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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

A 5D love letter to Jaws

Forty years - bloody hell. If you say it quick enough it doesn't sound that bad. Actually it doesn't matter one jot how quickly you say it. Forty years - bloody hell.

I was a mere 9 years old when it was first released in my home town in early 1976. Yes I know I've said it before, but generally the 1970's were rather crap when it came to the UK having to wait its turn for the big releases.There were none of the near-simultaneous releases around the world that we enjoy these days. In those dim and distant days films in the US were often released sometimes many months before they came over here to the UK. Jaws was no exception, having been released in the States in the previous summer and then becoming a monster (see what I did there? Sorry, I’ll get my coat.) of a money accumulator as it single-handedly invented the summer blockbuster. All we could do here in Europe was twiddle our fingers as we watched and heard about the excitement that was taking place across the pond. I suppose though in a way it did help to provide a continuous building up of excitement through the months because by the time it came to the initial release at the end of December here in the UK - the anticipation was barely controllable. In January 1976, everything over here just went Great White Shark crazy as British cinemas felt the onslaught of the movie going public. It seemed that everyone but everyone in the country was trying to see the film.

Well except for me..........

The problem was that I wasn't allowed to go and see what had the most anticipated cinematic event at that point in the decade. It was all my parents fault. The problem was that they too had heard the kafuffle that the film was causing and deemed the content far too violent for my seemingly delicate 10 year old sensitivities. Even then my parents didn’t know me. No matter how much I begged, sulked or threatened to go on an immediate hunger strike the answer was still no. Even when I showed them that it was a mere ‘A’ certificate which meant it was more than ok for a boy of my age to see, the answer was no. Even when I told them that my best friend Paul had asked his parents and they said that he could go, the answer was still a resounding no. I hated them and I hated my life. They still said no.

Now my parents have never been ones to fully embrace the idea of logical thinking, and this particular episode was a prime example of that. My sulking must have exceeded even my own quite spectacular heights of moodiness at feeling that life was simply not worth living (I had yet to discover Star Wars, of course). I knew this because my Dad decided that if I couldn’t go and watch the film I could at least read the novel that it was based upon.

What they obviously hadn’t done was check the book first – forget the far more descriptive accounts of violent death it contained, forget the immensely unlikable characters that inhabit the literary version or that the film adaptation (like many films do) quite radically deviated and jettisoned many of the book’s sub-plots thereby possible ruining any appreciation of when I would actually get to see the film. The way things were going it felt that I would probably not get to see the film until I was about 30. They obviously hadn’t proof-read the book to realise that it also contained a couple of rather graphic sex scenes (well they were for the age I was at the time) from the adulterous affair between Hooper and Brody’s wife. Every cloud and all that, I suppose……

When Jaws began its second run in our town about a year later my parents finally relented and agreed that now I was a working man of means (Newspaper delivery boy, extraordinaire!) I could now go.  Either that or I had eventually worn them down with my incessant sulking. To be Frank, the past year had been hell with most of my friends (yes I did have some) having been to see it on numerous occasions. Of course, being my friends and considerate of my feelings they would regularly rub my nose in it and by referring to me as the ‘Jaws Virgin’. Bastards.

I went to see it a grand total of 8 and a half times in the first month - the half a time was due to me sneaking into the screening from another film so bad that I had left halfway through, for the life of me I can’t remember what the film was. I snook into a spare seat just in time for me to see the Orca leaving Amity harbour to take on the beast. 

I have no doubt that there are many other filmgoers that could testify to watching Jaws more times than me, in all honesty I've lost count on just how many times over the years I may have indeed seen it. The number must be in the many hundreds by now. In those early days I quickly learnt to enjoy a new game, which essentially involved me watching the audience reactions in those key "holy shit!!!!" moments. My favourite one was the scene where Ben Gardner’s head would come bobbing out from the bottom of his boat. Just before the moment arrived I would steal a glance at the unsuspecting member of the audience who had never seen the film and wait in anticipation for their predictable reaction. It was always worthwhile and while I'm not too sure what this says about me as a person, but I enjoyed it immensely every single time.

As the years progressed and I developed into the immensely mature and sophisticated man that I am now (shut up) I began to view the movie for a variety of other reasons. I will leave it up to others who are far more eloquent and knowledgeable about the film itself, Spielberg’s direction or the movie business in general to talk about what makes Jaws so technically and emotionally perfect. What I really just want to do is convey my personal level of adoration for a film that, even after countless viewings, never fails to hit the spot in this here bloggers cold, cold heart.

Even after 40 years (say it quickly) my love for this film has never waned, not one single jot. Indeed, if at all possible it has increased. A lot has been said over the years about the tortured and often chaotic production of the movie which meant that the original 55 day target for filming eventually mushroomed into three times the projected length – and with it so mushroomed the budget. Part of the delay was down to the numerous mechanical problems of the Shark model which severely impacted on its appearance during the filming process. The bloody thing simply failed to work when placed in the salt water environment. A lesser director may well have panicked at the thought of the films main focus missing from the screen. However the genius of Spielberg was to use what could have been a catastrophic problem to his advantage by using the time honoured maxim employed by the likes of Hitchcock of the ‘less is more’ approach. By leaving much of the Shark itself to the imagination of the audience the result was to simply rank up the tension from the very first moments as the opening credits appeared. That early scene of the POV of the shark swimming whilst accompanied by the cunningly simple yet highly effective musical score is pure class.

There are numerous other stories surrounding the filming that have now passed into folklore, and whether they're all true is simply immaterial to me. If anything they add to the aura that the film has achieved in the last four decades, and which still continues to do so.
Take for example that due to endless script re-writes and other pre-production problems, the casting of two essential characters, Quint and Hooper had yet to be finalised just none days before filming was due to commence . Even when the roles were sorted and filming began the script was still being constantly revised. If that wasn’t enough, once those roles were filled it quickly became apparent that the relationship between Richard Dreyfuss (Hooper) and Robert Shaw (Quint) was at times tense and at other times simply bordered on nasty. Once again this could have proved to be problematic in terms of getting a finished product together, yet this volatile working relationship between the two actors literally transferred itself to perfectly exemplify the very same on-screen relationship of the characters. If you add to that the brilliance of Roy Scheider’s wonderfully underplayed Chief Brody and the result was perhaps one of the finest ensemble pieces in contemporary cinema.
Whether it is folklore or not that Scheider improvised the “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” is by the by. The thought that one of the great lines of dialogue could have come from a spur of the moment piece of actor’s inspiration is enough for me. Genius.

Which brings me onto to my favourite scene from Jaws. No it’s not one of the attacks, the Ben Gardner head shot or the shark chase on the Orca. No, mine is 3 mins 34 secs of Robert Shaw’s account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. It is 3 mins 34 sec mins of spellbinding and mesmerising storytelling from an actor who (despite, or possibly because of, certain personal negative attributes) was clearly still at the top of his game.  Once again folklore and myth has clouded the origins and final presentation of the dialogue, but it’s safe to say that writers Howard Sackler and John Milius and Robert Shaw himself all contributed to it. What cannot be denied however is that this speech deserves to be included and immortalised in the all-time movie lists. Watch the delivery and listen to the words – once again, genius.

Hooper: You were on the Indianapolis? 
Brody: What happened? 

Quint: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen footer. You know, you know that when you're in the water, chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. 

Well, we didn't know. 'Cause our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent, huh. They didn't even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, chief. The sharks come cruisin'. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. You know it's... kinda like 'ol squares in battle like uh, you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man and then he'd start poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes.

You know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin'. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin' and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin' and the hollerin' they all come in and rip you to pieces. 

Y'know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don't know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don't know how many men, they averaged six an hour. 

On Thursday mornin' chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, Bosun's Mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top. Up ended. Well... he'd been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low and he saw us. He's a young pilot, a lot younger than Mr. Hooper, anyway he saw us and come in low. And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and start to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin' for my turn. I'll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. 

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

See what I mean?.................Genius.



  1. Shaw delivered that speech all in one take, making even more amazing than it already is. He also penned most f it himself (getting a few facts wrong) but the other actors were not expecting what came out of his mouth, so their reaction is quite genuine. Genius indeed.

    1. You know, I've often wondered whether it was a 'one take' speech so thanks for clearing that up for me. You're dead right, the look in Dreyfuss's face is one of genuine astonishment.

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