Jaws is the last of the great disaster films of the 1970s. In an era of intense paranoia on both sides of the Atlantic, the disaster genre fulfilled the cathartic needs of its audience, pitting vulnerable humanity against the seemingly unstoppable forces of nature. Films like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974) and many more demonstrated man’s resilience in the face of danger. The key message? Do your worst because mankind is here to stay!
With the USA’s ultimate withdrawal from Vietnam in the mid-1970s, the disaster genre began to wane; the predominant source of tension and division that fuelled the insecurity of a nation had been relieved. Almost. However, with one final and masterful flourish in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, mankind once again found itself out of its depth and in the teeth of trouble.
A film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel had been mooted before the ink was even dry on the manuscript. The author had been struck with inspiration while holidaying at the beach, positing the idea of a giant shark snacking on oblivious bathers. He also found a genuine horror story from history: along the New England coast in the summer of 1916, a single shark had fatally attacked four bathers in the space of a week. The nightmare scenario was all too plausible.
Producers Zanuck and Brown at Universal were keen to tackle the project if they could find the right director. Spielberg was not their first choice but was drafted in following a notorious meeting in which the initial director outlined his vision for the opening shots of the film, describing how the “whale” would lunge from the water to helpless screams from the terrified audience.
Zanuck and Brown also found they had bit off more than they could chew, having believed that a great white shark, the nominal star of the film, could be tamed and trained in much the same way as the birds had in Hitchcock’s picture. They were soon put straight on that matter.
The production hell that became Jaws has been well documented and will not be repeated here, save to say that the film that ultimately kick-started Spielberg’s career could easily have seen it sink without trace, as the movie’s allocated budget spiralled out of control and genuine forces of nature, namely the ocean, caused shooting schedules to be delayed over and over again. Anyone interested in reading a first-hand account of the turbulent production should track down a copy of screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log and marvel at the miracle of the film’s ultimate completion.
Triumph over adversity is evident in the film’s ultimate success. Jaws broke box office records for 1975, becoming the first film in history to earn over $100m at the box office. It is also the movie credited with spawning the summer blockbuster; event films with a wide opening designed to attract massive audiences across the globe. It was also one of the most heavily merchandised films of the pre-Star Wars era, although Spielberg himself vetoed the idea of shark shaped jelly sweets that oozed red goo when bitten into.
My first encounter with the twenty-five foot behemoth of cinema legend occurred in 1985, ten years after the film’s release, when it was shown on terrestrial television. I cried. Not at the severed limbs, devoured children or blood and gore. No. I blubbed when the shark was blown to smithereens. I was only five at the time, by the way, and already rooting for the screen villain; a trait which continues to this day, but that’s another story.
Since then, I have been captivated by the film. Its storyline, its ingenuity, its characters. Its soul. Jaws is more than just a film; it is a phenomenon, a cultural icon. I have watched its sequels countless times. Yes, even the risible Jaws 3 and the nadir of the franchise, Jaws: The Revenge – although I still experienced a frisson at seeing one of the full size shark props from the latter on the back lot of the Universal Studios tour in the early 90s.
Another of the most captivating aspects of the film were its three leads: Chief Brody, played by the late Roy Scheider, Matt Hooper the young oceanographer, played by Richard Dreyfuss, and most laudable of all, the grizzled shark hunter and USS Indianapolis survivor Quint, played by Robert Shaw. Why Robert Shaw in particular? I’ll tell you in a moment.
Difficult though it is to imagine the part of Quint without the British character actor and playwright in the role, Shaw was not the first choice for the part of Quint. Charlton Heston was interested, although it was felt that his presence would be too big a name and would distract from the film itself.
Lee Marvin was approached but, as an avid big game fisherman himself, declared he would rather be out catching real big fish than stuck in a water tank shooting a film about them.
Spielberg advocated Sterling Hayden but he was not interested in the part either. And so, eventually, the part was offered to Shaw. Spielberg felt the actor’s considerable stature and screen presence would provide a believable human foil for the bloodthirsty denizen of the deep.
So why my interest in Robert Shaw? Simple. From a very early age, I’ve been fascinated by the dead. No really. My parents will tell you that my first question regarding any actor or singer upon first encountering their works would be, “Are they dead?” or its variant, “Are they still alive?” Robert Shaw was one of the first famous faces on the receiving end of my morbid questioning to receive the answer, “Yes. I think he is.” In fact, Shaw died in 1978, only three years after the success of Jaws. He fell ill while driving with his family through County Mayo in Ireland, stopped the car and suffered a fatal heart attack at the roadside. A memorial to him stands in County Mayo.
Any movie buffs in Lancashire and the surrounding area may be interested to know that Robert Shaw was born in Westhoughton, and a pub called The Robert Shaw, part of the JD Wetherspoon chain, can be patronised in the town.
The actor remains fondly remembered for his colourful portrayal of Quint in Jaws but also for his terrifying portrayal of one of the very best James Bond villains, Donald ‘Red’ Grant in From Russia With Love (1963), a young Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons (1966), and for his star turn as gangster Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting (1973). One of his final film roles was as Romer Treece in another Peter Benchley adaptation The Deep (1977).
For a generation of movie-goers, Jaws remains one of the finest films ever made, mixing genuine thrills with human drama. It is far more than just a monster movie and remains a landmark in cinema history.
Oh, and then there’s that theme tune…