Friday, August 9, 2013

The Brilliance of ... "Jaws"


Anyone who has watched one of the several documentaries about the making of the 1975 classic film Jaws knows the hardships and obstacles director Steven Spielberg had to endure. However, for all of those who have yet to see the brilliance of this film or know its backstory, there are three essential documentaries to gain some background on what I'm talking about: The Making of Jaws (1995), The Shark is Still Working (2007), and How Jaws Changed the World (2012). Some people don't know why Jaws is considered a classic piece of cinema nor why it has so many fans and filmmakers who worship it and re-watch it again and again.

Most would think of Jaws as some mindless scary film about a fish killing people. While it is that, it is also so much more. The 1975 film is based on Peter Benchley's bestselling 1974 novel of the same name and would end up being Spielberg's blockbuster debut (before Jaws, Spielberg had only directed one major feature film, 1974's The Sugarland Express). Those who have read the book know of the differences between the novel and the film. The first major difference is that the book graphically describes the attack and mutilation of the young female swimmer Chrissie Watkins, whereas Spielberg's film only shows the audience what is happening above the water line. The reason for this was because of a pure malfunction. The fake shark (humorously named "Bruce," after Spielberg's lawyer) that the production crew had built would not work well under the Atlantic Ocean salt water off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The shark would continuously not function properly underwater, causing most of the scenes with the shark to either be substituted with actual underwater live photography of great white sharks filmed by Ron and Valerie Taylor in Australia, or implying the presence of the shark above water by filming barrels, a pier, or anything else to represent the shark. This brings us to the first point of Jaws' brilliance.

1.) The Hitchcock Effect
Most of you who don't know the film might ask what filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and Jaws have in common. Sure, Hitchcock -- most well known for his 1960 suspense/horror film Psycho -- made scary movies and he even touched on a disturbed animal attacking people (1963's The Birds), but what is his connection to Jaws?

Because of the malfunctioning shark(s), Spielberg had no choice but to forego his previous approach of showing every detail of the shark attacking human victims in the film, and merely imply that the shark was attacking or show just a flash of horror (i.e., a decapitated leg; a glimpse of the shark's head; a swimmer in the ocean, flailing in their own blood; etc.). To today's generation who have it way too easy with CGI, this may sound like a lame way to film a movie. But to those of us born pre-1990, this scene -- paired with composer John Williams' legendary score (itself a tribute to Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score) -- scares the absolute shit out of you.

This scene perfectly captures the primal fear within most of us every time we go in the water. Ocean water is murky, it's dark. You can't completely see everything that may be scattering or swimming below the surface. That is why this scene works! It's the "not seeing" that makes the audience's imagination run wild. Hitchcock utilized the same technique when he made Psycho, not showing the graphic stabbing of Janet Leigh's character but rather just her horrified face, then cutting to the blood running down the drain. This was done because, back in 1959/1960, the movie ratings board would not permit such graphic violence. So Hitchcock shot it the way he did and hesitantly added Herrmann's shrieking, relentless strings, making a jump-out-of-your-seat moment for audiences.

By not showing the shark attacking, the audience is forced to use their imagination ... making the attack scenes all the more horrifying. In each attack scene before the film's finale, Spielberg gives a small glimpse of the shark (such as the shots below), which is just enough to make audience's minds run wild. This technique would be successfully utilized for other blockbuster films such as the original theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Cloverfield (2008), and Super 8 (2011).

Spielberg said, "The film went from a Japanese Saturday matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller," and, "The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen." And he is right. Allowing the audience to use their own imagination is what helped make Jaws the first "summer blockbuster." It is also what makes it a timeless classic. Most people were not afraid of the (ocean) water until viewing Jaws. The film reminds us that we are not alone in the water and while most creatures below the surface are more afraid of us than we are of them, there are some that place humans on the bottom of the food chain.

2.) Inspired by True Events
Frank Mundus (right) poses for a picture with one of his catch. It was his 1964 capture of a 4,500-lb. great white shark off Montauk, NY, that was what inspired (along with the 1916 New Jersey attacks) author Peter Benchley to write Jaws. Mundus was inspiration for the character of Quint.
Author Peter Benchley has been recorded as saying his main inspiration for the story of Jaws was when he "read a newspaper article about a 4,500-lb. great white shark caught off the beaches of Montauk, [New York] and wondered Wow! What would happen if this thing hung around?" The man who caught the giant fish was fisherman Frank Mundus. Benchley had known Mundus and even gone out with Mundus on a few fishing expeditions; Mundus eventually became the inspiration for the character of Quint.  

Benchley also researched the Jersey Shore shark attacks of July 1916. In this incident, first, two men were killed off the New Jersey shore, and then two boys and one man were attacked in the Matawan Creek (only one boy would survive). This true tale could make a great movie itself (watch the Discovery Channel's 2009 docudrama Blood in the Water). At the time -- and for a long time thereafter -- people and scientists believed the shark that attacked the victims was a great white shark. However, biologists now believe it could have been a bull shark that attacked in the creek -- due to the aggressive behavior of the shark. On July 14 (two days after the most recent shark attacks), fisherman and taxidermist Michael Schleisser ended up catching a 7.5 foot, 325-lb. great white shark a few miles from Matawan Creek. When Schleisser examined the contents of the shark's stomach, there were human bones and flesh in its stomach. However, because of the good amount of fresh water in Matawan Creek and the overly aggressive nature of the shark in those attacks, it is highly doubtful it was a great white that attacked the two boys and one man in the creek. It has now been determined it was a bull shark -- which can live in both fresh and salt water -- that attacked the three victims. Both sharks were determined to be juvenile, proving the observation that young sharks often aggressively hunt for food. The best true-life incident that helps make up the film was not referenced in the book, but helps lead us to the next reason for Jaws' cinematic brilliance. The writing. Quint's (Robert Shaw) chilling tale of his experience as a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on the early morning of July 30, 1945. The Indianapolis sunk, leaving 880 sailors stranded in the water, having to share a few lifeboats and any floating wreckage that could be found. When the crew was rescued August 2, only 317 men ultimately survived. Most had died from wounds received during the sinking or from drinking the salt water which lead to dehydration and hallucinations; exposure to the elements; suicide; or shark attacks by oceanic whitetip and tiger sharks.

3.) The Writing

One of the seminal moments in Jaws is what is known as "The Indianapolis Speech." Although this monologue is not written in Benchley's novel, actor Robert Shaw's mesmerizing speech was what helped make the movie. Inspired by the true-life event of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, this speech is one of many quotable moments that makes the film a staple of great writing in cinema. There are many stories as to how the speech was written or who wrote it. The truth is that the monologue was first injected into the script by playwright Howard Sackler, who told Spielberg, "Quint needs some motivation to show all of us what made him the way he is and I think it's this Indianapolis incident." The monologue was kept in but before being filmed filmmaker John Milius further developed it, writing it out as a 10-page monologue. Spielberg knew he couldn't film the entire speech but Shaw -- himself a playwright -- decided to take a crack at it and crafted it for his character, cutting it down to five pages. And movie history was made ...

Quint is a very haunted character and his speech gives the audience a perfect glimpse as to why. Nevertheless, it is not just this speech which makes Jaws' writing so brilliant. The entire film is an adventure flick. It goes from point A to point B -- with a pretty straight-forward plot. There is a killer shark in this beach community town and the Chief of Police needs to go capture and/or kill it; and that is the way most people simply view the film. However, for such a simple plot, the story delves deep into more psychological and metaphoric aspects. The main protagonist, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), has an extreme fear of the water. In explaining this to Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), Brody's wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), tries to think of the name of the fear, to which Brody simply says, "Drowning." Even such a small dialogue exchange has style and substance. This aspect also introduces a secondary plot of a man having to overcome his fear in order to protect his community, his family and his job. 

Like David Fincher's extremely underrated 2007 film Zodiac (based on the true-life murders by the Zodiac killer in the late 1960s/early 1970s), Jaws also deals with the obsessive nature of three men, determined to capture this killer. In Fincher's Zodiac, the three obsessed men -- in a way -- are ruined in certain ways by their obsession. In the film Jaws, only one man is ruined (destroyed) because of his obsession; whereas in the book, two of the men are destroyed. The Jaws script was ultimately worked on by five different people: Benchley, Spielberg, Sackler, Milius and the man who helped bring in the funny and lighter moments: Carl Gottlieb -- who had written for classic comedy TV shows The Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family, and The Odd Couple; Gottlieb also had a minor role in the film as the town's newspaper editor Harry Meadows. Gottleib, along with the cast, helped bring in some of the lighter moments of the film, including the tense-but-funny interaction between the three men on the boat at the end of the film. Even Roy Scheider was credited for some great ad-libbing; he contributed the description of the shark's eyes being "like a doll's eyes" in the Indianapolis speech, and who could forget one of the most misquoted lines ever? Most people think Brody says, "We're gonna need a bigger boat." In actuality, it's this:

Nevertheless, the phrase has come to be a quote synonymous with knowing you're going to have to overcome some seemingly hopeless task and/or obstacle. The overall story of Jaws ultimately places it in the top 10 of horror films simply for its legacy, its affect on the population. Before the release of Jaws, drowning was the primary fear for people going in the ocean. After the book and film's release, it's no longer drowning. Shark attacks have become a common little pest buried deep in the back of people's minds whenever they enter any ocean water. Not many horror films can have that affect. For instance, when I watch a movie like Saw or Friday the 13th, I know there will not be some crazed maniac who will make me saw off my own leg, or a crazed killer, who himself cannot be killed, gone on a murderous rampage at a summer camp. Sure, they have scary moments, but when the movie is over, so is the impact of the story. The story of Jaws, on the other hand, permanently embeds that small fear of what lies beneath the surface even when we so much as stick our feet in the water. 

4.) The Impact

Jaws had both a negative and positive impact on both humans and sharks. Unfortunately, the negative came first. For humans, it scared the bejesus out of us ... and still does to this day with every new audience. For sharks (and also inadvertantly to humans), the movie made humans so fearful that they took to the ocean and intentionally hunted and killed as many sharks as possible. This was also bad for us humans because, like most creatures we fear in this world, sharks help to balance out our eco-system and provide a great balance to aquatic life. The slaughtering of sharks became so bad that even author Peter Benchley sometimes regretted writing the book because of the damage done to the shark population. Like elephants being killed solely for their tusks, sharks have been killed simply for their fins -- a cruel injustice.

Just to put it in perspective, let's look at the statistics. Remember every time we go in the water, we are in their world.

Fortunately, shark conservation has come to the forefront. Biologists and even shark attack survivors have stepped up to lead the charge of preserving the ocean's apex predator. Great white sharks were once on the endangered species list (and are still illegal to catch in some beach states) but, now, thanks to the conservationists, their population is slowly on the rise. People are coming to understand that every time we step in that ocean, we are stepping in their world. Fortunately, sharks don't like how we taste and we now know that all attacks are either a case of mistaken identity (they think we their preferred food source -- seals or fish), or sharks are unsure of what to make of us and are very curious and/or territorial (in the case of juvenile sharks, they don't know what they like to eat yet, so they try everything, which is why sometimes there is a surge of shark attacks in a particular area every few years -- 1916, 1957-58, 2001).

Consequently, sharks "feel" with their mouths so when they first nudge or bump someone or something, that is them feeling what they are bumping/nudging. We now know that great whites are much like their land-locked equals: the male lion. Male lions like to kill and eat the animal which is the easiest (such as an injured or weak animal). However, with great whites, the minute someone starts fighting back and punching it, 9.5 times out of 10, it lets go and leaves. The only shark that will stay and fight is the bull shark -- an animal that can live in both salt water and fresh water, with the second-to-most testosterone of any animal (humans included) on the planet (the first? Elephant Seal). Imagine the most macho, testosterone-driven male you've ever known and/or met, then multiply him by 100 and you just might be close enough to a bull shark's potential level (most bull sharks don't always have these high levels, but their potential of testosterone levels far exceeds that of humans).

But I digress ...

Jaws either made the people who watched it want to become marine biologists or never want to look at a fish again! Luckily, the former ultimately won out. The Discovery Channel's Shark Week airs every year during the first week of August (coincidentally, right around my birthday), and it is one of the highest ratings of television viewers throughout the year. I myself have become an avid supporter, self-proclaimed researcher and admirer of sharks. I find them fascinating, deeply respect them and think they are very important for this planet. So, just in me alone, Jaws has made an impact. 

Plus, without this phenomenal film, we would never have had this gem of a game ...
Jaws: The Game -- It's like Operation or a precursor to Pop the Pig ... if the pig or patient were scary killing machines!
The film and book also made way for the world of video games. First, there was the original "Jaws" video game where the player had to kill the shark:

And then, because every kid wants to know the sensation of chowing down on hapless humans, the most recently released "Jaws Unleashed," where you play as the shark (it's the Grand Theft Auto III of the underwater world!):

And let's not even stick a toe in the huge waters of "killer shark" films!

The impact of Jaws has had a great influence on today's most noticeable directors: Steven Soderbergh, Bryan Singer, Kevin Smith, Ridley Scott and more. There have also been Jaws references in other pop culture films:

5.) The Music
Like Herrmann's simplistic but effective music for the shower scene in Psycho, legendary composer John Williams used a rather simple piano leit motif consisting of an alternating pattern of two notes -- "E and F" or "F and F sharp." Spielberg admits that when Williams first played the theme for him, Spielberg laughed and thought Williams was playing a prank on him. But when Williams told Spielberg he was serious, Spielberg had him play it again. He thought of the shark gliding through the water -- akin to the opening credits of the film -- and knew the music would be perfect. Not only was the theme untraditional but most of the music for the film could also be seen as such. Near the end of the film when the three men are in their boat (the Orca) and chasing the shark, the music is a very sweeping, triumphant march-type of music -- much like what would be heard in an Errol Flynn pirate movie. This is where the adventure aspect becomes most prevalent. 

To this day, when going in the ocean, all one person has to do is hum the "Jaws Theme" and everyone clears out of the water!

A face only an elasmobranchologist could love!

Jaws does for the ocean what Hitchcock's Psycho did for hotel showers. It has and will remain to make a strong impression on its audiences for many decades to come. Overall, I watch Jaws once a year. And it's not because I'm a big fan of horror or gory films. It's because the story and acting are that good! Because of its legendary impact and its re-watchability, Jaws is a brilliant film!

Introducing my oldest daughter, Molly, to Jaws at Universal Studios in Florida (July 2010), and piquing her future interest in sharks!

Three years later ... we meet again!


  1. Make sure you ask before using artwork that isn't yours and give proper credit to the artists.

    1. Every piece of artwork in this article *is* given proper credit! As for the photos, they are found a lot in most posts on Facebook and/or in forums and, yet, I never see credit given.


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