The Fury and the Sound of JAWS

December 7, 2023 | Paul Richardson

Pathbreaking film, allegorical fable, heart-stopping thriller – no matter how you slice it, JAWS is in a league of its own.

Originally intended for a Christmas 1974 release, JAWS had numerous production delays that pushed its launch back to June 20, 1975. And so, through a confluence of forces (technology, marketing, political fear and uncertainty), it was Hollywood’s first Summer Blockbuster, becoming the biggest grossing film of all time, to be eclipsed two years later by Star Wars.

A contemporary 1975 review of the film called it “perhaps the most perfectly constructed horror story in our time.” And critic Adam Nayman put it beautifully when he noted that “the beauty of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic is that you can choose how to watch it: as a summery, shark-bitten thriller or as an allegory about the failed leadership of institutions.”

And both were things that the US needed in 1975 (Nixon having resigned during Watergate just 6 months prior). The film, says Nayman, “unfolds as a ripe bicentennial satire, a snapshot of a country at once on guard and susceptible to a semi-hidden enemy.”

Hooper and Quint

JAWS is also the film that launched Spielberg’s career, and that sent the path of composer John Williams, already a rising star (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Fiddler on the Roof - which won him his first Oscar, Towering Inferno, etc.) into the stratosphere.

And, as to the role of the film in Spielberg’s vast resume, Nayman asserts this: “A case can be made that Jaws’ ostensible single-mindedness – its swift, gliding sense of momentum, which renders a two-hour running time almost subliminally quick – is still the best expression of its director’s skill set: that for all his later forays into history, morality, and future-shock social commentary, Spielberg’s best incarnation is as an orchestrator of believably visceral carnage, of the fantastic intruding roughly and entertainingly on the present day.”

There are countless stories and likely apochryphal tales about JAWS, about the trials and tribulations of its making. We dug up and share here a handful of shark bait for you to chew on – to get you excited about joining us in the [virtual] water in March to watch and hear JAWS, with its amazing John Williams score performed by a live orchestra.

  • The quintessentially quoted line by Roy Scheider (Chief Brody) to Robert Shaw (Quint), “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” was not in the script. Scheider ad-libbed it. 
  • The role of Chief Brody was offered to Robert Duvall, but he turned it down. Other big names like Charlton Heston were also considered, but utlimatedly it was felt Scheider (who had made a splash in The French Connection) would be a better fit. For the role of Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfus), the studio also considered Jon Voight, Timothy Bottoms, Jan-Michael Vincent, Kevin Kline, Joel Grey, and Jeff Bridges.
  • Steven Spielberg was not the producers’ first choice to direct the film, and he actually considered quitting several times.
  • JAWS was the first major motion picture shot on the ocean. Planned to be shot in 55 days, it actually took 155. 
  • The animatronic shark (actually, there were 3) was named Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer Bruce Ramer.
  • “There once was a ferry to Nantucket…” It turns out the person sent to scout Nantucket Island, the original site planned for shooting the film, was on a ferry that got diverted to Martha’s Vineyard, due to a storm. There they found too much to be liked for the film, and the venue was changed.
  • Spielberg revealed to a young interviewer that everyone’s favorite Labrador Retriever, Pitpit the Dog, may not have met his end during a sequence in Jaws where it presumably gets devoured in the iconic shark movie: "What's possible is Pipit was not owned by the person who threw the stick. Pipit was a neighbor's dog, and Pipit decided he was tired of chasing the stick as many times as it was thrown to him. He was hungry and ignored the stick in the water, swam home, and had a very good dinner."
  • JAWS had 3 sequels: Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws: The Revenge. Whereas JAWS gets 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, the other three movies get 62%, 11% and 0%, respectively.
  • The film originally was given an R rating, but the directors made some trims of gore to get it down to PG (PG-13 was not yet a thing).
  • Much of the tension in the movie is generated by the shark lurking off screen (to John Williams’ masterful score), and, indeed, it does not appear on screen until 1 hour and 21 minutes in! But a large reason the shark did not get more screen time is that there were repeated difficulties with getting its animatronics to work right.
  • Peter Benchley, the author of the book on which the film is based, has a cameo in the film as a TV reporter in the pivotal beach panic scene.
  • Spielberg also had two cameos in the film, but they were only audibles: it is his voice we as the Amity Island dispatcher who patches Brody through to his wife when Brody is out on Quint’s boat with Quint and Hooper; second, he played several perfectly flawed bars on clarinet of a Sousa march, used for when the band is marching through town during the 4th of July.
  • Richard Harris based the salty character of Quint on local Martha’s Vineyard fisherman Craig Kingsbury, who got a small role in the film as fisherman Ben Gardner, whose disembodied head pops out of a porthole in one of the film’s scariest moments.

Join us for JAWS with Live Orchestra Saturday night, March 2.
(Bruce would very much like it if you could make it...)

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