By: Daniel Reynolds
Once a decade, starting in 1952, the British Film Institute publishes their Sight and Sound Poll to document the top ten films of all time. It’s an august list, decided by a select group of film critics, which acknowledges some of the finest films ever made. It also notes the shifting tastes of the film intelligentsia over the years. As you’d expect, a look at past lists reveals a pronounced academic taste that doesn’t make room for much popular sentiment. In short, the Sight and Sound Poll doesn’t account for the money.
Forty years ago today, the world’s first summer blockbuster was released. On June 1, 1975, Jaws opened wide in theatres and it’s not entirely hyperbolic to say things changed forever. While the Sight and Sound people will tell you that film is an artistic venture (which is true), movies are also designed to make money. And in the summer of 1975, seemingly out of nowhere, Jaws did just that. It’s $260 million total (in 1975 dollars) puts it seventh all time in inflation-adjusted revenue (number one remains that old war horse Gone with the Wind). It easily became the top summer movie of all time (quickly supplanted by Star Wars two years later). And while the idea of the “blockbuster” had been floating around for years, the term found its first real application in that summer of ’75. Jaws wrote the book on summer blockbusters and re-jigged the movie game to forever plan for the lucrative bounty of the mid-year months.
What’s remarkable now about Jaws is how it appears to have stumbled into its winning formula. Today a summer blockbuster is easy to identify — think big budget, explosive use of CGI, and the presence of familiar big name actors. The marketing campaigns for these films are so familiar now they just wash over us; we take it for granted. For Jaws, there was no road map to follow. There was just Peter Benchley’s best-selling book about a shark, a trio of semi-known actors and a young director, Steven Spielberg, trying to make his second feature film a success. (We’re not counting the TV stuff he did, including Duel, which very much informed the pacing and structure of Jaws.) So what happened? Why did this movie spark an explosion?
It begins with the book. It doesn’t take going back to the aforementioned Gone with the Wind to note that film has often looked to novels for inspiration. Using a popular story people already know helps draw attention and by the time of the film’s release, “Jaws” had already sold over five million copies. It’s not hard to understand why; the appeal lay in the premise: three men set out to kill a shark terrorizing a small town. It’s an elemental hook that sells. (It doesn’t matter that reviews of the book were generally poor.) The second component is the cast, and Jaws runs quite the gamut. At one end there is young Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Hooper. He was 28 at the time and had done mostly TV at that point. Still, he had his aggressively nebbish, condescending screen presence down. On the other end is Robert Shaw as Captain Quint, nearing the end of his career (and life; he died in 1978). He’s there to provide gravitas and unruly energy — and, as the plot expands, to fill the Captain Ahab role of this nautical adventure. And finally, in the middle of it all, is classic everyman Roy Scheider as Sheriff Brody. If you look at Scheider’s filmography, you’ll see a bright light who never outshone the classic pictures he was in. He was the lead in Jaws but spent most of his career as a second banana, the guy behind the guy. Along with Dreyfus and Shaw, Scheider was not a major box office draw, but all three knew how to help carry a film.
Finally, we get to the director: Spielberg. It’s easy to say now that his genius was obvious in 1975, but really, who knew? Jaws was beset by production problems; there were shooting delays and the budget ballooned (55 scheduled days turned into 159, $4 million spent turned into $9 million). The mechanical sharks built to terrorize the town never quite worked right at first. And while Spielberg is given tons of credit for keeping the leviathan out of sight for much of the film, one wonders what would have happened had the technology of the time been more agreeable. The rose-coloured tinge of “artistic prudence” sounds much better than “shit didn’t work,” but it forced Spielberg to adapt. While special effects have largely driven the expanding worlds of the summer movie blockbuster, the suggestion of something special had, and still has, room to wow people. Spielberg gradually came to understand he was making a film about primal fear (of the unknown depths, not a specific monster). And, as would play out throughout his career, he knew how to leverage that fear as a direct threat to children and family. It’s why the slow burn first hour of Jaws, with the dead Kintner boy and Brody’s family settling in, is so effective. By the time the shark finally does rear its head, we are fully engaged. We know the stakes.
Thinking of Jaws now conjures up a few concrete things — the famous John Williams score of course, a handful of lines (“We’re gonna need a bigger boat”, “Smile you son of a-“), and Shaw’s famous monologue. But it also, to me, recalls an unalloyed time. Forgive me if this sounds nostalgic, but Jaws did operate in a irony-desaturated time. It’s a B movie that takes itself seriously, that believes a shark really can terrorize one specific beach in one specific town. It never has its characters wink at the camera or acknowledge the absurdity of a shark pulling a boat into the ocean. It feels real. And while there would be sequels (three to be exact; the last one inspiring a great comedy bit), Jaws didn’t know it was about to change the film industry. Like the best films, it was fuelled by an innocent passion and an artistic flair that yearns to treat its audiences to an exhilarating story. It’ll never be mentioned by the Sight and Sound poll, and that’s an acceptable fate. In fact, many of those high-minded critics would probably say Jaws helped create a monster. It ushered in the blockbuster age that crushed the spirit of maverick 70’s filmmaking. And while that very well may be true, Jaws remains the very best version of that monster.
Look for Part Two of the “Summer Sight and Sound” series in early July on the biggest summer film of 1985: Back to the Future.