Jaws at 40 – Is it safe to go in the water yet?

Certain films are very quotable, creating earworms that lodge inside your mind and rarely fail to make an appearance when someone mentions the film in question. Jerry Maguire has “You had me at hello” while Casablanca has “Here’s looking at you, kid”. And who can forget arguably one of the most quoted lines of all from the Star Wars series, “May the force be with you”.

One of the most memorable lines from this forty-year-old film is something that still sounds quite ominous even when you don’t hear it in context:

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Why is the speaker saying a bigger boat is needed? Because the people on it are about to take on a giant man-eating shark…

“Don’t go in the water!”

Jaws is classified as a thriller, and it certainly thrilled – or rather frightened, horrified and alarmed – multiple movie-goers; when it was released in 1975, a whole generation allegedly became afraid of open water.

The film is based on Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’, which was published a year before the motion picture was released. Producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown read the book and immediately bought the films rights, sensing its potential.

A relatively-unknown 28-year-old Steven Spielberg took directorial duties, with Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss taking the leading roles. Mechanical sharks nicknamed ‘Bruce’ were the eponymous beast though some scenes feature a real shark.

A five-star killer

Jaws is a great example of when creative licence works very well, exaggerating the predatory nature of a Great White and extending it to attacks on humans.

While shark attacks on humans do occur, more commonly in Australia than other parts of the world, statistics from the International Shark Attack File place the amount of attacks worldwide at under 3,000 between 1850 and 2014. The amount of fatal attacks during the same period is just under 550.

Watching Jaws for what it is, a motion picture rather than a factual documentary, it’s no wonder that it holds an 8.1 rating on IMDb and 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, as it’s arguably the very definition of a successful thriller.

We have a series of protagonists, led by Police Chief Brody (Scheider), who are on the hunt, quite literally, for the film’s antagonist, a killer Great White. Their adversary’s actions are random and seemingly without reason. It’s down to Brody and his team to stop the shark before it can kill again.

Urban legend explains that the reason why many scenes were shot from the shark’s point-of-view is because the mechanical sharks used were temperamental and prone to breaking down. This camera angle is certainly a success, creating an additional air of tension and suspense.

The original and best

Jaws set the standard for a generation of films that featured animals as their antagonist. Lake Placid, Deep Blue Sea and Arachnophobia are just three off the top of my head that feature more blood-thirsty beasts rather than cuddly critters. Jurassic Park is a notable addition, though at times you are firmly on the side of the dinosaurs.

A reason why Jaws endures 40 years on is its simplicity.

The killer shark in question is exactly as nature intended it to be; it isn’t the result of a human experimentation gone wrong, a captive beast gone native or a mythical creature. It’s simply a big fish that got hungry and is now having to pay the price.

The protagonists’ jobs are fairly exciting – a Police Chief, a professional shark hunter and a marine biologist – but it’s their camaraderie and personalities that really drive the plot. Who can forget shark hunter Quint’s seafaring ditties or the friction between Quint and his younger marine biologist counterpart? Plus, of course, Police Chief Brody’s aversion to water…

To me, Jaws is an example of when movie makers nearly got everything right. A lot of the film revolves around the three men staking out the beast on a boat so the casting needed to be right. Happily, it was. The creature effects still stand up today and the inimitable ‘duhh dum, duhh dum, duhh dum’ theme is unforgettable.

Jaws undoubtedly remains one of Spielberg’s greatest works.

A docile ‘Bruce’ and Spielberg relax in between shots.



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