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Yes, JAWS was the original summer blockbuster with over 67 million Americans seeing it at the pictures, and certainly it was the first film to break the $100 million mark at the box office, so okay, it is now seen as the model action film which has been studied within an inch of its life in film schools since the first nanosecond after its release and u-huh, it remains hugely influential and yeah, yeah, yeah, the central performances mark it out as a cut above the pack as regards artistic credibility. But when it comes down to brass tacks, is JAWS any good? Well, yes it is, it’s brilliant. Let’s briefly discuss why.


The most popular load of reminiscent retrospective rubbish spouted about JAWS always concerns the various alternate casts, as if every film ever doesn’t go through a plethora of possibilities about who’s going to be in it, some suggestions for which will inevitably come to be seen as a bit eccentric. But wonks tend to go a bit over the score with their criticism of the once-mooted alternatives JAWS, judging as they do the very thought of the producers having ever entertained the slightest notion of filling out the main parts with other perfectly good, competent actors who no doubt would have done an at least adequate job, as being on a par with having invited Reg Varney, Bob Grant and Stephen Lewis to assume command of the triumvirate of leads.

Spielberg has long insisted that Roy Scheider was always his first choice for Chief Brodie, and that may well have been the case, but it certainly doesn’t mean the studio didn’t have its own ideas and in fact Jon Voight was a shoo-in for it for a long while as far as the suits in the Lear jets were concerned. It’s easy to throw sweaty palms up in horror at the thought of something like that but really, how bad would it have been? Well actually, knowing Voight it would probably have been bloody awful but luckily Scheider had only recently scored a very palpable hit with THE FRENCH CONNECTION and so the studio agreed with Steve on that one.

Another personality on the Spielberg `to do’ list was Sterling `9 to 5′ Hayden as Quint, who we reckon might just have been great. But Hayden was having trouble with the US tax authorities at the time, it says here, and couldn’t be made available. In an effort to get round Hayden’s perceived problems the producers, Richard Zanuck and David Brown, considered paying Hayden union minimum for his acting but then commissioning a redundant story from him to beef up his pay packet to acceptable levels but it was eventually decided it was too risky and they just let him go. What isn’t commonly known, and what Zanuck and Brown obviously didn’t know, was that during this period Hayden was actually quite happily getting pissed everyday on his narrow boat in Paris with a mate of ours and didn’t give a toss about making a film about monster sharks, especially one that was being shot in the middle of the ocean (and not even one of the nice warm oceans at that). So he passed up while pissed up en Paris, as t’were. The truth therein lies partially in the fact that when Robert Shaw, another monumental piss-head, finally climbed aboard as the gnarly captain of the Orca he was having precisely the same tax problems but, being well short of beer vouchers at the time, was found more willing.

Famously Richard Dreyfus also proved initially elusive at the outset and commented, upon seeing the script, that he would rather watch the film than see it. However, by the time shooting had almost started and Dreyfus had had time to consider both the essential quality of the role and the even more salient fact that he was skint and out of work, he made the conscious decision to watch it first hand after all.

Other names suggested for the various parts included Lee Marvin, Chorlton Heston, Jeff Bridges, Jan Michael-Vincent, Harrison Ford, James Robertson Justice, Robin Askwith, Peter Butterworth, Hugh Paddick and Henry Hall on the piano.

Shaw’s character Quint got his name `cos he’s the fifth person in the story to be killed.

shark shark

This innocent little marine biological factoid is pretty universally known so it seems fitting that not only do actual real sharks sink when they stop swimming, so do big rubber ones, too (although to claim that the rubber shark in JAWS ever actually swam in the first place would be to exaggerate wildly). But the fault doesn’t really lie with Spielberg here but on the dearth of special effects wallahs available in the mid-70s. Since all this took place a few years before George Lucas turned Marin County into the world’s premiere geek sanctuary, and a decade before Peter Jackson stumbled across the possibilities of rice pudding and dried macaroni, it occurred that when Spielberg went out looking for a SFX industry to construct for him a giant manoeuvrable life-sized great white shark, well, there wasn’t one. And don’t think that Steve didn’t ask around since the inability to produce a monster shark in a film about a monster shark is rather a deal breaker.

As luck (!) would have it however, Spielberg eventually stumbled across ancient B-movie derelict Robert A. Mattey who had built the giant squid thing for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea twenty years previously. When asked the crucial question of whether or not he was in a position to construct what they needed – a usable, working, believable model – Mattey cheerfully responded, “Yes!” carefully neglecting to give the real answer which was actually, “No!”. Still, Spielberg left Mattey with the answer he wanted to hear and was well pleased having contracted him to build three models, one that moved left/right, another that went up/down and one more on a big trolley for use in shots to be taken in the tank back at the lot in beautiful downtown Burbank.

Now, since the rest of the film was being shot on location in Martha’s Vineyard off of the coast of Massachusetts on the east coast no-one paid much attention to Mattey while he was busy mixing papier mache in a bucket in California, at least not until the two sharks they were to film with finally arrived. Doubtless out of the water they looked pretty impressive and menacing and all that, with all their parts wiggling just as planned, but their principal drawback was that, when put in the water – which is, after all, a shark’s preferred medium – they sank. Like a stone. Rather a problem but not insurmountable if one was to apply a little buoyancy one might think. The real trouble was that in the construction Mattey had used electric solenoids for the motor functions which of course shorted out the minute they were brought into contact with salt water. Now that was a problem.

Famously the result of all this was that Spielberg was forced to use the camera to imply the presence of the shark far more than he would have originally planned at the outset lending the whole affair a more menacing, hidden danger tone. But, to be frank, we’re not sure about this and suspect that whole line has been used as a device for Spielberg to romanticise the process of the production of the film, success in the teeth of adversity and all that, which always sounds very good. But when you consider Spielberg’s obsession with films like CAT PEOPLE and all the shadowy never-really-see-the-monsters action that takes place therein we’d bet that the minimal use of the models was pretty much as planned. As it is, whenever the shark does turn up it actually looks pretty good (as long as you only see it in bits, otherwise it looks rubbish): the first “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” bit, the brief appearance in the lagoon and the Kitner sprog going down in a one-er all work just fine. Mind you, the all but last shot of it racing toward Brodie on the boat with it’s mouth flapping about looks a bit ropey. But all in all it’s not bad at all and probably looks far better than if it had been CGId up, which it doubtless would be now, inevitably rendering its appearing slightly out of focus.

The muffled roaring sound of the dead shark descending at the end is actually the sound of Spielberg throttling Robert A. Mattey played as if through water.

shark shark

Once it became apparent that the baking powder-powered Pathetic Shark provided for JAWS was about as convincing as Kevin Spacey’s `butch’ face it was deemed not only desirable but bloody nigh-on vital that there would have to be some real footage of yer actual great white shark doing actual sharky things, like swimming and floating. So the call went out to Australia and Ron and Valerie Taylor took time off from providing footage for Animal Magic that Johnny Morris couldn’t match with playful banter to get some proper sharks on film. The problem inherent with this was that the odd picture of a shark looking miserable (`cos all sharks always look really miserable, don’t they?) that the Taylors could easily have pulled off the shelf was never going to be enough since, to make it of any use, it would have to be believable within the context of the film with the boat or cage or something in the background or, even better, the foreground. So to expedite matters a crew were sent Down Under with direction to get a picture of a great white filing past the underwater shark cage into which would be dropped a double for Dreyfus and which footage they could splice into the action being filmed back at the ranch. Result: realism all round and a level of disbelief suspension Cecil B de Mille would have been well pleased with.

The problem arose when the location crew decided to introduce the random factor of logic into the processes of artistic endeavour. The shark they were dealing with back home might be good only for resting peacefully on the bottom of the ocean but while it was there it was bloody big, so it seemed to make sense that it would be advantageous to exaggerate the size of the real shark they were about to feature in a supporting role. So in order to facilitate this they built a shark cage several sizes smaller than the one photographed on the Orca and into it they placed a little Mexican chap, a miniature stuntman who had convinced them, in much the same way starving actors the world over reassure directors they can ride horses, that he knew how to scuba dive. Consequently they dropped the tank in the water, filled it with wary Hispanic midget and left Ron and Val to set about attracting a shark to their usual great effect, rather too great as it transpired.

They had been expecting a great white of roughly 10-15 feet which, compared to the pint-sized set-up, would have been just perfect. Instead what they got was an actual monster shark about thirty feet in length which, when filmed – from a distance – by Ron Taylor, looked like the vanguard of an invasion of Earth’s oceans by maniacal aquatic leviathans from the Planet of the Giants. Needless to say Pepe, or Raoul, or whatever the hell his name was, shit himself on seeing it and then another factor they hadn’t thought of entered the fray. To put it simply, the little chap’s diving gear was half-sized but a little person’s lungs aren’t half-sized, they’re proper sized and in the thrust of the current monster fish crisis they sucked up the air in the tanks in one rapid terrified intake. Cue much frantic thrashing about by pocket Mexican who had to be lifted clear pretty much as soon as the shark came into view and exit the chances of any decent footage of `Dreyfus’ in the water up close with a real squalis.

Since the stuntman hurriedly explained in terms that didn’t need translation that he wouldn’t be getting back in the water any time soon, and that the only professional steps he would now be taking in regards to this production would be bloody long ones, they had to conceive of the ending which remained in the film, but which was quite different from Benchley’s book, where Dreyfus as Hooper manages to escape from the tank and swims away. The only plus side to it all as far as the production was concerned (although happily the ending forced upon them was a winner) was the brilliant footage the Taylors got of the giant shark ripping the tackle in the water to bits. We’re sure the stuntman would have congratulated them at the time. Probably from the top of the mast.

Legend has it that the first test-screening of JAWS was a bit of a disaster. Steven Spielberg, and producer David Brown and his strange moustache, were horrified to find that, on the little cards they had left in the picture hall for the audience to mark from 0 – 10 in terms of scariness, with 0 being the least score available and 10 the highest, most patrons had written, “This is shite” on them. There had been more screams at the candy counter on the way in when they had run out of Raisinettes. But all this was before John Williams had laid his score on them (which begs the question of what that test audience had heard when they were shown the preview? We suppose in a perfect universe the opening scene of the shark’s eye view camera moving through the watery tendrils would have been overlaid with `A Walk In The Black Forest’ but we concede that’s not very likely). Apparently the first time Williams played the main theme to Spielberg he laughed and said, “That’s great John. Now, where’s this music for Jaws?” thinking he was joking. But lo, Williams was not joking and verily the arses of the studio maketh with buttons for an age until it proved to be the making of the film.

In a totally unconnected piece of anecdotage cough, a few years ago John Barry was on Desert Island Discs and picked as one of his tracks a piece from, we think we’re right in saying, `The Rites of Spring’ by Stravinsky which track sounded uncannily like the main theme from JAWS penned by the only man to have won more Oscars for soundtracks than him. Coincidence or professional mischief-making? We don’t know. And we didn’t listen long enough to hear whether or not Barry picked a point-belabouring can of shark repellent as one of his essential items either so we wouldn’t like to say.

When composer John Williams won his Oscar for his score for JAWS he was conducting the orchestra for the ceremony and had to scurry back to his podium to conduct his own fanfare. Composer John Williams has a funny beard and wears polo necks a lot.

shark shark

JAWS is a film of two definite parts. While the first half is concerned with the titular pesky piscine ravaging its way through the denizens of Amity Island and the natives’ pathetic attempts to evade both evisceration and paperwork, the second half could be described broadly as being characterised as man’s attempts to redress the balance and reassert his evolutionary and intellectual superiority over the animalistic menace beneath the waves by kicking its head in.

The most important single moment in that second half of the film by far is the USS Indianapolis scene, when Quint explains to Hooper, over a plate of what looks like Prince’s tinned mince, his wartime experience on that ill-fated ship and his resultant disdain of life jackets (and presumably his apparent marginal antipathy towards sharks). It’s the seminal turning point for the crew of the Orca as they move from being a loose collection of warring tribes to a fully functioning co-operative team intent on achieving their goal and in doing so abandon the egotistical japes that they had all displayed at the outset. It is, in essence (and how we loathe to use terms like this), a `bonding’ moment. In terms of script and performance it is also a particularly powerful and effective one and is also one which provides for Robert Shaw the best ten minutes or so of screen time he ever got.

Stories abound about the famous speech he gives after Brody asks what the scar Quint has on arm is and certainly the first draft was put together by Carl Gottlieb, the principal screen writer. But apparently, and for reasons we’ve never really been aware of, it didn’t sit well. We don’t know if it jarred, or who it was that objected to it – we presume it was Spielberg – but in any case it wasn’t used, though it provided the bare bones in an informational sense for the exposition as a whole. It was then passed through a number of professional and extremely competent Smith-Coronas who presented various different drafts.

Credit is given now to the likes of John `Conan’ Milius, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Howard Sackler and of course Benchley himself who was also working on the screenplay (though considering the sort of thing characters in the book get up to he probably had Quint down a large Advocaat and sail home before he finished the story). Even Spielberg had a crack at it.

Spielberg himself has since confessed to getting a bit desperate about the whole thing as he recognised that this was the most crucial point in the film as regards character development. This is the point where you have to start to like Quint and care what happens to him (we really don’t want the audience cheering when he gets munched by the fish) and it also has to be the point where the other two start to care what happens to him. Pretty important then, especially since Quint has been such a tosser up `til then. So further uncredited work was done on the words by the likes of William Goldman and Norman Mailer and basically anyone with their name in print, an ear for dialogue and a telephone number that wasn’t ex-directory.

In the meantime Robert Shaw had been getting happily paralytic on Wild Turkey and champagne all the while but was beginning to feel the pressure a little, not least because he kept getting handed different versions of his script every day. Probably therefore for the basic reason that he couldn’t keep up any longer and if he was going to have any chance at all of learning the words he would have to come up with them himself, Shaw closeted himself away on the night before the last opportunity to shoot the scene and came up with the script as filmed and as seen. And it’s a belter too which doesn’t just do the job and perform the function but almost on its own lifts the film from run of the mill action adventure into genuine full blown great film territory.

In the relevant scene Quint gives the wrong date for the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, saying it sank on 29th June 1945 when it was actually the day after. Universal have wanted to make a film about the true life incident ever since with Quint as the main character, which is a rubbish idea.

For years you couldn’t actually buy a copy of JAWS at all, even on VHS. Like STAR WARS it was only ever released in measured bursts every now and then and a proper re-release only came, again like STAR WARS, when somebody could be arsed to put together a widescreen version which provided an excuse. Now of course the shops are littered with copies of new versions on DVD although thankfully Spielberg has diverged from that hitherto shared path with the `WARS now and refused to make a complete digital tit up of it which wobbly George Lucas has most certainly done with his thing.

This all changed when the first of the proper anniversaries came round and when we got our mits on a copy of the what was the then just-released 25th anniversary edition DVD (oooooh, doesn’t time fly?) we immediately did what everyone who gets a pricey DVD does and went straight for the special features. Unfortunately there’s not an awful lot there. There’s a short documentary about the making of the film featuring Spielberg, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown and his strange moustache, the ubiquitous and always available (out of work) Richard Dreyfus, Peter Benchley and his weird skinny face and a few other minor parts. Sadly it doesn’t add up to much and falls well short of the documentary on a similar theme that BBC2 made for Jaws Night in 2000 which spoke to all the extant main players whilst they sat in front of a big back-lit crepe paper shark (apart from Benchley who was filmed on the porch of his seaside home, presumably because most of the others hate his guts). There’s a pointless quiz that asks ludicrously involved questions about licence plate numbers and things and which has a HINT button that just cuts away to a still frame of the answer, so a bit of a misnomer then.

Best of all, natch, are the unused scenes. There’s only really two of note, the first – and lesser – one being a prolonged tableaux of Frank Silva, the Harbour Master who is seen in the film proper emerging from his pier hut with an arm full of Corn Flakes and milk avec pipe at the start of the scene where the inland yahoos arrive to try and land Mrs Kitner’s bounty and where Hooper is introduced, actually sitting down and eating the Corn Flakes. Hurrah! Second of all, and miles better, is a lovely scene where Robert Shaw wanders over the street flanked by the droopy little sad sack type holding his spaniel – and who was seen leaving with him after the end of the town meeting scene – and into a music shop where he is to buy the piano wire he uses to snag the shark when they first make contact (he’s not going to haul them up like a lot of catfish, remember). After he comes in he is spoken to by the woman in the shop who goes to get his wire leaving him in the background whilst in the foreground and at the counter is a young girl with a clarinet, clearly practising and breaking in a new reed. She tootles out a few bars of Beethoven’s 9th along to which Quint starts to sing along getting louder and louder until she stops abruptly leaving him looking determinedly vexed. We don’t know what it was supposed to add to the whole but it’s a great little vignette anyway and beautifully acted by Shaw. It’s a shame they didn’t keep it in. Oh, and there’s another scene with someone being eaten in the pool by the shark after pushing Brody’s son out of the way. Ho-and, indeed- hum.

Peter Benchley appears in the film as a reporter (“a cloud in the shape of a killer shark”), screenwriter Carl Gottlieb plays Ben Meadows (“tell Dave Axelrod he owes me a favour”) and Spielberg is the voice on the radio that calls the Orca and also plays the clarinet in the beach scene, which is more than Alfred Hitchcock ever managed in a cameo.

shark shark

Although it was all hands on deck for the script the book was of course the work of only one faintly scary man, Peter Benchley. Massively successful and well referenced into popular culture at the time it may well have been (that was a copy of Jaws Basil was ha- hilariously reading in bed as Sybil was braying on to Audrey on the telephone) but let’s make no bones over the reality that, as a book, Jaws is pretty poor, its limited bonus points being that it’s both quite short and doesn’t feature too many big words.

Brody is a bit of a moody pain in the arse, Hooper gets killed at the end, Quint is lashed to the body of the shark in a Melville reference almost too clunking for belief, everyone seems to live on or below the poverty line regardless of what they do for a living (subsisting on that quaintly Eisenhower era-esque American consumerist folly, `food coupons’; a device that the Co-Op here would have regarded as old-fashioned in about 1937) and the most rounded character is the fish. Speaking of the fish, it gets the first `scene’ of the book just as it does the film but that’s about it from text-to-screen transposition. There’s a whole ream of nonsense about the evolutionary processes that chucked up the thing, which sort of works it’s way into Film Hooper’s little speech to Mayor Vaughn after they’ve found Ben Gardner’s head in his boat, but apart from that there’s precious little remaining of the substance of the book in the film itself beyond the names and the rather unavoidable inclusion of a big shark.

By filleting the thing (do you see?) and just using the 100{30e2395aaf6397fd02d2c79d91a1fe7cbb73158454674890018aee9c53a0cb96} cod and leaving out the Ruskoline, tartrazine and other added shite – i.e. about 95{30e2395aaf6397fd02d2c79d91a1fe7cbb73158454674890018aee9c53a0cb96} of it – Spielberg makes the perfect case in answer to all those idiots who complain that film versions of books should be completely faithful to the source material. If JAWS had slavishly followed the book there would have been, for example, a lengthy scene where Chief Brody drinks tonnes of Vermouth and feels sick and another where Ben Meadows eats half a lemon meringue pie but no explosion at the end or USS Indianapolis speech. Since all that seems pointless on the page, the likelihood that it would make for scintillating drama on screen was non-existent and we should be thankful that Spielberg took Benchley aside at one point and said, “We love the book, Pete, we really do. There’s just one thing we’d like to change… the words.” Well, if he didn’t he should have done.

The state of the finished product that is JAWS could probably be best described, in terms of quality, as `erratic’ and the fact that it has proved so successful has often been attributed to the film’s veteran editor, the late Verna Fields. Now, considering the state some of the film is in it’s quite awesome to think what kind of nick it might have been delivered in had some less expert hand been left on the tiller in the editing suite.

Most of the shakiest stuff comes in the first Act, as it were, before the trio head off to sea after the baddie, and the worst of that appears when Hooper has arrived on the scene and conducts an examination of the remains of the first victim, Chrissie Watkins. All is well in the scene until there comes a pointless cut to Hooper lifting the girl’s hand clear of the tray her meagre remains are left in. That bears hardly any relation to the flow of the conversation in the scene but is at least contiguous with the action. What is most puzzling is the rather poorly dubbed line, “See, this is what happens…” which bears no relation to anything. See what? What happens? Happens how? And to whom? And as a result of what? It seems an odd decision to have left that one ten second piece of footage there to absolutely no purpose unless it was either an excuse to flash about a rather natty looking prop hand or that it’s all that remains of a longer scene deemed too much in retrospect. Either way, it should probably have been cut altogether since it just jars.

We don’t want to get too involved in this and risk collapsing into edit point wankery so we’ll just also voice our perennial confusion over the yellow barrels whose random appearance then non-appearance has riled us for years. We must have watched JAWS nearly a hundred times now – and that really isn’t an exaggeration – but we still can’t get a handle on the number of barrels shot into the shark and the number which manifest themselves at different points of the action (but then we’ve watched TRADING PLACES a similar number of times and we still don’t understand what Louis and Billy Ray are up to at the end of that either).

Chief Brody’s wife Ellen was played by Lorraine Gary, who was the wife of the head of Universal and had to fight off thousands of other actresses to play the part.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Glenn A

    July 6, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    This was the first film I saw in video way back in 1981. The premiere attracted over 20 million viewers on ITV such was the appeal of Jaws.

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