Jaws: the first blockbuster

Sean looks back at the blockbuster that pretty much started it all, as he celebrates Steven Spielberg's Jaws...

As with many of my generation, I saw Jaws far too young. That PG certificate belies the terror of an underwater monster picking off innocent holidaymakers while the local council do nothing. As the 2010 summer silly season approaches we celebrate the 35th birthday of the granddaddy of them all.

I was probably six or seven years old when I saw (arguably) Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, which would make the film already about fifteen years old, but the after effects were still being felt.

Family friendly blockbusters such as Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Dick Tracy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were being released worldwide with enormous hype. Going a little further back, the cinemas of the late 70s and 80s were littered with huge effects-heavy behemoths like Superman, the Indiana Jones trilogy, Batman, ET and countless others.

You might argue that Star Wars kicked off this era of franchise and, to an extent, you’d be right. George Lucas’ empire of merchandise undoubtedly paved the way for the more modern likes of Spider-Man and Harry Potter. But without Jaws, the idea of saturating the market with TV spots, tie-in merchandise and a wide release date was simply unheard of.

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Pre-1975, even the biggest studio release would open slowly and build momentum as it travelled throughout the world over the space of a year or more. But Universal Pictures saw something in Jaws that made it break the mould. It perhaps helped, and I’m speculating here, that the two highest grossing films at that time were The Godfather and The Exorcist, which, like Jaws, were based on international bestsellers.

One of the major successes of Jaws‘ revolutionary marketing campaign was, of course, that poster – such a simple idea that perfectly captures the essence of the film in one horrifying image.

That depiction of the gargantuan creature from the depths beelining for the unwitting and comparatively tiny young swimmer became the greatest piece of iconography of 70s cinema (for my money it wasn’t topped until Ghost Busters in 1984 discuss) and could be seen everywhere: t-shirts, pin badges, posters, billboards, book shops (the original book being reprinted using the poster as the new cover is commonplace today).

As successful and iconic as this image doubtlessly was, it was actually a bit of a tease. As many already know, the movie turned out quite differently from how it was initially conceived. This was largely down to the mechanical shark (Bruce, to his friends) failing to work for the majority of the (way over-schedule) shoot. This meant that director Spielberg had to cut around his monster star and use techniques he’d learned from watching Hitchcock’s movies, to ramp up the tension without ever showing the money shot.

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It is to young Stevie’s credit that he pulled this off with aplomb, so much so that you almost don’t notice that you haven’t seen Bruce until the latter third of the film.

A side effect of this technique was that we get to spend much more time with the protagonists and develop a lot of love for them, so the last half hour or so on board the Orca is unbearably tense.

Many argue that the double whammy of Jaws and Star Wars signalled the death knell for the 1970s New Hollywood movement. And it is noticeable that the director-led auteurism of Scorsese and Coppola gave way to the high concept flash of Bruckheimer/Simpson and Silver not too long after.

However, take another look at Jaws and I think you’ll be surprised at how ‘New Hollywood’ it is. It is largely a character-driven film about Amity Island Chief-of-Police Martin Brody (the esteemed Roy Scheider) trying to protect his idyllic town from the threat of a destructive force while the local mayor (Murray Hamilton, who never lets Larry Vaughan become a pantomime villain) is more interested in making as much money as possible over the July 4th weekend. Brody’s hands are tied as he does what little he can without drawing attention to himself. That is, until the next victim is taken. In a very public way.

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And all the time the focus is on the characters, the killings are kept low-key (remember, we don’t see the shark) and the drama doesn’t come from gore or explosions but from the characters’ reactions.

Who can forget the classic ‘Vertigo-shot’of Brody on the beach as young Alex Kintner is eaten in front of a beach full of sunbathers. How about when the fishermen catch a shark (not the shark) and Mrs. Kintner pays Brody a visit only to slap his face. The impotent anger, sorrow and fear of Brody’s character is summed up in one understated facial expression.

When we do get on the boat in the company of Brody, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, glorious) and Quint (Robert Shaw, gloriously mental), the focus is on the camaraderie (or lack thereof) of these three very different men.

Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Transformers, all were massive summer releases of the last ten years, but how many will stand up in 35 years time?

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Spider-Man was released in May 2002 and already looked ropey in June (Spidey 2 was a vast improvement, Spidey 3…wasn’t). Harry Potter favours Brit-centric cameos and Daniel Radcliffe’s chin over characterisation and concise plot development while Pirates and Transformers are the very definition of the more-is-more franchise era that we are currently living in (although I loved both of their first instalments, largely down to their leading men and quirky support characters).

Even with all the great movies Spielberg has given us over the years, I would, perhaps controversially, argue that he has never topped Jaws. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, ET, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan (overrated), Munich (underrated) are all great films but better than Jaws?

It’s not a debate that can be won either way. Nevertheless, whatever has happened since, be it for Spielberg or for blockbuster films in general, ‘She was the first.’