerous, intimidating and contemptuous of
both Brody and Hooper, but also slyly humorous and ribald as he
plays the character of an old "salt" to the hilt. Shaw's
portrayal of Quint ranks with Robert Newtown's mad artist in Carol
Reed's Odd Man Out as one of the more memorable "over-the-top"
performances in film history. His outlandish character is explained,
however, by his recounting of his experiences aboard a cruiser
at the end of World War II that was sunk by a Japanese submarine
and lost hundreds of men to shark attacks, an event that actually
was alleged to have occurred to the U.S.S. Indianapolis. (In his
long review of the film, cited above, Tim Dirks notes that while
it was true that only 316 of 1,199 aboard the cruiser survived,
the number that actually died from shark attacks while alive is
quite uncertain.) Quint's recounting of the incident to Hooper
and Brody is riveting. In an interview in a documentary about
the making of the film that is included in the DVD edition of
the film, director Spielberg noted that this speech was rewritten
several times, the last by actor Shaw, himself a noted playwright.
Spielberg also states that his first choice for the role of Quint
was Lee Marvin and his second choice was Sterling Hayden. The
documentary shows the many difficulties encountered in making
the film including the making of the various models for the shark
and the accidental sinking of Quint's boat, the Orca.
A large fish tugs at the bait on Quint's reel and after a while
apparently bites through its piano wire, convincing Quint that
it was in fact the big shark they were after and not just a tuna
or swordfish as Hooper had previously suggested. Quint barks at
Hooper not to tell him his "business again; you get back
on the bridgeit proves that you wealthy college boys don't have
the education enough to admit when you're wrong." Hooper
obeys but mumbles comically afterwards that he does not "have
to take this abuse much longer."
Quint yells at Brody to put out more chum. As he scoops more bloody
bait from a bucket, a giant shark raises its huge head with jaws
wide open in the water just behind the boat. It is some 80 minutes
into the film. It is a spectacular and frightening scene and the
shark looks very real and very, very big. Brody, in shock, backs
away from the rear of the board and tells Quint "You're gonna
need a bigger boat." Quint estimates the shark at three tons
and 25 feet long and prepares a harpoon tied to a large yellow
barrel, and he successfully harpoons the shark when it passes
again and Brody empties his revolver into the shark as well. Quint
harpoons the shark once more, but it is not slowed down and the
men aboard the Orca wait for the barrels to tire it out. Brody
decides to call in the Coast Guard for help, but Quint smashes
the radio with a baseball bat to Brody's astonishment. The shark
returns and Quint again harpoons him with another barrel, and
with a gleam in his eye declares that "Back home, we got
a taxidermy man; he's gonna have a heart attack when he sees what
I brung him!"
shark dives and drags down all three barrels, Quint is shocked
and soon thereafter the shark tows the boat backwards with such
force that the stern of the boat is filled with water and it starts
to break up. The engine gives at the stress of trying to tow the
shark and the boat begins to list. Hooper decides to put his high-tech
shark cage in the water and to try to stab the shark with a needed
filled with strychnine nitrate. Hooper is not calm and admits
he doesn't even have spit to defog his face mask. The attempt
fails, however, as the shark slams into the cage and the spear
with the poison falls away and the battered cage offers no sanctuary
for Hooper who swims out of it. Quint and Brody desperately raise
the cage and are shocked that Hooper is not in it.
then attacks the back of the boat, tilting its front up and causing
Quint to slip and slide into the shark's open jaws.
The shark is not satisfied and attacks the boat again smashing
through its mid-section. Brody heaves an oxygen tank into the
gaping mouth of the shark and climbs to the top mast of the sinking
boat with a rifle and dares the charging shark to "Smile,
you son of a bitch." He misses with a few shots but at last
a bullet hits the oxygen tank in the shark's mouth and explodes.
emerges from the debris-strewn waters and he and Brody rig a small
raft and kick their way towards shore. Brody tells Hooper that
he "used to hate the water," and Hooper laughs and says
he "can't imagine why."
won Oscars for its score by John Williams, its editing by Verna
Fields and for best sound. Spielberg maintains that the first
time he heard the musical theme by Williams, he thought it was
a "joke," but admits that his score contributed greatly
to the movie's success.
became a major box-office success and has been credited by some
critics with making summer releases the target of blockbusters.
Spielberg was not nominated for best director.
is great because of its fabulous and very suspenseful manipulation
of the viewers, its horrific and quite believable special effects,
its cinematography and direction and its famous two-note musical
theme. Dreyfuss is excellent in his role, probably the best of
his career. Shaw's zesty play with his character stretches its
limits greatly but Shaw's persona is always so magnetic and strong
that he manages to carry it off to great effect. Schneider does
a yeoman's job of portraying a rather wimpy sheriff out of his
league. Lorraine Gray does an adequate job as Schneider's suburban-type
housewife and none of these actors bring much glamour to the film,
which is reserved, not surprisingly, for the shark.
which apparently created many mechanical problems and challenges
for the film, is not some gigantic monster and the decision to
keep its dimensions not too farfetched keeps the audience in tow
and not lost in some science fiction fantasy. When Brody is giving
himself a cram course on sharks he finds photographs of a shark
with an oxygen tank in his mouth and records of boats being attacked.
The film's terror lies in its staying plausible and realistic
and the scenes on land have fine authenticity. (Much of the movie
was shot on Martha's Vineyard.) The town officials' hesitancy
to close the beaches is carried a little too far and Hooper's
resurrection from the deeps is too fortuitous, but do not seriously
detract from the film's immense visceral impact.
This film is ranked 64th in the Top 250 films by users
of the Internet Movie Data Base and 48th on the American Film Institute's
List of the 100 Best American Films at http://www.afi.com/tv/movies.asp and 23rd on Carter
B. Horsley's Top
500 Sound Films