When a killer shark unleashes chaos on a beach resort, it’s up to a local sheriff, a marine biologist, and an old seafarer to hunt the beast down.
In one fell swoop, Steven Spielberg created the summer blockbuster. He just had to go through hell to do it. The issues that Spielberg had during the filming of Jaws have all been well-documented, though. So, I’m not actually going to dive into those (ha. Dive. Get it.) Instead, I’m going to discuss Spielberg’s directing skills, John Williams’ masterful score, and the themes and symbolism within the film because all of these factors contribute to why Jaws is a goddamn classic and on this list.
Spielberg, quite often, places the audience at the shark’s point of view, which works in a genius way to build suspense. And, I’m not only talking about the obvious underwater shots (i.e. before Chrissie’s death), but also the shots that follow the waves, one moment being above water and the next being below. For as much as Spielberg relies on John Williams’ score to build suspense, there are a plethora of moments where there is no music involved, and the suspense relies solely on the creative use of the camera. The fact that the mechanical shark that was being used was faulty was ultimately a blessing in disguise, as it limited the shark’s use and made Spielberg find other ways to strike fear in the audience.
Along with Steven Spielberg’s directing, the writing is simply some of the best. So much information is given within the first ten minutes alone. We learn of a man-eating shark. We learn that our main character has just moved to Amity Island from New York City. He’s the sheriff of the police department for a town where nothing really bad ever happens. It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and the town heavily relies on tourists to make money. It’s honestly the perfect setup for the story we see unfold on screen.
That story would be nothing without the movie music of John Williams. Prior to 1975, Williams didn’t really have much on his resume, nothing notable, at least. You could argue that this film launched his career. The simplicity of the main theme of the film is astounding. He used two main notes to strike fear in the beach-goers of America. Those two notes are then spread out over an entire string section and it is haunting. But, more often than not, I feel that the rest of his score for Jaws goes overlooked. The whole thing is brilliant, combining a sea shanty feel with suspense and chaos. Take for instance this piece, “Sea Attack Number One”:
It perfectly combines the elements listed above. It’s a masterpiece.
I want to talk about the overall story of Jaws, and I have two main thoughts about it. The first is that the film could really about Brody’s decent into alcoholism. The second is that each man represents different aspects of society. When we first meet Martin Brody, we find that he’s just started his job as Amity Island Police Chief. His first big incident is a shark attack that kills a young girl. Because the mayor is a horrible person who puts money over the lives of people, Brody is unable to close the beach. Instead, anytime he’s there, he keeps a close eye. Unfortunately, it’s not close enough, and poor Alex Kintner dies (along with, we are led to believe, a very cute dog. RIP). Brody feels guilty, but his guilt really builds when Mrs. Kintner confronts Brody and gives him that heart wrenching speech and hard slap across the face. The following scene is Brody heavily drinking red wine. Like, fills up a regular glass all the way drinking red wine.
It’s alarming. One can only hope that his conscience was cleared the moment he blew up the shark (this is completely disregarding Jaws 2, because that film and those that followed were all money grabs). Otherwise, I’m afraid that the death of Alex Kintner is the start of the downward spiral of Martin Brody.
The second thing I want to touch on is that each man represents a different aspect of society. We have Quint, who is the working class. We have Hooper, who is the rich and educated. And, we have Brody who is the authority. Each fights the shark in his own way, the shark just being a general conflict in this scenario. Quint tries to fight him with skill. Hooper tries to fight him with expensive technology and science. Both men fail, one more than the other. In the end, it’s authority that is victorious over conflict. And, in the 1970s in the United States, that was a hell of a statement to make.
This film was the reason I was afraid of the ocean as a child (I have since gotten over that fear, as I moved to California largely to be by the ocean). This film, however, has also misinformed a mass audience about great white sharks, and it really is a shame because this film not only created the summer blockbuster, but it solidified Steven Spielberg in the realm of Hollywood directors.