Culture

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: The Amity Horror of Jaws

© Universal Studios
© Universal Studios

Earlier this month, the U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph asked, “Killer shark? It must be summer.” Shark Week may not begin until August, but let’s face it: Summer is shark season. From circling fins closing a Long Island beach to an Australian man’s discovery that the music of AC/DC attracts sharks (especially — and you couldn’t make this up — “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”), the arrival of summer brings out shark tales like chum to, well, you know.

It was summer that saw the biggest and (still) best shark tale of them all: “Jaws.” Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of the Peter Benchley bestseller kicked off what we now know as the summer blockbuster phenomenon: the use of big-budget, high-concept movies as money-making studio tentpoles. But it also rocked movie audiences, rooting the notion of man-eating sharks in the popular imagination — effectively doing for the ocean what “Psycho” did for showers. In fact, the film was blamed for low beach attendances that summer.

Though killer sharks are mostly myth — one that authors from Benchley himself to Juliet Eilperin have tried to disprove — it taps into a very real and primal fear of nature. As Elizabeth Hardwick notes in her introduction to Moby-Dick -- a classic precursor to the man-versus-wild narrative of Jaws -- “Ahab has come to identify the white whale as the symbol of all the rage felt by mankind in the face of nature’s destructiveness.” The captain’s quest to destroy Moby-Dick embodies man’s desire to contain nature, a desire that shapes our fascination with its power and informs the popularity of shows like “Deadliest Catch.”

It also goes a long way to explaining how ultimately satisfying the film is. As the plot moves from the beach community of Amity Island to the fishing boat Orca, “Jaws” becomes more of a Moby-Dick-like adventure, its unlikely trio of police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), sea expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and shark hunter Quint (a perfect Robert Shaw), echoing Ishmael, Starbuck, and Ahab. When the pursuit collapses — a failing engine, the destruction of the Orca, death — Brody, a decent man bent on protecting the town despite mayoral interference and his own fear of the water, emerges as its hero by dramatically killing the shark. Earlier, he insists, “In Amity, one man can make a difference.” And it is Brody, rather than the experienced sailor or the scientist, who does so, restoring the balance between nature and man.

These are grand themes, but let’s not forget that “Jaws” remains a cracking horror film. From its simple but bizarrely effective theme to the sparing and timely use of the shark -- and, in one key moment, a disembodied head -- that gradually ratchets up our fear, Spielberg gave us a film that still has the power to thrill and terrify audiences.

  • http://www.rhondaaquino.com Rhonda Aquino

    Favorite movie of all time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Cara

      Definitely one of my favorite movies of all time! Have seen it SO many times, I can recite every line with every character...much to my kids dismay! LOL

  • Richard

    Funny Today I was going through all my books and Moved Jaws up to the Next in line to be read. One of my all time favorite books.

    • RW

      No, reminds me to put Moby Dick back on the list! Besides, while Jaws would take me a couple of hours, Moby Dick will last me the rest of the summer.

  • Nancy

    I make it a point of watching this EVERY July 4th!!

  • http://theformer786.blogspot.com/ The Former 786

    It sounds pathetic, but I had never made the Jaws/Moby Dick connection until just now. Well done! Now I can appreciate that movie in a whole new light!

  • Gregg Kelley

    I watched the movie when i was 6 and that John Williams theme music is still poular in swimming pools, lol. It scared me. Does anyone catch the shooting star above Brody when he goes for the pistol during the nightime partial attack? It is a classic moment if you notice it, there is also one during a pan shot of the Orca. it might have been E.T. lol Look for it, you can`t miss it, a wow, neat moment. It is in my small classic keeper selection along with The Godfather, Casablanca etc. The story, the movie is defnitely a classic. Enjoy it every time i watch it, which is at least a couple times per year since. It`s one of those movies you are and were back then, sorry it was over when they show the beach shot and the credits come on the screen at the end, that momentary ummer feeling you get just before you think what a good movie it was.

  • Treva

    I was twelve when Jaws first came out and it terrified me!!!! My older brother, his friend and my younger brother went as well. The part when Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is under the water to investigate a fisherman's boat that had been mauled really got to us! When that fisherman"s head popped out of the hole in the side of the boat I screamed, my younger brother, who was sitting on my older brother's lap, slid off and onto the floor due to my older brother letting go because he jumped! To this day I love this movie. I've watched it so much I know the dialogue. The book is just as good if you have an active imagination. "Kudos" to both Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg.

  • Steve

    Well I have the pleasure to say that my Uncle, Murray Hamilton, not only starred as the Mayor in Jaws, but also as the Monsignor in "The Amityville Horror".
    Now that's twice as nice!

    • Treva

      What a great actor!. I think he did an awesome job in the The Graduate as well. To know someone, especially an uncle, who helped make film/s history is something to be very proud of. Thanks for sharing.

    • Diane

      @Steve That's awesome! He played the part of the shifty mayor in JAWS so well. Great contribution to a great film :)

  • Alex Kintner

    This movie is as fresh and frightening as was in 1975. The perfect balance of horror and fascination. The actors were awesome, and that young director knew a thing or two about attention to detail. Jaws is the greatest of all summer films!

    • Cara

      Alex Kintner?! Too funny! :-)

  • dementa

    I argue that Jaws is scarier, because sharks are scarier than whales. They have those giant gaping mouths, jagged teeth, and dead soulless eyes.

    • Indianapolis

      not souless. Black eyes. Like a dolls' eyes.

  • Les

    This movie is one that helps define my generation. I was so terrified of the story, I couldn't even sit through the trailer when it was in the theaters. Then I learned to watch it to master my fear and enjoy my perennial crush on Richard Dreyfuss. (During my first viewing of the movie, my Dad teased me by repeating "He gets eaten in the book." Now it's probably my favorite film and one my husband and I enjoy discussing and quoting. My sister lives in the area where the film was shot and last summer we were delighted to recognize the ferry which still works in those waters. Lives change and we're all getting older but Jaws is perfect, it remains the same.

  • Chase

    showed it to a few friends of mine who had not seen it (I don't know how) I was surprised how effective the suspense and thrills were, they jumped and screamed and thoroughly enjoyed the movie, having grown up watching the classic I had almost forgotten how scary the film can be until I watched it with my friend who had not seen it truly a great great film

  • MikeE

    Not only frightening and well-shot, this is also a truly beautiful film. The composition of every scene is meticulously thought-out and constructed in a way so few films are now. Watch the movie, and pause it at regular intervals, then just LOOK at the screen. It's beautiful. A true work of art.

  • Mark

    I appreciate Jaws even more as a mature adult. The malfunctioning mechanical shark caused Speilberg to have to focus on the story, the characters ansd the tension...and made it a masterpiece.

    • Diane

      @Mark. So true. It's so much more than just a horror film. One of the greatest films ever thanks to Spielberg, perfect cast, and editor Verna Fields.

  • http://bearmanormedia.bizland.com/id389.html Ben Ohmart

    There's a book on the Jaws series. I've linked it here.

  • Kathy

    I love reading Jaws and other Peter Benchley books at the beach . . . do it every summer

  • michu

    I saw Jaws on it's opening weekend back in 1975, and is still one of the top 10 movies on my list til this day. However, I feel this movie has been incorrectly labeled as a "Horror" film. I always saw Jaws as an action/adventure film with elements of terror. A "men on a mission" film to be more exact. What made Jaws the classic it is other than the heart stopping tension was the charismatic camaraderie of the 3 leads, Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. Shaw's Quint should have gotten and oscar nomination for his performance, one of the true Iconic film characters of all time. You can practically smell the saltwater and booze emanating from him off the screen.

  • Cindie

    I live in SE Massachusetts and Spielberg captured the lovely New England summer so well.

    When Jaws first came out, I saw it at a drive-in with my boyfriend. Another couple was in the car next to us. We both screamed when the shark first dragged the swimming girl into the ocean.

    Best summer movie ever.

    • Tom

      Just a technicality, but Amity island is in New York which is NOT part of New England.

      • TJ

        You're absolutely right (see my comment below). However, the movie was shot on Martha's Vineyard.

  • jj

    My college mate saw Jaws while on vacation. He went scuba diving the next day, and was shocked to notice that he had drained his two tanks in half the time. He didn't think he was nervous, yet he was breathing much faster...
    ('we're gonna need a bigger tank!")

  • TJ

    I was swimming in the Atlantic off Long Island right before i saw JAWS. Never did that again...

  • TJ

    Tom is right. However, Amity is not an island, it is a town on the south shore of Long Island called Amityville (remember the Amityville Horror?)

Live a Life Well-Read Get the best of news, culture, and books delivered weekly. Join the Signature newsletter