Statement of fact: Jaws is the greatest summer movie ever made. We do not live in the “Age of The Blockbuster.” Studios have been operating under the “blockbuster model” for about forty years now and the word “age” implies that it will end someday. Not likely; the blockbuster is here to stay. This is not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just the way it is. It is the way it is because in the summer of 1975 Steven Spielberg’s Jaws made a lot of money. Jaws made a lot of money because it’s really, really good.
Watching Jaws now, with the knowledge that it is the first of the modern blockbusters, one can’t help but notice how far it strays from the unwritten rules of the summer movie; it is not focused on spectacle (famously, the shark remains unseen for film’s first two-thirds), its scope is relatively small, and it is dark. Seriously, a child and a dog are killed in this movie, anathema for most blockbusters, and its ending is weird combination of triumphant and bleak. The film is frequently categorized as a horror movie but that description does not seem quite accurate. Jaws is a horror movie in the way that Spielberg’s later Jurassic Park is a horror movie; there are some scares (Jaws has one of the great jump-scares of all time, not the one you’re thinking of), but the film’s intention is to thrill, not horrify. Really it is an adventure film, with three heroes setting out to sea to destroy the monster that has been terrorizing a defenseless town.
Jaws is both a classic “Boy’s Adventure” and subversion of the “Boy’s Adventure.” Yes, the three heroes who set out to kill the shark are men, but only one of them, shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) is the macho “man-of-action” typical of the genre, the others are a loving family man who is afraid to go on the water (Roy Scheider), and a nerdy marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss). The action is viewed mostly through the eyes of the family man, Chief Brody, and the nerd, Hooper, with Quint, the crusty sea captain representing a old-fashioned, or outdated, form of masculinity, a form of masculinity that manifests itself in pride and recklessness that exacerbates danger. Spielberg clearly sees traditional “manly” masculinity as somewhat ridiculous, as evidenced by the great scene in which Hooper and Quint compare scars:
This scene is contrasted by an earlier one in which Brody enjoys the company of the younger of his two sons:
This scene comes after Brody has been taken to task by the bereaved Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fiero) for allowing the beach to remain open to the public after the initial shark attack, resulting in the death of her son Alex (Jeffrey Vorhees). The scene is amazingly tender, Brody is taking comfort in his child but that comfort is tinged with the knowledge that Mrs. Kintner can no longer do the same with her own child. Brody’s masculinity is one that allows for self-doubt, weakness, and affection and there is no doubt that Spielberg prefers it to Quint’s retrograde brand.
The cast is tremendously good, not just Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss as the leads but also Lorraine Gary as Brody’s wife Ellen and Murray Hamilton as Amityville’s doofus mayor. Much of the credit for the film’s quality can be given to Spielberg who, with his second theatrical feature, proved to be one of the great masters (if not the great master) of his craft, but props must be given to the crackerjack editing of Verna Fields and John Williams’ iconic score. It’s a perfect movie. Really, if you somehow haven’t seen it yet, don’t go to the movies again until you’ve watched Jaws.