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Review: JAWS (1975)

7 min read
It's as if God created The Devil, and gave him.... JAWS.
It’s as if God created The Devil, and gave him…. JAWS.

JAWS (1975)
Rated PG / Color / 124 minutes
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Also Known As: Stillness in the Water
Purchase it: (Blu-ray/DVD combo)

Many people have that one special film they latch onto as the years tick by. They usually discover it sometime during their childhood, and something about it ensnares them to the point where they almost become obsessed. They watch this film over and over until they can quote a good chunk of the dialogue. They do research on it, and/or they collect memorabilia inspired by it. If it’s on TV as they’re surfing the channels, they’ll stop what they are doing and watch it, entranced.

For years I didn’t have an absolute favorite film, and I felt like a black sheep because of it. When asked, I would simply say, “I don’t have one because there’s way too many to choose from.” It seemed so easy for others to declare one single movie as their personal paragon of cinematic perfection, so I thought really hard on the topic one day. Dozens of film titles passed through my mind, but in the end, I settled on JAWS as my all-time favorite film.

Originally I did this as a “safety measure” when talking with fellow film fans, but now I’m almost certain that some part of my subconscious mind made the choice for me. To put it into perspective: I was Indiana Jones, choosing a favorite movie was my “last crusade,” and JAWS turned out to be the true Holy Grail. In retrospect, I do believe that I have chosen… wisely.

JAWS was the second feature film of a then unknown Steven Spielberg, who has a love/hate relationship with the movie that made him famous. JAWS jumpstarted his career and helped make him a household name, but it was also a trial by fire for the young director. The production ran over schedule and over budget, the mechanical shark(s) constantly malfunctioned, and there was some animosity on the set between several of the leading actors. (Particularly Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss.)

However in the end, despite all the hardships, JAWS became the first ever Summer blockbuster! It shattered all box office records, and truly made people afraid to go in the water. But that was then, and this is now. Does it still hold up nearly forty years later? Is JAWS still an effective film that will make you think twice about taking a dip in the ocean? OH HELL YES!

Chrissie Watkins: The poster-child for staying the out of the water!
Chrissie Watkins: The poster-child for staying the out of the water!

Loosely based on the characters in Peter Benchley’s popular novel, JAWS centers on the small (fictional) town of Amity Island. It’s a nice place to live, totally devoid of all types of violent crime, and it’s a Summer vacation hotspot. However, Amity has a big problem: A rogue Great White Shark has staked a claim off the coast of the island, and human beings are on its menu!

The first attack is swept under a rug by Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) and the town council, because they fear that news of a shark attack could hurt the local economy. (“You yell shark… We got a panic on our hands on the 4th of July.”) You see, the residents of Amity rely on Summer tourist dollars to survive in their charming little paradise. Clearly it would seem that the town fathers have the island’s best interests in mind.

Eventually the shark strikes again and again, leaving the island’s Chief of Police, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) no choice but to seek outside assistance. He calls in an oceanographer named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help with Amity’s “shark problem.” He also enlists the aid of an ill-tempered World War II vet turned fisherman, named Quint. (Robert Shaw in the most memorable role of his career!)

The trio of would-be shark hunters head out to sea on Quint’s boat (the ORCA), on a quest to save Amity Island from the White Death that has invaded its waters. Will our heroes succeed against the voracious predator from the deep, or will they all become fish food? Well, c’mon, you know how this ends! Everyone and their mother has seen JAWS and experienced its utterly fulfilling (and explosive) climax!

The only person who didn't find this fulfilling was author Peter Benchley.
The only person who didn’t find this fulfilling was author Peter Benchley.

It may seem bold of me to say this, but I consider JAWS to be a perfect film. There was a lot of talent involved with this production, and everyone worked so damned hard to pull this movie off. The final product is a testament to this, as Spielberg and his crew had to find ways to shoot a film, despite the fact that it’s star, “Bruce” the shark, never worked! (What we see of the shark in the film was the majority of the successful footage they got when Bruce actually operated correctly.)

The mechanical shark did well on dry land, but once immersed in the Atlantic Ocean, it constantly broke down. Chalk this up to a rushed production schedule and no time to actually test the robo-shark in salt water. To remedy this, Spielberg and friends had to think outside of the box and come up with sequences to let the audience know that the shark was present, without actually seeing it. This became one of the film’s biggest strengths, effectively forcing the viewers to fill in the gaps with their imaginations.

The cast of JAWS is packed to the gills with fantastic actors, with the leads putting in excellent performances. Roy Scheider is great as the everyman hero Martin Brody. He’s terrified of going into the water, and clearly took the job as Amity’s Chief of Police because he wanted to finish off his career as an officer in a quiet town where nothing ever happens. When the shark attacks begin, Brody dutifully attempts to protect the denizens of Amity Island, but runs into red tape because of the town fathers.

In the novel it was because of pressure from the mafia that the Mayor vehemently objects to the beaches being closed. In the film, it’s because the Mayor and town council are worried that the Summer will be ruined and put the population of Amity in the poorhouse during the Winter. They have the town’s best interests in mind, and mainly serve as just another hurdle for Brody to clear.

Because of this movie, I've always wanted a suit jacket emblazoned with dozens of tiny anchors.
Because of this movie, I’ve always wanted a suit jacket emblazoned with dozens of tiny anchors.

And though he’s the least qualified man to be Amity’s savior, Martin Brody is ultimately the real hero in this film. He faces his fears by heading out onto the open sea to battle against a force of nature, in order to protect both his family and his town. He has no seamanship skills, and next to no knowledge of sharks, but he is determined to serve and protect. He’s totally out of his element, and is easily the bravest person of the three-man crew aboard the Orca.

The remainder of the shark-hunting trio is made up of Quint and Matt Hooper. Quint is a grizzled vet of World War II’s Pacific theater, and was aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. As a survivor of what many call the worst shark attack in world history, Quint clearly has a vendetta against every shark in the ocean. He hates them, fears them, and makes a living at killing them.

Robert Shaw is fantastic as Quint, and I’m quite thankful that this classically trained Shakespearean actor took the role. Using a local resident of Martha’s Vineyard named Craig Kingsbury (a.k.a. Ben Gardner) as a template, Shaw turned in the performance of a lifetime! He is perfect as an old salt and I love his interaction with Richard Dreyfuss.

In the film, Shaw’s character is constantly challenging and one-upping Hooper (which was happening behind the scenes as well), which creates a really fun dynamic between them. Dreyfuss’ Hooper serves as a perfect foil for Quint: He’s young, wealthy, idealistic, and a big fan of sharks. Essentially, he is everything Quint isn’t. It’s no surprise then that there’s a lot of tension between our heroes at first, but as the film heads towards its climax, a bond is formed between them.

These are men from three very different walks of life, and each has their own motive for going on this mission: Quint is doing it for money (and to a lesser degree, vengeance), Hooper is doing it out of scientific curiosity, and Brody is doing it out of duty. Though they are deathly serious about the task at hand, it’s very cool to see them let their guard down at one point (the famous “scar comparison” scene) and just pal around like a couple of guys on a fishing trip.

"Give me a way to go hoooome! I'm tired and I wanna go to bed! I had a little drink a-bout an hour a-go, and it went straight to my head!"
“Give me a way to go hoooome! I’m tired and I wanna go to bed! I had a little drink a-bout an hour a-go, and it went straight to my head!”

Without Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss, this movie most likely would not have worked as well as it did. Sure you have to give credit to the screenwriters (Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) for creating the characters, but a lot of credit must also go to the actors, who ad-libbed some of the film’s best lines. Roy Scheider came up with “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” on the spot, and Robert Shaw adapted the final draft of his speech about the Indianapolis, and nailed it… on the second take when he was stone cold sober.

Said speech was originally conceived by writer Howard Sackler, and then turned into a whopping ten-page monologue by John Milius! It was finally reduced to its final state by Shaw, who was an accomplished writer himself. It’s a haunting speech, and gives us some major insight into the character’s motivations. There was also some improvisation from several of the film’s minor characters, most of which were natives of Martha’s Vineyard.

Some of them have since become celebrities in their own right, like Lee Fierro who portrayed Mrs. Kitner in the film. Having had to slap the everliving sh*t out of Roy Scheider (at least seventeen times!) while shooting her tearful scene, she’s frequently requested by fans to slap them when they meet her! (Note: She has since gone cold turkey on slapping fans across the face, because she’s a sweet old woman.)

With a talented cast, a solid script, and one of the best film editors in Hollywood (the late and very great Verna Fields), all Spielberg was missing was the music. Now legendary composer John Williams was hired for the task, and gave us the the single-most recognizable piece of music ever written.

Williams’ JAWS theme is amazingly simplistic, so much so that Spielberg initially believed that the composer was joking with him. However, it has continued to creep up seemingly everywhere since 1975. It is a timeless and evocative piece of music, that once heard, will trigger a sudden urge to be on dry land. (Listen to it HERE!)

I can’t really say much more about JAWS that hasn’t already been said, other than it’s very existence is a true phenomenon. For a film that seemed doomed from the start, it a legitimate miracle that it became one of the most beloved, respected, and inspirational movies of all time. It’s not only a milestone in Spielberg’s impressive filmmaking career, but it’s also a milestone in modern cinematic history.

JAWS changed everything, from the way films were made and marketed, to how sharks would be viewed by the public. (JAWS gave audiences worldwide a major case of Galeophobia, which was great for the box office, but not so great for sharks.)

Sharks hug with their teeth!
Sharks hug with their teeth!

I’ve probably seen JAWS nearly a hundred times or more (including twice on the big screen, in digital and 35mm!), and I still never tire of it. It’s one of the main films I saw in my formative years that helped kickstart my obsession with cinema. If I was trapped on a desert island, and had the means to watch one movie every day, it would be JAWS. If I was on my death bed, and uttered “Rosebud,” I would be referring to JAWS. That is how much I love this film.

With all that said, I bet it comes as no surprise that I award this Spielbergian classic my highest honor of:


The Packaging: JAWS’ two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo comes in a standard Blu-ray case with its original iconic poster art. I feel like more effort could have gone into the cover art, but “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Am I right?  (Note: There are two other releases of this film which offer up different packaging. The first has a cardboard slipcover touting Universal’s 100th Anniversary; it folds open to reveal a bit of JAWS trivia. There’s also a rare Steelbook release that goes for a pretty penny online these days.)

Audio & Video: This Blu-ray is getting a full five rad rating based on the quality of the audio and video alone! JAWS has been fully remastered and color-corrected, and has NEVER looked so good! The transfer is a thing of beauty, and it is hard to believe that this movie is over forty years old!

The audio is astounding, with rich background sounds of crashing waves, beachgoers, and seagulls assaulting your eardrums from every direction! Even if you don’t have a fancy 7.1 surround sound system at home, you’ll still benefit greatly from this superb sound mix. (I myself only have 5.1 and I was more than happy with how everything sounded!) The effects, dialogue, and music sound pristine on this disc!

“Buy this Blu-ray you son-of-a-bitch!”

The Extras: JAWS is packed with extras including deleted scenes, outtakes, storyboards, a gallery of production photos, and the original theatrical trailer. There are also TWO feature-length documentaries, and numerous featurettes that cover the film’s creation, marketing, impact on pop culture, and it’s restoration for the Blu-ray release.

The first documentary on the disc, is the two-hour long THE MAKING OF JAWS. First released with the film on its 1995 Laserdisc release, this in-depth look at JAWS (directed by Laurent Bouzereau) covers every aspect of the film, and interviews everyone involved with it. I have yet to watch it in its entirety, though I’ve seen an hour-long truncated version, which still contains a wealth of information about the film.

The second documentary is 2007’s THE SHARK IS STILL WORKING. Narrated by Roy Scheider (who sadly passed away in February of 2008), this great documentary explores the making of the film, and its effect on popular culture. I found it to be quite enjoyable, (I especially liked the interviews with Martha’s Vineyard locals who appeared the movie) and I learned a thing or two about JAWS that I didn’t know before!

I am pretty certain that if you watch these two documentaries back to back, you immediately become an accredited expert on JAWS!

Final Ruling: BUY THIS DVD/BLU-RAY COMBO PACK! It’s relatively inexpensive, has a gorgeous transfer of the film, and contains tons of extras! My only quibble with this release is that time wasn’t taken to upgrade all the extra features to high-definition. That minor complaint aside, this combo pack is a worthy addition to your movie collection, and has earned my highest rating of: