Jaws

Since Shark Week starts today and with no big silver-screen solstice sensations on the horizon thanks to Covid-19 what better movie to showcase than the greatest summer flick of all time – Jaws! Released in June 1975 this smash hit (adapted from Peter Benchley’s best-selling book) redefined the meaning of ‘Summer Blockbuster’ becoming the highest-grossing picture of its time. Forty-five years on, this legendary film directed by a young Steven Spielberg still has the ability to petrify viewers, and scare weary swimmers out of the water, even avid swimming pool recreationalists like myself. In fact, few films have ever had such an enduring impact on people’s psyche as Jaws has. A born leader in film-making, Spielberg (dubbed the ‘king’ of directing) mastered the art of suspense by purposely not revealing the deep-water threat for the first 81 minutes of this 130-minute film. That’s right – for over half the movie there was no shark in sight, just the brilliantly obscured illusion of one that Spielberg manifested. Thus nervously building the apprehension to dizzying heights, which audiences loved.  

As for the story-line, the movie opens in the fictional seaside town of Amity Island (actually Martha’s Vineyard) on the heels of the July 4th celebrations, with an ominous scene of beautiful young blonde Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) unassumingly swimming by moonlight. When without warning she is viciously snatched and yanked under the water several times by the unseen evil lurking below. The petite skinny-dipper surfaces and resurfaces several times while being hungerly devoured. But her bloodcurdling screams and flailing attempts to escape go unnoticed as she finally disappears into the sodden silence. The youth’s demise sparks swift shark-based dialogue that carries throughout the film. However, since Amity Island serves as a popular vacation getaway with tourism as its main source of income, officials are reluctant to reveal that a predatory killer (aka man-eating great-white shark) may be subsisting in the coastal waters and feasting on its human inhabitants. Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is especially hesitant to face the facts despite evidence to the contrary. As a result, the disastrous problem is swept under the rug with grievous outcomes, namely continued ruthless beachfront attacks in broad daylight with countless sun-seekers looking on in mortal terror. Unable to ignore the gravity of the situation no more, police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) finally orders the trendy beaches closed.

In an effort to get a handle on the perilous danger, police chief Brody (who is deathly afraid of water himself and at serious odds with his superiors’ irresponsible denial of the deadly problem), calls on outside help for assistance. Enter contrasting shark experts – Quint (Robert Shaw) a beastly briny bounty hunter, and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) a plucky edified oceanographer. Both do a stellar job awakening our most primal fears with graphic descriptions of a perfect merciless biological killing machine that possesses brut power, razor sharp teeth, dead eyes, and an insatiable appetite. The epic adventure truly begins when the threesome (Quint, Brody and Hooper) set out into the deep on the hunt for the mammoth murderous monster. The hallmark scene of the movie occurs during an eerie nighttime whiskey drinking sit-down in the boat’s galley. The trio discuss shark stories with Quint topping them all with his recollection as a WWII survivor of the USS Indianapolis sinking (a true-life event labelled as the worst shark attack in history) where only 317 crew members out of 1196 survived with hundreds eaten alive by circling relentless sharks who picked off helpless sailors one by one (6 per hour – one every 10 minutes) before the remaining men were rescued. Just as Quint finishes his sinister story the grueling back-and-forth battle between man and beast cascades into a crescendo that ends in the most amazing fish story ever told. No exaggeration.

Although this big-screen ocean odyssey set out to be just a frightening seafaring summer thriller, the endless trepidation coupled with impeccable character development instantly enthralled audiences. Despite its menacing plot, viewers could immediately relate to this horrifying tale. So much so it garnered well-earned Oscar recognition racking up a nomination for Best Picture and winning for Best Film Editing and Best Original Music Score as it should have. Composer John Williams’ jarring Jaws arrangement (then and now) evokes anxiety and dread like no other. Just hearing the opening few bars of this spine-chilling magnum opus (dun dun dun dun duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn) is enough to conjure up our worst fears of eminent danger. A feat unmatched by any other themed musical composition to this day.

With the narrative and accolades now clarified what on earth is the main take-away message expounded in this fabulous film you ask? There are certainly a few life lessons imparted to viewers. First, this picture touches on how politicians act as spin doctors, negating hazards with their slow-to-react demeanor until the threat becomes so enormous it can no longer be disregarded (reminiscent of how some leaders have dealt with the Covid-19 crisis). But ignorance and/or negligence are not the key points of this movie. Instead, the film is more about confronting one’s fears and dealing with them head on. Literally! Most people are afraid of the unknown, which is natural. Fear is a valid human emotion that keeps us out of harm’s way. But fear does not have to serve as an unbreakable barrier. Just take it from the late great Nelson Mandala who stated, ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’ Amen. In the end it was the most fearful of the three men and the least educated on the topic that rose to the occasion and turned out to be the hero in this picture. Confronting vs. Avoiding – Spielberg once said that he feared Jaws would ruin his life and end his career. Instead it launched him into movie-making superstardom with endless masterpieces to his credit including Jaws, considered a highly valued and renowned Hollywood classic by the American Film Institute. Spielberg also stated one of the main reasons for making the movie was his own personal H20 fears ‘… I think it was {also} my own fear of the water.’ Everyone has their own methods of handling their fears, even the greatest filmmaker of all time who had to risk failing to succeed! And boy did he ever. So remember, ‘Fear has its use, but cowardice has none.’– Mahatma Gandhi

Fast Fact: The movie Jaws was inspired by the true-life events that occurred in 1916 in New Jersey where four people were killed in shark attacks in a 12 day span during a deadly heat wave gripping the region at the time, as well as the Polio epidemic that had many citizens flocking to the seaside in search of relief. These fatal shark attacks were the first ever recorded in the USA. A great white was suspected, with shark-hunts ensuing just as depicted in the movie. Also, just like the movie the real killer shark was exterminated when it almost sunk the boat of trackers Michael Schleisser and John Murphy whose only line of defense was a broken oar. When dissected on land human bones were found in the great white’s stomach. On this point, it is very rare that shark hunters ever catch the actual shark(s) responsible for attacks on humans. That said, in Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh (2010) huntsmen did this as well. Tracking down and eliminating two separate sharks (different breeds) with 100% certainty that both were responsible for two separate attacks on humans in the region. Life imitating art.

P.S. Incidentally, I have visited this exact location in Egypt and swam in the Red Sea (normally considered safe), even reef snorkeling with my kids just before these terrible 2010 shark attacks occurred. Yikes. I love the water, and swim almost every day but I have a great respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. Yes, I am very afraid of sharks; a reasonable fear that’s not quite at the level of galeophobia yet. After all, they are an apex predator with very few natural enemies. As such I normally follow the best advise ever – 5 words – Stay Out Of The Ocean! Problem solved! Excellent advice. But do I always listen? Apparently not! Just this past year, at my daughter’s insistence, my kids and I went Shark Diving in Hawaii at Xmas time. We boarded the vessel and my thoughts went directly to police chief Brody’s line from Jaws“You’re going to need a bigger boat.” The ride to open water was unsettling, and once at the site the sharks were huge. But I faced my fears and went into the cage, though I admit I was the last one in and the first one out. There is a real element of danger – the waves sloshed us everywhere and several times my legs and arms slipped out of the cage. We cut the excursion short as a storm was looming with winds seriously increasing. At one point I worried the breakers might top the cage and land a shark inside. Double yikes. Shark diving is not for everyone, but I went, and I was happy I did. I have an enormous appreciation of and fascination with sharks. They are powerful and beautiful and graceful. However, even more unnerving than going inside the cage occurred when we left the site. The captain let me sit at the back of the boat where I watched these same sharks we just engaged with follow our boat for miles. I was just hoping we wouldn’t spring a leak, especially given the worsening weather. But all went well, and the Harts successfully seized the day at sea. Memories I will treasure forever. BTW great whites hardly ever frequent Hawaii but they do show up from time to time so beware. You can even track them as I learned when attending Cambridge University. My IT friend Vince (former marine biologist) who helped me format my PhD had a Shark Tracker as a laptop screensaver. It was hard not to get distracted watching where the tagged sharks were swimming. So interesting! If you are curious about shark migration as I am, check out Vince’s Ocearch link. Enjoy! https://www.ocearch.org/tracker/?list 

The Harts on a Shark Diving Expedition in Hawaii December 2019. Scary but good fun!
Also thanks to my big brother Dan who took me to see Jaws on the big screen when I was finally old enough to go!
The Hart’s successful Shark Dive 2019!
In Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh in, on, and at the Red Sea with kids and niece Virgillia! What a view Athena and I had looking out at the Red Sea. Wow!

7 thoughts on “Jaws

  1. Yay, Jaws!! Just the best. This is probably tied for 2nd for my favorite movies of all time. I have no idea how many times I’ve watched it and I will continue to watch it when it’s on. I feel like Jaws gets better with age. It’s actually kinda hard to believe it is 45 years old!

    You pretty much nailed the plot. What? Politicians negate hazards or put money over the safety of others? I don’t believe it ;). The dialogue between Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw is just stupendous. Quint is my all time favorite movie character. The USS Indianapolis story is so captivating. I just love how crazy and obsessed he gets. He’ll go in and out of it too. At some points he wises up, like when he wants to lure the shark back to shallow waters but then destroys the boat doing so! But in the end, it wasn’t the grizzled shark hunter or the high tech, rich oceanographer; it was the everyman Chief Of Police, who is terrified of the water that kills the shark. (In which myth busters proved it wouldn’t actually work, but who is anyone to question Jaws.)

    I was hoping you’d pick this movie at some point because I wanted to read your perspective on it. Great story about your shark experience! I will definitely leave swimming with sharks to you and your family and I will remember my days of going to Universal Studios and riding Jaws haha. I’m excited for shark week tonight and until next movie review, be safe!

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    1. My point exactly! It’s the guy who is the most fearful out of the three that finds the courage and faces his fears. He conquers the threat and as a reward he’s the hero at the end of the day! Happy swimming and movie watching Christopher. So glad you liked my take on the film!

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  2. My favourite movie of all time, very glad to see your review of it. I used to have so many favourite films and then I was at a job interview at a film studio and the very first question they gave me was ‘what’s your favourite movie?’ and thought I just have to give one and went for Jaws. It wasn’t the same studio that released Jaws so maybe that’s why I didn’t get job, ha. Anyway loved the review. I recently rewatched it on the big screen, that’s highly recommended too when you get a chance, nothing beats the atmospheric sound that you point out. Great perspective on the characters, hadn’t thought of that before. Well done on the shark cage trip too. I’ve down it virtually and that was enough for me!

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    1. Thanks James for sharing. Too bad about the job but I guess better things were meant for you. I would love to see Jaws on the big screen again – it’s actually been playing here in Calgary at theaters but with Covid-19 I think I will wait. BTW I think virtual shark diving would have been good enough for me too but kids can be relentless and when baby cries mum usually answers the call. ha ha Keep watching movies James. 🙂

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  3. I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks for sharing this & your stories about the cage diving. I’m glad everything went well & none of you were hurt at the Red Sea either. I’d love to go cage diving with some Great Whites myself.

    Jaws is Spielberg’s best, & I’ve appreciated it much more as an adult (saw it as a little kid), because I understand the drama much more, like Mayor Vaughn’s reluctance to close the beaches, & Brody’s guilt. Being old enough to understand what Quint’s Indianpolis speech was about made me appreciate Shaw’s performance much more.

    As you brought up its Oscar nominations, Spielberg was not nominated for best director. They instead nominated Federico Fellini for Amarcord, which I think was the right decision since Fellini is one of the all time greats & Amarcord is one of the best films of the 1970’s. Spielberg would go on to make more films & win Oscars anyway (Fellini didn’t win any best director Oscars). 1975 was just such a strong year for cinema which sadly means someone had to miss out.

    Jaws also should have at least been nominated for best cinematography, but it didn’t stand a chance against Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Robert Shaw not being nominated for best supporting actor is something I strongly disagree with. He was more deserving than Chris Sarandon for Dog Day Afternoon.

    I’m not sure if you knew this, sorry if you already did, but Universal used to have Quint’s Orca on display at the Jaws section of the backlot tour. Spielberg used to occasionally sneak into the cabin & reminisce. One day he went to go in & saw it was gone. Turns out Universal just took it away & destroyed it because it was falling apart & didn’t want to restore it. This happened just a couple of years before I got to go to Universal Studios as a kid & that really annoys me. I would have loved to have seen it.

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    1. Hi Brett: As always thank you for your thoughtful and informative comments. It’s always interesting who gets picked at Oscar time and I don’t always agree either that’s for sure. I didn’t know the story about Quint’s Orca – what a shame. Sometimes people just have no clue what to value. It reminds me of Titanic’s lifeboats. I guess it’s hard to know which stories… will withstand the test of time – while living them in real-time. Shame. Keep watching movies Brett! 🙂

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