Did Steven Spielberg ever make a more important film than Jaws? Whether or not he has made a greater film is open to (a no doubt heated) debate, but what remains is the fact that cinema would look quite different today if not for Spielberg’s in every way monstrous sensation. Spielberg’s formidable hit was released on June 20th 1975 after a groundbreaking deluge of televisual advertising and stands as the industry’s first major blockbuster, ushering with it a paradigmatic shift within Hollywood towards high-profile tentpole releases that has been sustained over the four decades since its initial release.
Both an innovator and a classical filmmaker – see Raiders of the Lost Ark for further evidence – Spielberg appropriated aspects of Universal’s own legacy of monster movies and married them together with the thrills and suspense of a Hitchcock film, moulding Peter Benchley’s novel into his first masterpiece as a director. Upon release the film opened on 464 screens throughout North America and went on to earn $470 million at the worldwide box office, a figure that secured its position as the highest earning film of all time until the release of Star Wars in 1977.
Before signing on as director of Jaws, Steven Spielberg was still very much an up-and-comer and certainly not the star director he is today. Despite attracting critical attention for both his 1971 TV movie Duel and his feature debut The Sugarland Express in 1974, the twenty-seven year old director still remained a relatively untested talent. But these were the years of New Hollywood, a period famed for successful risk-taking. In 1972, for instance, fellow New Hollywood filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola turned The Godfather, a violent tale of intergenerational conflict within a New York crime family, into a critical and commercial triumph.
Universal originally courted director John Sturges (famed for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape) for the gig before finally granting Spielberg the role as director. Despite commercial popularity, critical reactions to Benchley’s novel had been somewhat mixed; Spielberg himself echoed many of the critics’ concerns over the likability of its central characters and the convoluted nature of the novel’s plotting and requested several rewrites (some of which by Benchley himself) before production began in 1974. Some of the rewrites were in fact a necessary response to casting decisions made – for example the role of Hooper was rewritten after Richard Dreyfuss was given the role in order to cater to the actor’s qualities on screen. The casting is truly spot on: Dreyfuss’ geeky marine scientist Hooper is joined by Roy Scheider’s police chief Brody and Robert Shaw as veteran fisherman Quint, together forming the team tasked with tracking down the notorious, bloodthirsty great white. The nighttime cabin sequence in which Quint relays a tale regarding the fates of the crew of USS Indianapolis remains one of the great moments of American film.
Despite boasting excellent performances from all of its central trio, Spielberg himself is without doubt the star of the show. The production itself was a famously fraught affair with major delays, copious extra costs, and various special effects dilemmas surrounding the use of a mechanical great white named Bruce (as he was referred to on set). It was, in fact, Bruce’s numerous technical failings that led to the film’s unrelenting tension. Due to his prop’s shortcomings Spielberg was left with no choice but to use a suggestive shooting style, rely on Verna Field’s careful editing, and integrate John Williams’s iconic and menacing score to construct a sense of presence-through-absence for the unreliable protagonist. In doing so Spielberg created a masterpiece of suspense of which even Hitchcock would have been proud.
The film’s release in summer 1975 was spearheaded by an unprecedented advertising campaign at Universal’s considerable expense – the figure, $1.8 million, was twenty per cent of the film’s already substantially bloated budget. Until this point studios would use word of mouth to generate interest as films moved from city to city throughout the United States and beyond; Jaws, however, was released simultaneously throughout North America, a method which led to its explosive reception at the box office.
The film was met with considerable praise by critics at the time and its reputation has grown to the extent that it is now ranked among the very best of all American films. While the film was awarded three Oscars for editing, score, and sound, so great is its reputation, Jaws could rightly be called hard done by for losing out in a Best Picture race against Nashville, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, and eventual winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In one of the strongest Best Picture contests of all time it is testament to Jaws’ enduring legacy that the film stands tall among some of the greatest of the New Hollywood era. Jaws, like many of the films in Spielberg’s career, has scored an uncontestable place in the hearts of film fans for all time. Happy birthday, Bruce!