Jaws is so often referred to as the exact moment that the New Hollywood went from artists to moneymakers. It did more than that; it decreased the number of people that visited beaches in the year after its wake and conservation groups often name the movie as one of the main reasons why sharks are on the endangered list. Author Peter Benchley has even been quoted as saying that he wouldn’t have written the novel had he known what sharks were really like.
It took Steven Spielberg from a director who had only done The Sugarland Express and TV movies like Duel into a proven creator of mainstream pleasing films. And the three notes in the theme has become a mnemonic for a foreboding sense of doom.
The film’s three stars — Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss — aren’t truly stars. They’re everymen who could be destroyed by the shark at any moment. There’s no way of knowing who, if any, of them will survive (and what will be left of them).
This wouldn’t have been possible if Brody had been played by Charlton Heston or Robert Duvall. Quint was almost played by Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden. And Hooper could have been Jon Voight, Timothy Bottoms, Joel Grey or Jeff Bridges. All of these choices would lead to a completely different movie and less of a chance to capture lightning in a bottle.
Yet for all the chum that has been slung at this movie for initiating the wave of the blockbuster, it’s curiously against the mainstream. The politicians of Amity only care for one thing — making money — despite the obvious threat against life. And there are three poles of man at the end of the 20th century — Hooper, the educated man who depends on technology; Quint, the filth spewing warrior who is unashamed and unafraid; and Brody, a man who exists between two of them, who must overcome his fear of the water to save his children — everyone’s children, really — from nature’s most perfect predator. Quint must perish — he’s the last of a dying breed — as a sacrifice so that the new ways can be inspired by the past and remember them.
My own experience with Jaws was limited as a child; I was three when it came out. I do remember my father discussing the sequel at length with a cousin — it’s one of the first endings I ever had spoiled for me — and I vividly recall the Ideal game where each player had a small hook and had to pull parts out of the belly of the Great White beast before it snapped against your little tiny child fingers.
Jaws changed how we experience movies. It changed how movies were released — instead of a slow rollout, it hit 465 screens all at once in the summer, a time when studios mostly got rid of movies they saw as schlock. And it changed how they were marketed, with $1.8 million spent promoting it, including $700,000 on national TV spots. The big spending — including doubling the film’s filming budget — led to a $470 worldwide gross, numerous sequels, ripoffs and years later, this page you’re reading right now.
For a movie that started without a finished script, no set actors and no shark — to paraphrase a Dreyfuss quote — things ended up working out just fine.
This article originally appeared in Drive-In Asylum Special Issue #4, which you can buy here.