Updated: Jun 24
Everyone remembers the first time they saw Jaws. Whether in a packed cinema in 1975 or later on television or VHS, most people have a distinct recollection of that first viewing and how it affected them. Stephen Spielberg’s hit film helped invent the ‘summer blockbuster’ and had people lined up around the blocks in the summer of 1975 as people came back again and again, looking to re-experience the thrills.
From the first moments of the film, the sweeping underwater cinematography combines with the seminal John Williams score to immediately set the tone, informing the viewer they will be taken on a ride. Following the underwater credits, we see Chrissie making that fateful decision to take an impromptu nighttime dip in the ocean. Spielberg builds the tension masterfully as Chrissie’s silhouetted limbs carve through the still, moonlit water. He cuts to a view from below, letting us know something lurks in the depths. The following shark attack is savage, as the unseen predator grabs Chrissie and jerks her violently through the water before plucking her from the hoped-for safety of a buoy. Meanwhile, the drunken boy meant to join her falls asleep on the beach, unaware of her fate.
An iconic opening to an iconic film that hasn’t aged a day in terms of storytelling power & craft, even if the world looks a lot different then than it does today. But I’m not here to break down how amazing this film is. You’ve all seen it, and far better writers have written countless articles and books on the genius of Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel - a potboiler that was improved by screenwriter Carl Gottlieb & the various rumoured uncredited writers (John Milius & Robert Shaw have both famously taken credit for Quint’s famous Indianapolis scene). Instead, I want to share my personal experiences of Jaws, a top 5 film for me, as it was one of the first two movies I ever saw (the other being Star Wars) at the tender age of four.
It was 1981, and my family and I stayed in a hotel in Hamilton, New Zealand, while my grandfather was in hospital, succumbing to cancer. Although I had been told what was happening, I don’t think I was fully aware of his illness’s severity. The permanence of death was a concept I had yet to grasp, having not yet experienced the loss of a loved one. I spent my days playing in the nondescript motor lodge’s courtyard and watching Star Wars on the in-house video channel. One afternoon, my Aunty called me inside to “come and see the big fish.” I ran into the hotel room just in time to see Quint dying horribly in the mouth of an enormous Great White shark. I was frozen with fear - horrified but transfixed. Noticing my distraught face, my Aunty told me not to worry. “Those teeth are made of cardboard, and the blood is just tomato sauce.” Thanks for attempting to assuage my terrified mind Aunty Pam, but that didn’t help one bit.
The next day I watched the entire movie. I can only imagine that my family’s traumatic time may have loosened the parental jurisdiction over my viewing habits. Or maybe they thought if I could handle ‘the gobbling of Quint’, I could take the rest of the film. I watched Jaws & Star Wars over and over again that week, oscillating between thrilling space adventures and white-knuckled terror on the ocean.
When my Grandfather finally passed away, it felt illusory and intangible. My most recent example of death was the bloody viscera of Quint’s demise on the Orca. But as strange as it sounds, those horrifying images on the TV helped me reconcile the passing from life into death, showing me that the loss of life was a permanent event from which there was no return. Just as Quint was gone from the picture, my grandfather had also gone away for good. The man who had taught me to read and write by taking me for long walks on the beach, where he wrote letters and words in the sand with his walking stick for me to learn. Because of those pre-school lessons, I developed a deep love of reading and writing, which affected and shaped the course of my life.
Not surprisingly, I also developed a deep, abiding fear of water. Not just seawater, either. No, I was scared of taking a bath, lest the bottom dropped away, plunging me into black shark-infested waters. The toilet was also a no-go zone in case a shark leapt forth from the bowl & devoured my manhood; a very reasonable fear to have, I’m sure. To combat this, my mother bought me a toy pistol to shoot the shark when it rose from the depths of the porcelain bowl. Hey, I was four years old!
My subsequent exposure to Jaws was in the form of Peter Benchley’s novel. I was now eight years old and went to stay with my grandmother in the small beachside town (not unlike Amity) where she lived. She ran the local library and was just as instrumental in my love for the written word as my grandfather had been. For some reason, she allowed me to get Jaws out of her library. I had already been reading sci-fi and fantasy novels but never something as adult as this. It had all the film’s deep-sea terror, but that is not what stayed with me on this go-around with the great white shark. No, it was the illicit affair that developed between Ellen Brody and Hooper (the marine biologist who has come to Amity to advise Chief Brody on how to tackle the shark problem) that affected me. There are things eight-year-olds probably shouldn’t read at such a young age, be it people getting eaten by a great white shark or lengthy and graphic sex scenes, both of which feature in Benchley’s book. Let’s just say the words “wet vagina” were seared onto my much too young mind. Thanks, Peter Benchley, for both the fear of water and confusing sexual imagery.
Next came the glorious era of free-to-air television in the mid to late 1980s that regularly played the first three Jaws movies. I first watched Jaws 2 on our small black and white 4:3 TV, not that the less-than-ideal viewing conditions dampened my enthusiasm for it. Even at nine or so years old, I knew it wasn’t as good as the original, but I still loved it. It was much more of a slasher movie with a shark stalking the group of teens instead of a masked maniac. Instead of a summer camp or the dark woods, the teens became trapped out on the open sea in small yachts. A ‘contractually obliged to return’ Roy Schneider still gives his all in the sequel, which also starts the ongoing trend of having members of the Brody family facing the next hungry Great White in future instalments. Last-minute director Jeannot Szwarc effectively apes Spielberg’s signature style, and the cast of teens (including a young Keith Gordon who would tussle with a supernatural car in Christine a few years later) are a likeable bunch, making their deaths that much more affecting. John Williams also returned, once again turning in a masterful score by expanding on his original themes.
Jaws 3 (minus the D) I saw on VHS not long after, and of course, again, I loved it. The change from Amity to Sea World in Florida was a wise decision, even if the movie suffers from some shoddy FX work and little reason to exist other than milking the cash (sea)cow. The ending, where the shark rams into the underwater command centre’s control room, is marred by some of the worst FX in a mainstream movie of the era, with an unmoving torpedo-like shark hitting the glass and freezing in place for some reason.
Next came Jaws The Revenge, an even bigger travesty of a film that introduces the ridiculous idea that the shark has a vendetta against the Brody family and follows them to the Bahamas to enact its ‘revenge.’ This one does hold a special place in my heart though, as to date, it is the only Jaws movie I have seen on the big screen. Despite its utter ridiculousness, there were a couple of worthwhile moments - the opening kill was particularly bloody; the banana boat scene; Mario Van Peebles somehow surviving certain death and Michael Caine hamming it up, clearly enjoying being in the Bahamas & the paycheque (he famously admitted as such). I felt bad for Lorraine Gary though, who finally gets the spotlight after two great and under-heralded performances in the first two films, only for it to be the hokiest and least scary of the series. The tragedy is that there could have been a good version of this story. Imagine that Ellen Brody is severely traumatised after the death of her husband. So much so that when a Great White starts attacking people in the Bahamas, she travels there to launch a personal revenge against the creature that has destroyed her life. Then her sons Michael and Sean follow her there on a rescue mission and are drawn into the shark hunt. The family then has to work together to kill the shark and hopefully allow Ellen some peace. That would’ve made more sense than the shark following them and would've been a nice thematic wrap-up for the Brody family.
Thankfully, Universal stopped making them after the fourth one before more damage could be done to the patchy franchise, which consisted of one of the greatest films ever made, a fun sequel and two duds. The fact there hasn’t been another Jaws film since 1987 means common sense has prevailed, and the powers that be realised the lightning-in-a-bottle perfection of Spielberg’s film will probably never be recaptured.
Jaws remains one of my favourite films - every re-watch confirms that it is much more than simple nostalgia that resonates with me so strongly. The film mixes horror, adventure, and thriller into a man-against-nature parable. It was expertly woven together by the twenty six-year-old wunderkind Steven Spielberg, who fought against a constantly malfunctioning mechanical shark (“the shark is not working”), budget blowouts and running over schedule to pull off a miracle of filmmaking. My kids are (arguably) too young to watch Jaws (although my son is the same age I was when I first watched it) now, but I anticipate the day when we get to sit down together and take a trip to the busy beaches of Amity, Long Island and the dark waters where a silent killer swims (and eats) reminding us of our place on the food chain.
* This article was originally published on Horror Oasis.