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Film... Jaws: the original summer blockbuster


Man versus beast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in the Spielberg classic

Man versus beast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in the Spielberg classic

Man versus beast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in the Spielberg classic

'I've always been afraid of the water," Steven Spielberg told the BBC's Mark Kermode some years back. "I was never a very good swimmer, and that probably motivated me more than anything else to want to tell that story."

That story, of course, is Jaws, a schlock horror film that's significant for all sorts of reasons and celebrates its 40th birthday this summer. It's important first of all because it launched the career of one of the truly great popular film-makers, but is also credited with creating the tradition of the summer blockbuster and fundamentally changing the way that Hollywood went about its business.

Those changes have not always been for the better, and one could argue that the current cavalcade of big-budget superhero movies and dumb-as-rocks blockbusters has its roots in the success of both Jaws and Star Wars. But there's absolutely nothing dumb about Jaws, which in Spielberg's skilled hands was transformed from a moronic B-picture into an almost unbearably tense psychological thriller of which Hitchcock himself would have been proud.

Jaws was also an event, a moment in the popular Zeitgeist so seminal it became a film you simply had to see.

Not everyone really wanted to, and in early screenings some cinema-goers walked out five minutes in after watching poor Susan Backlinie being attacked by an invisible shark.

Everyone above a certain age remembers when and where they first saw it: in the spring of 1976 I got the bus into Dublin City with a school friend and snuck into a matinee screening at the Adelphi Cinema; no one noticed or cared that I was a bit too young for what I was about to see. I'd always loved getting in the water, but as a result would pause two months later on the edge of the Irish Sea at Brittas Bay, wondering was this a risk worth taking.

Spielberg's film was so cleverly orchestrated that it got under your skin and filled your head with irrational worries: it would not have comforted me to learn that shark attacks are extremely rare, and that no Great White would venture into these waters without a heavy overcoat.

But if Jaws was the film that made Spielberg, it might so easily have been the one that broke him. His insistence on filming along America's Atlantic seaboard rather than in a studio would end up causing loads of trouble, and a 55-day shooting schedule was trebled by bad weather and malfunctioning mechanical sharks. The film's £3 million budget blew out to over $9 million, and by the time production limped to a close, Spielberg was convinced that "this was the last time I was ever going to shoot a film on 35mm".

At that point, the director had only made one feature and a couple of TV movies, and was brought in to direct Jaws as a last-minute replacement for Dick Richards. Producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck had bought the rights to Peter Benchley's best-selling pot-boiler about a killer shark that terrorises Long Island in 1973, and envisaged turning it into a populist horror thriller.

Once Spielberg got involved, he and writer Carl Gottlieb decided to remove some of Benchley's sub-plots, including an affair between Chief Brody's wife and the shark expert Matt Hopper, and concentrate their focus on the fundamental struggle between men and beast.

Universal were keen to cast big names in the film to increase its appeal, and Charlton Heston was mooted for the pivotal role of Brody. But Spielberg insisted that big stars like Heston would make the story less believable, more artificial, and chose character actor Roy Scheider instead. He may also have earned brownie points by casting Lorraine Gary as Mrs Brody: in real life she was the wife of Universal boss Sid Sheinberg.

Though still unknown, Richard Dreyfuss had impressed George Lucas while working with him on his 1973 film American Graffiti, and Lucas recommended him to Spielberg for the role of ichthyologist Matt Hooper. After Sterling Hayden and Lee Marvin were considered for the part of hoary shark hunter Quint, hell-raising English actor Robert Shaw was cast. Though talented, Shaw could be difficult, and his instant dislike of Dreyfuss would lead to problems.

These, however, were nothing compared to the misery the mechanical sharks caused. Three full-size pneumatically powered sharks were created by art director Joe Alves and a team of 40 technicians: they looked great on land, but in the water were a different proposition. They sank, capsized, broke down, shorted, got snared in seaweed and bloated out in contact with sea water: all of this caused huge delays.

Things got so bad that Spielberg began referring to the film's effects crew as the "special defects department", but out of necessity sprung invention. Spielberg would later comment that "the shark not working was a godsend - it made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than Ray Harryhausen".

Inspired by the master of suspense, Spielberg adopted a different approach to the film's villain, which would be rarely seen and evoked instead by shark-eye shots zooming greedily along the sea line to the ominous music of John Williams. Spielberg built his tension brilliantly, and used his actors to make his story work.

"The more fake the shark looked in the water," he later said, "the more my anxiety told me to heighten the naturalism of the performances."

In this regard, he was blessed to have three truly accomplished film actors in his corner. Scheider was most famous at that point for having played Popeye Doyle's sidekick in The French Connection: he was a hard-nosed ex-boxer, and Spielberg initially worried he would ruin the role of harried small-town cop Brody by coming across as too much of a tough guy.

He needn't have worried, as Scheider's performance was full of vulnerability and self-doubt, and became the emotional heart of the film. Dreyfuss oozed charisma as the smooth-talking Hooper, whose antipathy with the old sea dog Quint (Shaw) was echoed off-screen. "There was a kind of sparring that went on between us," Dreyfuss admitted later. "He knew how to dish it out so you had to learn how to dish it back. He could be very vicious and his humour could be very cutting."

That tension must have helped create my favourite scene in Jaws, when Quint, Hooper and Brody share a nightcap in the cabin of Quint's boat. They trade scars and stories that culminate in Quint's electrifying account of a naval disaster he witnessed during World War Two. Shaw attempted to do his monologue while drunk for the sake of veracity, but the results were disastrous. He later called his director to apologise and asked for another shot: he did it in one take.

Somehow the film that exasperated crewmen had nicknamed 'Flaws' got finished, but no one's expectations were high. In fact, it wasn't until Jaws was test-screened in Dallas in March of 1975 that Spielberg and his producers realised they were on to something special.

"That was the first time I realised that the shark worked, the movie worked, everything about it worked," Spielberg would say later, and the audience's shocked reactions inspired him to shoot an additional scene - the one where the head floats out of the submerged boat - at the bottom of a friend's swimming pool.

Jaws was released in a blizzard of publicity: Universal spent almost $2 million on TV ads and promotions; posters, mugs and t-shirts were pumped out bearing the famous image of the giant shark zooming towards that unfortunate female bather. No doubt that all helped, but it was the brilliance of Spielberg's storytelling that really did the trick. Within 38 days of its release, Jaws had sold 25 million tickets: when adjusted for inflation, its total worldwide box-office would be almost $2 billion.

The film found a whole new audience among the listless teens that haunted the ever increasing number of middle-American shopping malls, and became an instant cultural phenomenon. Even the academics got involved, connecting the story of Jaws to race politics, feminism, and moral panic in the wake of Watergate.

So was Jaws an earnest treatise on the collapse of confidence in American democracy? Not according to Spielberg, who's always insisted it was just "a film about a shark".

A shark  too far…

After Jaws broke existing box-office records, Universal Studios were understandably reluctant to leave it there. In fact, they ordered a sequel within weeks of the first film's release, but it soon became clear that Spielberg would not be involved, and he had moved on to Close Encounters by the time Jaws 2 went into production in 1977.

Roy Scheider reprised his role as Chief Brody, who yet again has trouble persuading the burgers of Amity to take notice when an even bigger Great White starts snacking on bathers.

Though it lacked the original film's verve and flair, Jaws 2 made enough money to provoke two further sequels - unfortunately. At least Jaws 3-D (1983) had an element of unintentional comedy, and starred Dennis Quaid as Martin Brody's grown-up son, who's called in to help with a very large shark runs amok in a SeaWorld theme park. It was deeply silly, the 3-D shoddy, the special effects risibly bad. Then, in 1987, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Jaws: The Revenge appeared. Lorraine Gary plays the newly widowed Ellen Brody, who's on holiday in the Bahamas when she becomes convinced a Great White has followed her. And guess what - he has.

Indo Review