Whenever people ask me to explain what’s so great about widescreen, I tell this story. For years, the only way I’d ever seen Jaws — after that first terrified theatrical viewing — was the yearly showing on ABC. It was usually on a summer Sunday night, it was usually played up as a big event, and my butt was parked in front of the television for the duration. My love for the film was definitely born from those network airings. But it grew up when I got the widescreen version on VHS and saw the Indianapolis scene. I mean really saw it. Panned and scanned, all we’d ever seen was Robert Shaw giving that unforgettable monologue. But watching the widescreen version and being able to see Richard Dreyfuss sitting next to him, his expression going from one of amused skepticism to one of awestruck respect as he listened, well, to paraphrase Quint, “I’ll never watch a cropped film again.” Suddenly, Jaws was a brand new film for me, one I’d only seen part of for so many years.
And as familiar as I am with it, Jaws still feels fresh every time I watch it. Part of it is that, for being set in the 70s, it has a timeless quality to it. Aside from some truly awe-inspiring leisure suits on Mayor Vaughn, there’s really not a lot that firmly sets it down in the time period. And once Quint, Brody and Hooper are out on the water, it could just as easily be 2005 as it is 1975. So it doesn’t feel like we’re watching some old movie from thirty-five years ago, and that quality makes it so easy to become re-absorbed into the story.
But while the film isn’t simply a product of its time, a consideration of what was happening when the film was released can be pretty revealing. Jaws debuted in June of 1975, two months after the fall of Saigon and the conclusion of the Vietnam War. The country was less than a year removed from the resignation of President Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. The country had just lost a war and a president and was probably at its lowest point in living memory. In that light, it’s hard not to see Quint, Brody and Hooper as three competing versions of America, who had so recently clashed over Vietnam: the rough-hewn, experienced elder, the steady, even-headed adult, and the brash, confident youth. The rivalry between Quint and Hooper is particularly revealing, a clash between old and new, neither wanting to give any ground to the other. And when they do, it’s grudgingly, either with the assistance of copious amounts of alcohol as in the dinner scene where the Indianapolis speech takes place, or when all other options seem to have run out, as when Quint finally asks Hooper just what he can do with the shark cage he brought on board. The irony is, of course, that Quint and Hooper aren’t really all that different. They’re both obsessed with sharks in their own way, even if they come at their obsession from different places, and they’re both much more at home aboard the Orca than Brody is. But in the end, neither the brute force of Quint nor the technical prowess of Hooper wins out; it’s the staunch determination of Brody that carries the day, sticking to his guns on a sinking ship. The two extremes of the Vietnam era fail, while the calmer middle succeeds when everything is falling apart.
There is one thing that ticks me off about Jaws, and it’s really not the film’s fault. It’s how people just assume the entire score is nothing but unending variations of that ominous two-note motif. As effective as that piece of music is, and as brilliantly as it’s used in the film as a musical stand-in for the shark, John Williams’ score is so much more than that. For example, there’s a jaunty sea shanty-esque tune that accompanies the Orca as it sets out to sea, one which morphs over the course of the film from sprightly to boldly adventurous to quietly contemplative over the closing credits. It’s an amazingly adaptable piece of music, and in a lot of ways feels like a dry run for the much more extensive use of leitmotif Williams would employ two years later for Star Wars.
Speaking of that final scene, it’s one of the best endings ever. It’s not victorious, it’s not heroic, it’s simply two weary men who’ve endured. The music is almost mournful, and the credits roll over Hooper and Brody struggling ashore after their ordeal, to be greeted not by a grateful crowd, but by the ominous final note of the score, a reminder that man’s victories over nature are fleeting at best. The whole sequence is just masterfully understated, and all the more effective for it.
But I’m sort of losing the ocean for the water here. Jaws is pretty near an absolutely perfect film, and the growth Spielberg showed between Sugarland Express and this is exponential. It’s as if he just had to get that first feature under his belt for the full breadth of his talent to spring forth, and the film really is a tour de force for him. It’s an achievement made all the more remarkable by the incredibly difficult shoot the film was, and all the more so by the fact that Spielberg was dealing with all of this at the relatively inexperienced age of 29. But for all the chaos behind the scenes, the film is so assured and confident that you’d think they’d wrapped on-time and under budget. It’s perfectly cast, and if every once in a while the mechanical shark is pretty obviously a mechanical shark, well, nobody believes that’s a real giant gorilla in the original King Kong either, but the spell still works its magic.
A month or so ago, I listed Jaws as my favorite movie of all time in one of those 30 Day Movie Challenges on Facebook. I also mentioned that, if you asked me again a month later, I’d probably go with a different film. And here we are, a month later, and as you can see by Jaws‘ position, that’s exactly what happened. But Jaws will always be in contention for me. It’s one of those rare movie experiences that is just a brimming with fun and excitement regardless of how many times you’ve seen it and how well you know what’s coming next. It’s a horror movie with genuine humor, an adventure movie with real scares, a character drama with a giant shark in it. It’s simply one of the best films ever made.
Tomorrow: This? This is history.