Jaws • The Summer Blockbuster

Greenscreening Series #35

July 8, 2023

Make Your Inbox More Cinematic

Get Greenscreening in your inbox every Friday, and you won't have to decide what to watch on Saturday.

powered by TinyLetter

This Time on Greenscreening

Jaws (1975) directed by Steven Spielberg



Based on a pulpy bestseller by Peter Benchley, this is a masterfully constructed thriller about three disparate men – a cop (Roy Scheider), a scientist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a sea dog (Robert Shaw) – setting out in a boat to capture a shark that’s terrorising swimmers off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. From the classic opening, in which two amorous teenagers leave a beach party to take a perilous dip, through numerous brilliantly set up, precisely edited subsequent attack sequences, Spielberg’s chilling adventure is the rollercoaster movie par excellence. - BFI

Find Jaws via Reelgood

Why Jaws?

You're gonna need a bigger boat. - Sheriff Brody

We open on a campfire on the beach. A group of young people are hanging out, drinking, smoking, flirting. It’s summertime and love - or at least lust - is in the air.

A young blonde duo sneaks off for some private time. A swim at dawn and maybe more. The girl runs ahead and the guy chases her. As they approach the water, they both peel off their clothes for some skinnydipping.

Well, at least the girl goes for skinnydipping. The guy struggles on the shore with his shirt and then passes out.

The camera cuts underwater and lingers on the image of the girl treading water, silhouetted by the moonlight - a breathtaking shot. From below, the camera slowly pushes in towards the girl.

Cut to above the water. The girl is startled by something underneath. By the time she realizes what it is, it’s already too late. Something has her - and after a few terrifying seconds where we watch her struggle and scream, she’s dragged under.

The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is the first of many iconic and nearly perfect cinematic sequences in the film.


Jaws had a profound impact on Hollywood during the 1970s. Its success as the first true summer blockbuster reshaped industry practices, ushering in the era of the summer blockbuster and influencing marketing strategies and distribution models. The film deftly blended genres and excelled as pure entertainment while also containing a multitude of themes, and elevated Spielberg to the highest echelon of Hollywood directors.

While he had directed a few notable films before Jaws, including The Sugarland Express (1974) and Duel (1971), it was Jaws that catapulted Spielberg to widespread acclaim and established him as a leading director.

Challenges Breed Creativity

Jaws faced significant production troubles during its filming, which ultimately resulted in a number of creative decisions that contributed to the film's success.

Spielberg and team encountered unpredictable weather conditions, including storms and rough seas, which disrupted the location filming in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Additionally, much of the second half of the film is shot in open water, which presented logistical difficulties and required innovative camera techniques to capture the necessary shots.

As the production faced delays and the costs increased, Universal Studios became increasingly concerned about the film's progress. Spielberg had to find ways to maximize resources and work within the limited budget, leading to creative problem-solving and improvisation on set.

And the most famous challenge during production was the mechanical shark, known as "Bruce." The shark prop was intended to be a central element of the film, but it frequently malfunctioned due to technical issues. This led to delays in shooting and forced Spielberg to find creative ways to build tension without showing the shark too often.

We barely see the shark during the first half of the film, instead seeing suggestions of the shark and the aftermath of its attacks.

Recall the opening sequence: We don’t see the shark at all; instead we see several point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective, suggesting the shark approaching, and we see the girl from above the surface as she’s attacked. The violence takes place in the audience’s mind, much like in the shower scene in Psycho.

This continues throughout the film. As Roger Ebert observed, the shark is more talked about than seen.

So of course, when the shark finally appears, it's got to be a grand entrance:



Blending Genres and Influences

Part of Jaws’ success is its blending of multiple genres. At its core, Jaws is a horror film, following in the tradition of monster films that first peaked with Universal’s classics King Kong, Dracula, and Frankenstein.

But Spielberg also brings in touches of the Western. The main character is the Sheriff, after all, protecting the citizens of Amity from an external savage threat, and has to round up a posse to ride out to meet the enemy for a climactic shootout. The rugged sailor, Quint, played by Robert Shaw, blends the Western cowboy archetypes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood with shades of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick and the physicality and intensity of Toshiro Mifune from Kurosawa’s classics Rashomon and Seven Samurai.


John Williams and the Jaws Score

Of course, Jaws would not be Jaws without John Williams’ iconic score. The score is considered one of the most recognizable and influential film scores in cinematic history. The distinctive Jaws motif, which consists of two alternating notes, became synonymous with impending danger and tension.

Spielberg initially envisioned the film with a traditional orchestral score, but Williams proposed the idea of using a simple motif to represent the shark.

Williams experimented with different musical ideas and eventually settled on the two-note motif, which he described as "grinding away at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable."

Williams drew inspiration from Igor Stravinsky's rhythmic and percussive compositions, which helped shape the intense and relentless quality of the Jaws motif.

Additionally, Williams was inspired by the works of Bernard Herrmann, particularly his score for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). The influence of Herrmann's score can be felt in the way the Jaws theme builds tension throughout the film.

The success and popularity of the Jaws score had a profound impact on Hollywood film scores, particularly for suspense, thrillers, and horror films. The use of a simple, repetitive motif to signify danger became a common technique in film scoring.

Movies have always blended music and image. After all, in the earliest days of cinema, before films could talk, a live musician would play along with the film. As moviegoers in the 21st Century, we've basically been trained to let the musical score influence how we react to the story of a film. And very few films illustrate the power of music to influence our interpretation of moving images like Jaws.


The Blockbuster is Born

Jaws was a massive box office success upon its initial release in 1975. During its first release, Jaws earned approximately $260 million in North America, which was about twice as much as The Godfather grossed during its initial record-breaking blockbuster release two years prior. Jaws' success was unprecedented, and redefined the term "blockbuster."

The film industry was drastically changed by Jaws. Summertime became the key release point for major crowd-pleasing films. It may be hard to believe, but Jaws was rated PG - generally acceptable for most audiences. Studios began pushing towards massive spectacles that would appeal to the whole family, and put tremendous marketing efforts behind their releases.

Two years later, George Lucas’ Star Wars opened around Memorial Day, broke box office records, and launched movie merchandising to new heights. A Jaws sequel followed in 1978, with several more sequels following in the 1980s, including Jaws 3D (1983).

In short, Jaws was the beginning of the end of New Hollywood, and the beginning of the Hollywood we recognize today - franchises, blockbusters, special effects, and marketing budgets that match production budgets.

Jaws marked a significant turning point in Spielberg's career, showcasing his ability to captivate audiences with thrilling storytelling, dynamic visuals, and memorable characters. It solidified his position as a visionary director and opened the door for him to helm a wide range of successful and influential films in the years to come.

There are too many iconic films in Spielberg's filmography, but in relation to Jaws some worth noting include Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which launched the Indiana Jones franchise, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and of course, the classic Jurassic Park (1993), which also launched a franchise and is in many ways a spiritual sequel to Jaws.

Spielberg continues making films even today and remains one of the most beloved Hollywood directors and producers.

Numerous films have paid homage to Jaws over the years, recognizing its cultural impact and iconic status. Here are a few notable examples:

  1. Back to the Future Part II (1989): In a memorable scene, Marty McFly encounters a 3D holographic shark advertising Jaws 19 as it lunges out of a movie theater marquee, referencing the enduring legacy of the original film and lampooning Hollywood's love of sequels.
  2. Finding Nemo (2003): This beloved Pixar animated film features a group of fish attempting to evade a shark named Bruce, who hosts a support group for sharks trying to resist their instinctual desire to eat fish. The character's name and the humorous portrayal pay homage to Jaws.

In 2022’s Sight and Sound polls of the greatest films of all time, critics ranked Jaws 104th, while directors ranked it 62nd.


Studying Jaws

Due to its unprecedented success and influence, scholars have sought to understand why the film has resonated so deeply, and have found a variety of themes and interpretations of the film.

Here are some of the prominent themes found in the film:

  1. Fear and Panic: Jaws delves into the primal fear of the unknown and the terror it can provoke. The presence of the shark creates a sense of panic and forces characters to confront their fears and vulnerabilities.
  2. Man vs. Nature: The film examines the conflict between humans and the natural world. It explores the limits of human control over nature and the consequences of disrupting the balance of ecosystems.
  3. Authority and Responsibility: Jaws explores the role of authority figures, such as the police chief and mayor, in managing crises. It raises questions about the balance between protecting the public and maintaining political and economic interests.
  4. Heroism and Sacrifice: The film presents themes of heroism and self-sacrifice as characters come together to combat the shark threat. It explores the transformation of ordinary individuals into heroes in the face of danger, tapping into some of the classic storytelling myths and tropes.
  5. Community and Unity: Jaws highlights the power of community and collective action. It showcases the townspeople of Amity Island uniting against a common enemy and the strength found in solidarity.


Some interpretations of Jaws include:

  • Environmental Allegory: Jaws can be seen as an allegory for humanity's negative impact on the environment. The shark represents the consequences of ecological disruption caused by human actions.
  • Psychological Fear: The shark has been interpreted as a symbol of the subconscious fears that lurk beneath the surface of individuals and society. The film explores the psychological impact of fear and the need to confront it. Additionally, Jaws and other horror films give audiences a safe space to experience and vicariously confront fear through the protagonists, and typically to see it defeated or destroyed.
  • Social Commentary: Jaws critiques bureaucracy, political corruption, and the prioritization of economic interests over public safety, as the sheriff clashes with Amity’s mayor over whether to close the beach after the shark attacks. There's also a clash between wealthy tourists and locals, bringing a theme of class struggle to the story.
  • Science and Technology: Amity is a simple town. There's the traditional way of life, and the new way, represented by Hooper. The mayor doesn't understand or respect science. Quint and Hooper disagree on how to catch and kill the shark - using technology or good old fashioned instinct.
  • Masculinity and Fear of Emasculation: The film is full of different representations of men: Sheriff Brody and his challenges, the patriarchal Mayor Vaughn, the nerdy oceanographer Hooper, and of course the rough sailor Quint. The men face the fear of emasculation as they try to protect Amity and confront the shark. The film explores themes of masculinity, vulnerability, and the need to overcome fears to reclaim power. There’s also a crucial scene on the boat where two vastly different men - a sailor and an oceanographer - bond over their various scars.


Learn More About Jaws

Roger Ebert’s 1975 review of Jaws and his Great Movies Essay on the film, 25 years later.

Make Your Inbox More Cinematic

Get Greenscreening in your inbox every Friday, and you won't have to decide what to watch on Saturday.

powered by TinyLetter