Jaws Is the Ultimate Fourth of July Movie
JAWS isn't just a Fourth of July movie or a summer movie — it is the Fourth of July movie. Full stop. Other movies might take place on or around Independence Day (there is, of course, INDEPENDENCE DAY, in which Bill Pullman delivers one of the great movie motivational speeches) but none capture it quite so perfectly as JAWS.
It's fitting, really. JAWS was the first summer blockbuster. Much of what we think of as the modern movie landscape came about because of its success. Steven Spielberg turned a novel about a seaside community terrorized by a giant shark into something primal and universal. He captured characters and situations that feel uniquely American and showed us the sort of monster we’ve all had nightmares about confronting.
Redefining the Beach Experience
JAWS is so persuasive that it rewrote our expectations for something as fundamental as a vacation or a trip to the beach. From the opening nighttime hangout to the crowded afternoon beach scenes and the cast of local characters, scenes in JAWS quickly became archetypes that set the image of a New England summer vacation.
And while the violence done by a giant shark which swims in the waters around Amity Island is thankfully not part of the experience most of us have had, we can all relate to the threat of that primal monster. Many people have felt a dash of fear when brushing up against something moving under the water, and we all understand the predator/prey relationship between a massive shark and a lone swimmer. Nothing in JAWS needs to be explained. There are no new behaviors or rules to learn — every viewer knows that the only thing to do with this shark is stay away.
Less Is More
Steven Spielberg had a full-size mechanical great white shark built for the movie, but the contraption, nicknamed "Bruce," was plagued with mechanical problems. "The shark isn't working!" became the defining phrase of the movie's shoot. As a result, JAWS often suggests the shark more than showing it, which turned out to be the best possible approach. Gouts of blood in the ocean water are more frightening than the robot shark's teeth, and the first-person perspective offered by the camera gliding under water — and beneath and between the bodies of care-free revelers — is more ominous than any special effect could be.
Spielberg turned to John Williams for the movie's score. The two had collaborated on the director's previous movie, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and Williams already had 15 years of experience writing movie scores. JAWS changed everything, for both of them. The movie's primary two-note theme evoked Bernard Herrmann's score for PSYCHO and became instantly iconic as an expression of a relentless, unseen menace. Even people who haven't seen JAWS understand what the movie's theme is meant to evoke.
A Lasting Legacy
JAWS became a movie because Peter Benchley's 1974 novel was a massive hit; the paperback cover art even became the movie poster. Usually, it's the other way around. But it's not just that JAWS resonated with people over 40 years ago. Benchley wrote the first drafts of the script, but Steven Spielberg's friend Carl Gottlieb, who also plays a small role in the movie, ultimately rewrote nearly the entire movie, with many scenes written the night before they were shot.
Spielberg cut loose many subplots from the novel to focus on the hunt for the shark and the rough camaraderie between Chief Brody, shark hunter Quint, and marine biologist Matt Hooper. In many situations, the reliance on last-minute rewrites could have meant disaster. In this case, the process allowed the key actors — Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss — to help tailor the dialogue to their performances.
So while JAWS runs two hours long, it is as lean and efficient as the shark at the center of the story. Characters are quickly established and fully developed. Scheider is strong and capable and just neurotic enough to play a New York City transplant who is afraid of the water. Robert Shaw's irascible performance of Quint's first monologue makes it one of the most iconic character introductions ever filmed, and his later monologue is the heart of the movie. For a man of few words, Quint actually has a lot to say, and Robert Shaw makes that seem appropriate instead of contradictory. And Richard Dreyfuss brings earnest and slightly smug smarts to Hooper, whose genuine interest in the shark is impossible to deny.
JAWS keeps giving. Images of Murray Hamilton's character Mayor Larry Vaughn have become shorthand for commentary about politicians who refuse to take action. When talking about closing beaches in response to the Coronavirus (or keeping them open) JAWS was part of the language. The movie made Hollywood see Steven Spielberg as one of the most important new directors of his time and, more importantly than anything else, it made us all think twice about going into the water — and ready to go back to the movie theatre over and over again.
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All images courtesy of Universal Pictures.