Back in February 1974, a small novel about a big fish ripped through the bestseller lists. Enticingly-titled, Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws‘ stayed in the charts for over 40 weeks, and was eventually sold to well over 20 million avid readers. Of those readers, one just happened to be a certain Steven Spielberg looking for a new film to make. The rest, as they so often say, is history.
Widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, Jaws is that most rare of beasts: a film that trumps the book in nearly every aspect possible. Whilst Benchley’s source novel has all the core elements that made the film so successful, it deviates into unnecessary territory with meandering subplots, including a misjudged and unsympathetic affair between Oceanologist Hooper and Ellen Brody. Spielberg, thankfully, had the sense to dilute Benchley’s cluttered plot, placing the focus squarely on Jaws’ men-on-a-mission camaraderie. What we get as a result is one of cinema’s greatest examples of suspense cinema as three men fight tooth (pun intended) and nail against one of nature’s greatest living predators.
The undeniable star of the film is, of course, the shark. Stealing every scene that it (is it a he or a she?) appears in – and for that matter every scene it doesn’t appear in – Jaws manages to retain nerve-jangling levels of suspense throughout the majority of its blood-soaked running time. By concealing the whereabouts of the shark from the audience, Spielberg is able to masterfully blend quiet suspense with sudden shocks for maximum impact. Positioning his camera at sea level, Spielberg manages to place the audience right in the action, simultaneously evoking that iconic poster and emphasising the chilling prospect of the unknown threat below. It’s effortless and imaginative direction that squeezes every ounce of suspense out of what is already a tense script.
Whilst the shark might take top billing, Jaws is at heart a character-driven drama. Taking on shark bait duties are the fantastic trio of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. Sparking off each other with increasing levels of macho bravado, the camaraderie they share as they make battle is the perfect accompaniment for Spielberg’s shocks and scares. The fact that we root for these characters, and care for their well being, makes their plight so much more fascinating and exciting, especially come the explosive climax. And with one of cinema’s greatest sea dogs in Quint, Jaws’s characters are (almost) as enduring as the shark itself.
How do you even begin to sum up what is one of the most influential and ground-breaking films of the last fifty years? In the simplest of terms, Jaws is an absolute classic. On more complicated ground, Jaws is simultaneously a rip-roaring boys-own adventure, nerve-shredding horror and character-driven drama, acing all three without even breaking a sweat. Often copied and never bettered, Steven Spielberg’s seminal blockbuster is one of the greatest films of all time.
Best performance: Robert Shaw’s cantankerous sea dog, Quint.
Best scene: Quint’s fantastic monologue detailing the sinking of the U.S. Indianapolis.
Best line: ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat.’
Watch this if you liked: Duel, Halloween, Jurassic Park
When the shark was created for the film, it was never tested in the water. When it was put into the water at Martha’s Vineyard on day one, it sank straight to the bottom of the ocean and had to be retrieved by a team of divers.