Today is the Fourth of July. The day Americans ignore their problematic history and barbecue the current political landscape out of mind. With sunburns and beer we light off disappointing, illegal fireworks in the street and curse the mosquitoes who try to ruin our celebration. Every year this has been a tradition to celebrate a landmark in American history. It was today only 43 years ago that a gigantic shark held the waters of a New England beach town hostage and ravaged anyone who dared to fight for its safe return. The event earned its historic name, Jaws, only after the beast was destroyed by an American hero. To celebrate our triumph, the Fourth of July was born.
Amity Island is a popular beach town and thrives solely on its summer tourism. When Fourth of July weekend hits, the town is buzzing, and not about the fireworks. Shark attacks are terrorizing the guests of the town while the mayor refuses to close the beaches. It’s up to the new sheriff, a shark hunter and a scientist to put a stop to the madness. Little did they know, this creature was no measly nursery shark.
Okay, okay, you got me. The Fourth of July isn’t about Spielberg’s breakout movie, Jaws. But that doesn’t mean this movie didn’t cause some major changes that would effect modern history. Jaws was released at a time when people and researchers knew very little about sharks. However after the panic this movie caused in audiences across the country, researchers worked relentlessly to learn more as fishers became fiends of the sea.
At the time, Jaws sparked a unprecedented (and uncalled for) war on sharks. The remains of the shark hysteria have lasted as they are still killed at an alarming rate to this day as the targets of poaching. Yet today, Jaws remains the reason researchers learned about these creatures and educated those who were originally scared. What was once the reason for mass chaos is now the origin of a dedicated shark conservation effort.
Not only did this movie cause unexpected environmental changes, Jaws made waves in the movie industry as well. As I mentioned, this film was Steven Spielberg’s big break. After some success with his distinctive style, he was hired to direct Jaws. When the film blew up, so did he. This film launched Spielberg into an elite class of directors and his style became one to be studied and emulated by movie buffs around the world. Without this summer blockbuster, Spielberg may have never gotten his big break in time to create Raiders of the Lost Arc or E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
After 43 years, the phenomenon of Jaws is still in full swing. I remember watching this movie for the first time. I remember my dad telling me the story of when he saw this movie for the first time. As a summer blockbuster released shortly before July fourth, people were terrified of swimming on one of the biggest outdoor holidays of the year. That unease is still sparked in new viewers to this day. The craze of Jaws has crossed generations and will continue to do so with its timeless story. Sure, the movie has aged, but it’s mind games have not.
The story of Jaws upon a glance is simple. Yet below the surface, the film touches on themes that are commonly present in psychologically terrorizing films. On the surface, Jaws is about three men of different backgrounds and motivations who band together to save a community. Yet, after analyzing the film, certain moments stand out. The mayor refusing to close the beaches reinforces the political distrust we have for our leaders. It also displays the darker side of capitalism that people fear, profit is more important than the people.
Stepping away from politics, Jaws also has a supernatural element to exaggerate the predator versus prey relationship. There is no Great White in nature that is that large and obsessed with only eating humans. The shark in the film had a malicious focus to stalk and destroy its target and had the absurdly large body to accomplish its mission. It lives in an environment that we know very little about and have difficulty thriving in. The ocean embodies the unknown we fear while the shark becomes that exaggerated monster under the bed that we all lost sleep over.
Even the good guys of the film represent something dark. Brody faces a battle of ethics and unfortunately loses. He failed at his sole responsibility and therefore must risk everything to right that wrong. Hooper ultimately had no voice despite his expertise. Regardless of how right he was and how much he knew, Hooper was reduced to nothing causing him to wonder why his presence even matters. Had the town listened to him, lives could have been saved. He’s the walking, talking “what if” of the movie. Quint was destroyed by his past and could never move forward. He lived his whole life haunted by previous trauma and ends up stuck in a vicious cycle that came full circle because of it.
Sure, jaws can be seen as a simple story. But it’s also a political and supernatural minefield that plays with our most primal external and internal fears. What’s out there? Does it want to hurt me? Is it my fault? In the grand scheme of life, do I even matter? Jaws is as complex as you want it to be. It doesn’t have to blow your mind but it will still play with it. These themes float through the film and whether you realize it or not, this movie is triggering those deep-rooted terrors.
To help the story along, Jaws has the magical Spielberg technical touches. There are romantic close-ups and tension-building stills to create focus and suspense. No-one would have thought a simple close up and lens-affect could be an iconic piece of motion-picture history, and yet due to Jaws, it was. The music alone has become a piece of horror movie history. What sounds like a simple composition ends up embodying suspense itself. It sits among the greats of horror movie scores.
While Spielberg had his hands in every part of the film, his touch can only go so far. The actors also had their part in carrying this movie through history. Roy Scheider plays Martin Brody, the new sheriff burdened with saving his new town. He’s become the face of the film as the stereotypical distant dad of the 70’s who transforms into a fearful father and protective community leader. Robert Shaw plays Quint, the deliverer of what is arguably one of the greatest monologues in movie history. He brought to life a character that is now recreated as a classic movie trope. Richard Dreyfuss plays Matt Hooper, the scientist and ignored voice of reason in the film. He’s the brazen nerd that sparked an interest in the scientific study of sharks and is sited as the reason several people chose to study marine biology.
Iconic really is the best word to describe Jaws. It’s a movie that impacted the environment, the field of scientific study and changed the landscape of modern filmmaking. Its influence spans generations as it plays with fears that aren’t simply tied to 1975 but to people both individually and societally. It has legendary technical feats and gave birth to tropes that have been found in films and cartoons alike. Jaws has earned its place as an iconic classic in movie history. Today with hotdog in hand, let us raise a beer to Jaws, the film that almost cancelled the Fourth of July.
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