When you head out to the cinema this winter in search of dinosaurs, superheroes and intergalactic shenanigans, remember that in the early 1970s such big budget showcases were nowhere to be seen. The [northern hemisphere] summer blockbuster was unheard of. In fact, summer was considered a poor time for releasing movies: people wanted to be outdoors, enjoying the sun, not cooped up in some mildew infected movie theatre.
In 1974, the top grossing blockbusters – The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Godfather Part II and Airport ‘75 – were all released around Christmas; the ‘appropriate time’ to go to the cinema.
Whether it was based on the new fascination with disaster movies, or a deliberate attempt to strike fear into an audience more likely to be swimming in the sea at that time, the decision to release Jaws in June 1975 was to prove a game changer.
Released 40 years ago this month, Jaws took more at the box office than its nearest rivals (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest) combined, a record it held until a small film called Star Wars appeared two years later and drew a new line in the sand.
Despite the soulless, style-over-substance pap of many of today’s summer blockbusters, it’s easy to forget just what an amazing film Jaws was, and is. It is more than a film about a rubber shark; it’s a film about people and the impact of fear on a small community. In fact, it has more to do with the 1970s trend of erstwhile filmmaking, using gritty, socially astute and humanistic stories rather than blatantly attempting to milk audiences of their hard earned dollars.
Directed by a 29-year old Steven Spielberg, from a bestselling novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws dissects the frailties of good people put under extraordinary pressure. It’s testimony to Spielberg’s skill as a director (as well as a shortfall on an effects budget) that the final appearance of the shark is almost inconsequential. From the opening strings of John Williams’ two-note motif, to the men against fish finale, the mere suggestion of the beast chills us to the bone.
Performances by the three main leads, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfus are career defining, and that’s saying something. Although there were tensions on the set, the energy manifests itself on screen in the most positive of ways. Scheider’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, Dreyfus’ flippant realisation, “You’re all going to die”, and Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue are still as relevant and spine chilling 40 years on.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it, be warned. This is not a film about special effects. It’s a film about tension, fear and character. How many summer blockbusters since can say that? Genius.
Words by Colin Bushell