JAWS is undoubtedly a masterpiece. That statement is a nice test case for seeing who your true friends are. If you happen to say, “JAWS is a masterpiece” and one of your friends scoffs, you can rest assured that s/he is not one of your friends. No, you can secretly wish that person to befall a fate similar to Quint in the depths of the deep. Or worse, that little Kintner boy. He got it pretty rough.
Either way, the 40th Anniversary of the iconic film occurred way back on June 21st — you know, a few days ago — so it is quite necessary to go through some reasons why that great, toothy adventure story about three men learning to make room for one another on an ocean is so undeniably great.
1. The Dialogue
Even if the famed “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line was ad-libbed, most of the dialogue was not, and the dialogue is truly one of the film’s greatest strengths.
The above scene, for example, is a perfect illustration. In it, we see two characters seemingly on completely opposite ends of philosophical spectrums — Quint the blue collar worker and Hooper the academic college boy with “city hands” — begin to bond. It’s a scene that perfectly embodies the two characters’ approaches to life. Quint, what with his vast world experience, gets to show off the troubles he’s faced in bars and on the ocean, while Hooper sees an opportunity to impress the irascible ship captain with scar stories of his own. We see Quint’s respect for Hooper grow here, as our own respect for Hooper grows, as well. Up to this point, we’ve seen Hooper intellectualize about sharks, but here it is obvious he’s put his life in jeopardy, too. Not only that, it is a lead-in to perhaps the film’s most poignant scene, in which Quint himself opens up about what drives him: the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. He’s a loner because he’s lost everyone he respected on that ship. He’s driven to chase down and kill the shark not for profit (totally) but because of an ingrained hatred of the beasts for what they did to him and his friends.
2. The Delicate Balance Between Horror and Humor (and Every Emotion in Between)
Most people remember JAWS as being horrific, the reason it was no longer safe to go into the water, but there are also plenty of laughs in the film, not to mention heart-warming moments. (Brody’s youngest son mimicking him, for example.)
It is rare for a movie to be able to maintain such a wonderful balance between what is truly terrible about the circumstances taking place and what is nearly absurd. The movie deftly slips between tragedy and comedy, sometimes within the framework of a single scene. The fact that the USS Indianapolis speech occurs in the same scene as the three characters’ rendition of “Show Me the Way to go Home” is an amazing feat of tonal balance.
JAWS may even look tame by today’s standards — and that may be one reason why it holds up really well — but it pulls no punches, and don’t you forget that. From the opening swimmer’s death to the blood geyser that is the Kintner killing, JAWS manages to be both brutal and sensitive without pandering to the audience’s heartstrings and becoming overly sentimental.
Robert Shaw’s portrayal of boozy, irascible Orca captain adds a necessary spark to the second half of the movie, and nearly every line of his is entirely quotable. He’s an indelible character, equal parts Mad Hatter and Captain Ahab rolled into one, not to mention the fact that his USS Indianapolis speech is one of the most compelling monologues delivered to film.
Now, as you’ll see in the feud video below, apparently Robert Shaw could be a manipulative bully on set, but the end result is a movie filled with iconic performances. Perhaps the grit in the shell nature Shaw brought with him drove the actors to perform at their highest capabilities. Maybe he was kind of an asshole. Either way, the work stands for itself, and I don’t think anyone else could have pulled off Shaw’s portrayal of the mercurial Quint.
4. John Williams’s Score
Simple, memorable, and effective, John Williams’s alternating E-F da dum score is the backbone of the film’s terrifying emotional charge. Like the giant beast itself, the score lurks in the background, threatening to leap out at any second, and it is arguably the most recognizable of Williams’s efforts.
5. The Camaraderie Among the Brody, Quint, and Hooper (And the Actors Themselves)
Creative strife isn’t always a good think, but sometimes it is. (Just look at the creation of the Black Album or the Use Your Illusion records. Okay, well, I can see some people coming down on the opposite side of those, but damnit I love ’em.) With a harrying production schedule and three actors vying for top billing — which isn’t easy when the fourth is a shark — tensions certainly can grow high.
Trying to imagine a 27 year old Spielberg trying to navigate the egos of Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw, all the while dealing with a shark that didn’t want to be on camera, is nearly impossible. HOWEVER, it comes together in JAWS in a way that benefits the movie, rather than the individual actors.
Sure, there is some real tension visible in the antagonism of Shaw, but there is also a very real sense of shared interest and respect among them, as well. Each character has his strengths, and each character has his flaws, and they are laid bare on the rolling blue mass of the ocean. On the ship, Brody and Hooper compete for the captain’s admiration and respect, while back on land it seems that Quint ingratiates himself with “The Chief” to get a ticket to that sweet $10,000 contract to go and kill Bruce the Shark. Hooper defies authority throughout but takes a certain pride in being able to show Quint his Utility Belt full of Bat-Toys toward the end, once the traditional methods for capturing a shark have proven futile. Overall, it’s an absolute joy to watch the three of them interact, and — really — that camaraderie is what makes the movie so special.
6. The Limited Use of Bruce
Of all the unintentionally brilliant mistakes to come out of a movie, the malfunctioning shark in JAWS might be the most fortuitous. By limiting the shark’s presence onscreen, it vaulted the shark’s status to that of the unseen predator, more like later slasher icons like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhies than the animal attack monsters of its ilk.
Had the movie thrown the shark (figuratively) at the screen every ten minutes or so, it would have come off as the B-rate movie it might very well have been. Rather, you get a few iconic scenes with the shark, and the impact is immediate and apparent. This is not some comical ape come to climb the Empire State Building, nor is it a dude in a suit stomping over a miniature Japan. (Not to take away from those classics.) It is all the horror and mystery of the ocean rolled up into a single, gray-and-white killing machine, a manifestation of man’s fear of the unknown…with teeth.
In other circumstances, with a different approach, JAWS becomes a footnote in Steven Spielberg’s career, perhaps only marginally more notable than, say, The Duel. Instead, it catapulted him to stardom and helped create the blockbuster as we know it today. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw became instant icons, and the movie itself spawned several, albeit subpar, sequels. (JAWS 2 was okay.)
Now, on its 40th Anniversary, it’s actually really a relief to be able to say that the movie holds up. Yeah, the effects look somewhat cheesy, but the distance between JAWS and Jurassic World isn’t nearly as large as JAWS and the movies of 1935. Think of the leap that occurred between the Universal Monsters of yore and Bruce the Shark. It’s something to contemplate, as we hopefully look forward to 40 more years of JAWS terrifying audiences.