Throwback Thursday: Jaws Debuted 40 Years Ago
On June 20, 1975, Jaws first lunged into theaters, thrusting Martha’s Vineyard into the spotlight for its role as the shark-terrorized Amity Island and earning Steven Spielberg’s film its hallowed status as the first summer blockbuster in history. As Jaws celebrates its 40th anniversary with a slew of special events and screenings, it’s easy to overlook how improbable it was that this film was ever made at all.
Spielberg, then 27, was a relative unknown, and his mission—to make what many in Hollywood initially dismissed as a glorified horror movie starring a 25-foot-long mechanical shark on a $4 million budget—was a daunting one. In 2005, we rounded up former crew members, who remembered the shooting being plagued with bad weather, cost overruns, and NIMBY Cape Codders.
As production designer Joe Alves told us:
As big of a movie as it became, it was actually a rather small movie. There were only half a dozen key people pushing to get it done. Then there was a preview screening in Long Beach, and we were deathly afraid that they were going to laugh at the shark, because we used to laugh at the shark. We had never heard the John Williams music. We just heard the valves, and it was very mechanical. But when you had the music and the sound, they didn’t laugh. They screamed, and it was pretty horrendous. They released it on maybe 850 screens. We made about $100 million in eight weeks at $3 a ticket. It was pretty amazing.
Jaws’s box office feeding frenzy was a huge departure from the rather lukewarm response Spielberg received for his previous (and debut) effort, 1974’s The Sugarland Express, and Boston magazine was among the publications to heap critical praise upon Jaws, with then-associate editor Michael Sragow hailing the film as “a nerve-cruncher and a smash” in our August 1975 issue.
In its first five minutes Jaws grabs you somewhere beneath your sternum, and for nearly two hours it doesn’t let you go. Jaws is what The French Connection and The Exorcist only posed as—a horrific action story redeemed by inspired filmmaking. Jaws aims for the gut, but it doesn’t insult the intelligence on the few occasions when it is required.
Sragow did have some qualms about the film, pointing out that “Spielberg, though, is not an alchemist, and Jaws is not 14-karat gold.” In particular, he found fault with the “young filmmaker’s disdain for the unheroic aged.”
But for Sragow, the bottom line is this: “Jaws displays such zest for the camera that if Spielberg ever takes on meatier material he might find that (like a shark) he has two extra sets of teeth.”
Jaws went on to rack up a lifetime gross of $470,653,000 worldwide. Sragow went on to become the film critic for Rolling Stone. Cape Cod is still famed for its shark sightings. And Spielberg did some other film stuff, we guess. And the shark? Well, it turned out to be three mechanical sharks collectively named “Bruce” (they’re named after Spielberg’s lawyer), and you’ll be able to meet one of them at this weekend’s Northeast Comic Con—along with a few non-ichthyoid Jaws stars.
Read the full version of Michael Sragow’s August 1975 review of Jaws originally printed in Boston magazine: