I was never one to frolic in the ocean. I was the person sauntering along the beach shores, looking for unusual shells to add to my collection. I loved getting my feet wet, feeling the push and pull of the tides floating over my ankles. Gorgeous blue skies would meet at the clear horizon. Sunsets were my favorite times. It was at the ocean, I would be renewed every year. I let go of the teaching stresses I held so tightly within. I felt reconnected and humbled by the vastness of the ocean’s enormity. I was “one” within the wonders of the world. As I grew older, my children would join me on these yearly trips along the Southern California beaches. They would bogey board out into the waves for hours while I watched and noshed on grapes. It was the perfect scenario for escaping the Arizona heat. I brought along a trusted student who enjoyed my kids’ company and would venture out into the unknown ocean depths with them to keep them safe. In 1975, these idyllic moments changed once I heard John William’s distinct, disturbing musical score. It played over and over deep inside my head. It’s a wonder no one else heard it as well. Or maybe they did, and nobody was saying a thing. “Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum.” Can you hear those opening, sinister notes too? Look out…perhaps there is a great white lurking about. In between each grape, I was vigilant and watchful. Any magnificent, sunny day could turn on a dime if JAWS was around. The music always gave you those few precious seconds of warning. All you had to do was listen. I always did.
JAWS was a phenomenon. It was considered the first of what would later be known as a blockbuster hit. John Williams received an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his Original Music, which is ironic since the director, Steven Spielberg, laughed out loud when he first heard it. He asked John if he had anything else written. Over time, he grew to love it as well. Two other Oscars were awarded to JAWS for Best Sound and Film Editing. Twenty-five percent of the movie was filmed directly at the ocean’s surface or below. JAWS was not easy to recreate. Spielberg made it known that his next film would be entirely on land. (It was CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.)
JAWS was a simple tale. Three men must find and destroy a 25-foot killer whale that was terrorizing a small coastal town named Amity Island but was really Martha’s Vineyard. Needless to say, it was beautiful scenery. Brody, the Police Chief (Roy Scheider), Marine Biologist, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Quint (Robert Shaw) were at the helm of the boat. It was harrowing since Dreyfuss and Shaw did not like each other. Their true feelings, I am sure, helped the on-screen tension that was so visible between Quint and Hooper. Every eye roll was probably extremely realistic. Shaw was a drinker, and he was usually drunk as the day’s shooting progressed. It was said he had a shot after each take. His word slurring was natural. He blew 17 takes for the serious WWII monologue. He redid it the next morning in only one and ad-libbing a few lines. This is what viewers see in the movie. The three men didn’t have to be friends. They just had to look and feel realistic, which they did. The most famous line, “We’ll have to get a bigger boat,” was improvised by the Chief after one of the many attacks by “Bruce,” which is what Spielberg affectionately named the mechanical shark after his lawyer. There were actually three Bruces created for this movie, each one gave the crew a difficult time with all the saltwater in their wiring.
There were many scary moments during JAWS for me. Circling the boat with buoys attached was intense, but watching people being eaten alive was overwhelming. I found myself kicking and silently screaming to get away. The scene where the camera panned out on the bloody, half-chewed floating child’s raft was horrifying. My imagination was running amuck with vivid pictures. And, of course, there was the opening scene with the free-spirited hippie being dragged in circles, leaving a red trail behind. I can’t ever forget that one, nor the Chief’s son frozen with fear as we hear that haunting music get louder and louder. JAWS is not for the faint of heart, for sure.
JAWS gave audiences vicious visuals. Yet it was so smartly put together because it included moments of joy and fun at the beach. It gave us glimpses into the everyday lives of a very tight-knit community that needed and relied on each other. Most were just trying to do the right thing during a summer that didn’t make sense and was out of their control. Spielberg is a genius at what he creates on screen. He draws us close and then drops the hammer with love, humor, and authenticity about small-town politics. Not everyone is able to do this.
JAWS is a master class of creativity that has endured for fifty years. It is grisly and paints a horrific scenario. What makes it a classic is the lessons it teaches about filmmaking. Get in…get out. Scare the shit out of everyone and then just end it. No epilogues. No extra scenes. It is simply a film about a shark that made the world see the ocean differently. It is perhaps “one of the most perfectly constructed horror films of all time.” Take it away John Williams…dum, dum, dum, dum, dum, dum.
JAWS is available to rent or buy online.