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Million Dollar Movie

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws is commonly regarded as the first summer blockbuster and as a result, the movie that lead to the death of the creative boom of “New Hollywood” in the late 60s and early 70s. Its influence on not just the movies that followed in its wake, but also the marketing, business and making of movies is incalculable. However, even among film fans who bemoan the changes that the massive success of Jaws brought on, it’s hard to find anyone who dislikes the movie itself. Unlike many sudden cinema phenomena, Jaws has had remarkable staying power, enchanting and scaring the wits out of audiences via cable TV and home video ever since owning the box-office in the summer of ’75.

What’s more is that instead of simply being a nostalgia trip that doesn’t really live up to the adoring affection of its hard core fans (I’m looking at you, Star Wars geeks), Jaws holds its own as a great movie. I know personally, the summer doesn’t feel complete without at least one evening spent watching Brody, Quint and Hooper aboard the Orca. All of this leads to the excitement surrounding the recent Blu-ray debut of Jaws earlier this month.  The good news is that the movie hasn’t looked or sounded this good since the summer of ’75. (See the excellent review and screen capture comparisons here at the invaluable website, DVD Beaver.)

I recently read Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name for the first time, and I was eager to watch the movie again, comparing and contrasting what was kept, what was changed and what was completely eliminated for the screenplay, written largely by Carl Gottlieb (who also appears in the film as Meadows, the editor of the Amity town newspaper), with help from Benchley and uncredited work by playwright Howard Sackler, John Milius and Jaws co-star Robert Shaw.  The novel Jaws was better than I’d expected it to be, but the screenplay and movie are a vast improvement.

It’s easy to jump on the obvious reasons the movie worked in ’75 and still works now – terrific performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Murray Hamilton and especially Robert Shaw, John Williams’ memorable score, Spielberg’s taut direction. Other reasons the film became a classic are less obvious, but no less important. The technological limits of the mid 70s meant that we didn’t see much of the shark. There was no CGI, and the mechanical shark was rarely functioning properly during the shoot.

The happy result is that the moments when we do actually see the shark make a huge impact and still make people jump in their seats. Spielberg has said that if he’d made the movie 30 years later, he would have used new technology, we would have seen a lot more of the shark and the resulting movie, by his own admission wouldn’t have been nearly as good.  The audience relies on Williams’ score, POV shots of swimmers and clever visual cues like the floating barrels to let us know that the shark has returned to wreak havoc.

Another element that keeps the movie from being a staid, formulaic monster movie is Spielberg’s insistence on shooting on Martha’s Vineyard and on the Atlantic Ocean instead of in Hollywood. The Jaws shoot took over the island for months and incorporated many locals into the cast, not only as extras, but in key speaking parts as well. The organic small-town America feel of Amity Island would have been lost on the Universal lot. The film plays upon primal human fears; not simply that there are beasts in the wild who can kill and maim us when we least expect it, but also more mundane fears about losing our businesses, losing our standing in a community or within our family. It’s also simply a hell of a lot of fun.

If you haven’t seen it in years, or if you’re like me and can quote random lines from the movie at will, or if for some strange quirk of fate you’ve never seen Jaws, the new Blu-ray edition comes highly recommended.



1 The Hawk   ~  Aug 21, 2012 9:24 am

Jaws is great, and so much of it is the actors/characters. Eminently re-watchable.

Though you're off-base with Star Wars - it holds up really well, geek or no geek.

2 rbj   ~  Aug 21, 2012 9:29 am

Still have never seen it. Have seen some scenes, as clips on other shows, but still haven't sat down and watched it.

"Spielberg has said that if he’d made the movie 30 years later, he would have used new technology, we would have seen a lot more of the shark and the resulting movie, by his own admission wouldn’t have been nearly as good. "
Very telling. I haven't felt compelled to go to a movie in years. The stories just don't interest me; and if the action sequences are all CGI, well I've already seen the promos, don't need to shell out the dollars to see it again.

3 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 9:30 am

[1] I think Star Wars works really well, and it's enjoyable and I appreciate how Lucas was influenced by Joseph Campbell. It was a huge touchstone of my childhood, too. I just don't understand why people are SO incredibly devoted to it. The second movie was really very good (Empire Strikes Back), but after that, it's been rough sledding.

4 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 10:02 am

I love Jaws and Star Wars and both them are great examples of what rbj[2] touches on. They were limited by technology and were forced to come up with new ways of doing things and working under those constant constraints made for great films.

As for Al's shot at Star Wars, that's just revisionist hoity-toity-ism at it's worst from a self-proclaimed movie snob. To be ignored for sure. As for Matt's more diplomatic mission, still off base, but thanks for not taking the shot I guess.

First of all, people are not devoted to Star Wars because of anything that came after Empire Strikes Back, so it's irrelevant how bad Jedi was and how rancid the prequels were. (I mean we're not talking about the shitty Jaws sequels tainting all the love for the original, are we?)

Second of all, Star Wars pleased audiences in 1977 as no other film in history had done, and with the exception of Titanic and Avatar, as no other film has since. Saying it worked "really well" is a galactic understatement.

Third of all, Lucas struck while the iron was hot with toys on a scale never seen before that kids could play with inbetween the movies. They latched onto the characters and story (which only existed in the film BTW, not like Batman or Spidey, which is a different kind of devotion entirely in which the film has to serve a historical record) and created new stories for them to enact. The toys and dearth of preceding detail forced/allowed kids to unlock their imaginations and run with it.

The kids who became devoted to Star Wars are the kids who grew up with the toys. If you were too old for the toys (like my older brother, born in 1969) then you are a fan but not a psycho. If you were like me, born in 1975, then you'd have to be a contrarian not to be devoted.

5 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 10:09 am

[4] Saw Star Wars in '77, I was 5. Loved it. Loved the toys - in fact, like every late 70s kid, I was OBSESSED with the toys for a time. I grew up, though. I like Star Wars. It succeeds brilliantly at what it was trying to be, and it's still fresh and fun. However, Jaws is a superior movie in every way.

The sequels comparison doesn't work because Spielberg didn't have anything to do with the Jaws sequels, whereas Lucas has always had complete control over everything Star Wars.

6 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 11:00 am

[5] Sure Jaws is superior film in every way. Except in the ways that inspire enduring devotion to millions upon millions of kids.

The sequels comparison doesn't work for you, as an adult, discussing the directors and producers. But we're not talking about the auteur theory, we're talking about your failure to understand why Star Wars inspires enduring devotion on such a massive scale. In which case of course the sequels comparison matters. The kids who would become the devoted did not care who the directors and producers were. They likely didn't know their names.

The strength of Empire following up the popularity of Star Wars and the presence of the toys sealed the deal for most of those fans. Jaws, because the brand failed to deliver in the squels, and because it lacked a world which kids wanted to inhabit during their play, doesn't inspire the same kind of devotion.

Even though Jaws may be superior in a lot of ways, it's a totally different animal.

I'm not sure what you mean by "I grew up, though." If you mean that you grew up and stopped playing with the toys, so did most of the Star wars fans. My point is that at that moment for many of us, the rich world created by the films and expanded by our imaginations remained intact, accessible only through the films (since we had stopped playing with the toys) and permanently bonding us to them.

I'm not asking the non-devoted to become devoted, but I think it's not that hard to understand the devotion regardless of your particular feeling.

7 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 11:15 am

[6] "Jaws, because the brand failed to deliver in the squels, and because it lacked a world which kids wanted to inhabit during their play, doesn't inspire the same kind of devotion."

Well, it's not a movie for children. I don't think the schlock sequels have anything to do with it. I'm talking about Jaws' enduring quality as a movie, and you're talking about what kids like to think about when they play make-believe.

I'm not denying they are very different animals in many ways - my point is that when held up against other films that were sudden box office insanity, it fares much better than most when looking at what was really on the screen. (The Godfather and The Exorcist would fit this niche too - almost unexpected pop culture shocks that hold up as excellent films.) When I say I grew up, it doesn't mean that I don't hold a place in my heart for Star Wars. It's just that it's long since ceased to be one of my main cultural obsessions. That said, if you can get your hands on the Holiday Special, I'd really like a copy!

8 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 21, 2012 11:33 am

I was a freak for the Star Wars movies as a kid. I don't get as much pleasure watching them as an adult.

I wonder how the LORD OF THE RINGS movies will look 20 years from now.

9 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 11:36 am

[8] Those and the entire Harry Potter phenomenon which has meant so much to a certain range of kids. It will be interesting to see how they fare as time passes. I wouldn't be shocked if Potter remains a Star Wars-like touchstone for people of a certain age.

10 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 11:38 am

[7] I can easily understand an argument which places Jaws above Star Wars in the canon of great films.

But I am responding to your comment, "I just don't understand why people are SO incredibly devoted to it." All my points have tried to explain why people are so devoted to Star Wars, and using Jaws as the counter-example because that's what's on-hand.

I also think that Star Wars does not have to be one of your main cultural obsessions to qualify as a devoted fan.

Of course there are those people who still collect toys and attend conventions and who like the bad Star Wars movies just because they're tangential to the good stuff. I don't agree with those people, but I understand why they exist.

11 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 11:59 am

[8] & [9] Those are books, though. Both the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter already had inspired lifetime devotion from a massive amount of hard core fans before one scene was filmed.

For sci-fi/fantasy born on the screen inspiring super-massive devotion, there's Star Trek, there's Star Wars, there's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm sure I'm missing some...

12 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 12:00 pm

And Transformers & GI Joe don't count as they were toys first, cartoons second.

13 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 12:13 pm

[11] Understood. I meant the entirety of Potter - books & movies.

But now we're way, way off from actually discussing Jaws.

14 Sliced Bread   ~  Aug 21, 2012 12:37 pm

Good one, Alex. You've just inspired me to finally replace my old DVD player that recently broke, with a new Blu ray machine. My sons have only seen a few scenes of Jaws, and now they're going to see it in it's entirety on Blu-ray (& our 55" Samsung.)

15 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 12:43 pm

[13] I do have a pang of guilt that we are off-topic, but re-reading Alex's post he clearly invited this tangent with his needle.

16 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 12:57 pm

[15] Nah, it was my needle, Jon - check the byline. I asked for it, willingly. That said, yeah, I think we've exhausted the other argument.

[14] There are some really nifty extras too - documentary stuff, et al. The making of Jaws is a story almost as good as the film itself.

17 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 1:10 pm

[16] Whoops, sorry Matt, that's what we get for letting Alex post 99 out of 100 pieces, I just assume it's him.

And sorry Alex, I gave you a totally unwarranted accusation of revisionist hoity-toity-ism. Consider it withdrawn until your next Wes Anderson takedown.

18 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 1:29 pm

Back to Jaws though, we know it holds the title of the "first Blockbuster". Should it also hold the title of the "best Blockbuster"?

Criteria should be: big film, bif ambition, big budget, lots of hype, lots of expectation, crazy good box office. Jaws has to be up there at the top or near the top in terms of quality.

19 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 1:40 pm

[18] Jaws was almost an accidental blockbuster, though. When Zanuck & Brown bought the rights to the book, I don't think it was yet a major hit. The book took off in paperback, while they shot the movie. So it opened with anticipation, but I don't think it was that big a deal when production was announced.
As has been noted, both Lee Marvin & Sterling Hayden turned down the role of Quint. Jeff Bridges was considered for Hooper, and he's much closer to the Hooper of Benchley's novel than Dreyfuss. Spielberg was concerned that Scheider was too closely associated with urband cop thrillers like The French Connection and would come on like too much of a tough guy. In reality, it worked perfectly, because since the Brody of the screenplay was retired NYPD, you could imagine Scheider was that same guy from The Seven Ups or French Connection, retired out to the country. Obviously, it all worked out for the best.

20 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 21, 2012 2:16 pm

Love Roy Scheider as the hero. Gosh, remember that clunker he did with Daniel Stern, BLUE THUNDER? I thought that movie was badass when it came out.

21 Jon DeRosa   ~  Aug 21, 2012 2:39 pm

I took a lot of film classes in college. And we discussed just about everything we could think of. But then you've got casting which is just as important, sometime more important than anything else, and if we discussed it all it was limited to anecdotes about the famous roles that almost went to somebody else.

I think that a gifted casting agent might be able to write a great book. Maybe one has already.

22 kenboyer made me cry   ~  Aug 21, 2012 3:02 pm

[18] Does The Godfather and Godfather II count as blockbusters? If so i vote that they are the best.

From the visceral aspect, Jaws was the first time I was scared shitless at the movie theater as an adult (I was eighteen, and the combination of inebriates and with a girl I liked who was devastated, helped). The second time was for Aliens, and the third time surprisingly was for Jacob's Ladder. I haven't been effected since or before those three.

Jaws hold up because of the acting, the cinematography, and the summer beach town reality that still exists.

23 Matt Blankman   ~  Aug 21, 2012 3:59 pm

[22] The Godfather films are definitely "blockbusters," but Jaws was the first of the summer blockbusters. The summer used to be a dumping ground for the studios, not the prime movie going season it has been considered since the success of Jaws. Movies were generally rolled out slowly, too, and regionally. Jaws opened on a huge number of screens all on the same weekend.

24 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Aug 21, 2012 8:37 pm

For me Speilberg is everything that is wrong with Hollywood. Can't stand the guy or his films. Viva Cinema!

25 Boatzilla   ~  Aug 21, 2012 11:35 pm

[24] Success! This thread wouldn't be complete without a dismissive comment from our resident film snob.

I've seen Jaws at least a dozen times, perhaps even 20 times. It never gets old. It's more than the best/first blockbuster, it's an indelible part of American culture...especially, if you were fortunate enough to see it during its first run and remember the hype and the hysteria.

I remember reading the book as a young lad and getting off on the naughty parts, which are not in the movie.

26 Ben   ~  Aug 22, 2012 11:12 am

My favorite part of Jaws is the feel of the movie. That polarized lens they use to shoot the whole thing gives it a really drowzy, creepy vibe. Great Movie.

Best summer blockbuster. Unless someone comes up with a list, I can't think of one with better legs.

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