Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is the film that created the summer blockbuster. Its summer release (June 20, 1975) was not exactly planned. The film was supposed to be released in theaters for Christmas 1974, but filming took longer than accounted for by the shooting schedule, causing it to be pushed back to Summer 1975. Prior to Jaws, summer releases were typically the films that were considered the worst by producers, since Americans tended to enjoy the outdoors during the summer as opposed to movie theaters. Jaws, which became the first film to gross over $100 million at the box office, changed all this by becoming the first summer blockbuster. Over 67 million people in the United States saw Jaws in theaters when it was first released.
Jaws not only spawned a number of sequels, but it also helped to spur on the shark horror film. It’s New England beach setting of Amity Island (originally set in Long Island in the original novel) also encouraged the average summer tourist population of Martha’s Vineyard to skyrocket from 5,000 to 15,000.
Three mechanical sharks, which Spielberg named “Bruce” after his lawyer, needed to be made (however, a real shark was used for some of the scenes, including the shark cage scene), each costing approximately $250,000. These sharks were apparently a real nuisance on set and were a major reason for why shooting took so much longer than anticipated.
After the mutilated body of a young girl washed up on the shore of town’s popular beach, police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) must do what he can to protect the small town of Amity Island. Brody is a recent transplant to the New England island and popular summer vacation from New York City. Brody, aware of the possibility that this girl may have been killed in a shark attack, begins the process of shutting down the beach, however the town’s Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) pushes him not to do it, as the beach and tourism is the town’s major source of economy. With the beaches shut down, especially during fourth of July weekend, Vaughn claims that the town would face major economic troubles in the winter. The town’s officials instead offer a money prize to any shark-hunters who can bring in the shark. The shark claims a second victim, this time a young boy in the midst of a crowded beach. Brody’s young son also experiences a close call with the shark when it instead killed a nearby adult male swimmer. They also call in the aid of an oceanographer who specializes in sharks, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Shortly after Hooper’s arrival, a shark is caught, but Hooper argues that this can’t be the same shark that attacked the girl, based on the jaw size. He proves this to Brody by opening up the shark’s belly and determining that no human remains were inside. Brody and Hooper locate Quint (Robert Shaw), a local shark-hunter, and enlist his help in taking down the shark. The shark seems to toy with the hunters, alternatively beckoning them further out into the ocean, and moving under their boat. The men also fight and bicker, especially Hooper and Quint, who seem to have very different ideas of shark-hunting: Hooper has all of the latest technology (including a shark cage), while Quint believes in his basic harpoon, rope, and alcohol. At one point, Quint even destroys their sole tool of communicating with Amity Island because he feels like that made their adventure too comfortable. Eventually, the shark hits the boat enough that it begins to sink. In a last-ditch effort to kill the shark before they find themselves in the water, Hooper goes in the shark cage, hoping to inject tranquilizers into the shark’s blood stream. Unfortunately, this does not go to plan, and Hooper is forced to hide behind some coral on the sea floor. The shark then jumps onto the ship, causing Quint to slide into its mouth and die (although not without valiant efforts to stab the shark to death). Brody manages to throw a tank of compressed air into the shark’s mouth, then shoot it, causing the shark to explode. To Brody’s delight, Hooper reappears at the water’s surface and the two paddle back to Amity Island.
Notes & Quotes
- The opening scene of Jaws is remarkable in its proximity to other opening scenes of slasher films. This move clearly positions the shark as an almost supernatural monster and killing machine. Just like in Halloween, and Friday the 13th, we see the vulnerable body of an attractive young woman (a young woman who seems to be on the verge of, or already is, committing an act of sin, in this case, enticing a young man to go skinny dipping in the ocean with her) through the eyes of the killer. Whereas in these slasher films, the perspective of the audience and camera will eventually shift from monster to final girl, this never happens in Jaws. Instead, the camera shifts into an omnipresent perspective and remains there. Also, not only is there no final girl (Brody probably is the closest thing to a final boy), but there are very few female characters (Brody’s wife, Mrs. Kintner, and *maybe* the shark).
- A Twitter user, @kyalbr recently shared a thread in which he highlighted the various connections between Jaws and the Birth of the Nation. It was a really great reading in which he noted how the shark is specifically depicted as representing a (sexual) threat to white female bodies which white males must defend. I don’t believe he noted this in his thread, however, the male bodies that come to defend the beach are pretty common caricatures, including Quint, who is a sort of frontiersman figure (defending the line between white and Indian American), as well as the state power invested in Brody as police chief, and the authority in Hooper, as a scientist. The Twitter user also noted how the first shark, who was wrongfully accused of the first murder, is hung up in the town square, and a group of white men pose around its dead body and smile. This is hauntingly similar to the countless cases of black bodies who were wrongfully convicted and hung.
- Capitalism and the tourism industry is a major force within Jaws. Brody has to choose between protecting the beach-goers (human lives) and keeping the local store-owners and the mayor happy by allowing the beach to remain open despite potential shark risks. This sort of taps into the rural gothic plot line in which the outsiders moving through a small town are subject to major danger, however, because the locals are mainly presented as middle class/suburban types (Quint and a few others are exceptions), they don’t take on the sort of malevolent vibe.
- The shark, its size, and its intense desire to attack the beach-goers and the three men in their shark-hunting boat, is unexplainable. Multiple characters in the film note how strange it is that the shark is that size and that it’s behaving like a vengeful human, but nobody is able to scientifically explain the reason. This reminds me a lot of Estok’s concept of ecophobia. The humans want to control their beach environment. To do this, they lay ropes at the edge of the “safe” swimming area, place a parking lot behind the beach, and, of course, kill any sharks that swim into their swimming area. However, the shark in question evades the possibility of complete control by being totally unexplainable.
- There’s a lot to do with masculinity presented in the relationship between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Quint constantly picks on Hooper for his status as an intellectual and his love of gear and technology. Quint views these as damaging to masculinity.
Jaws (1975) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.