On Jaws, or How I Came to Love the Summer Blockbuster

The first ever blockbuster. Began Steven Spielberg’s career. That legendary musical score. Had Robert Shaw in it.

Yes… I’m talkin’ Jaws.

Where to start, right? This was the movie that gave us the “summer blockbuster.” It also began the long series of “nature gone angry” genre films such as, The Swarm, Day of the Animals, Piranha, and of course…Grizzly.

Now that I write that, I have to wonder if I should praise Jaws, or condemn it for what it brought into the world. Naw… just joshing. I have to praise this movie. It’s one of the best films ever done. My sister, four years older than me, got to see this film before I did. I wanted desperately to see it. I mean, it had a friggin’ SHARK in it attacking people, right? EVERYONE was talking about it. It was HUGE. Anyway, my sister told my mother that it was a film that was perfectly appropriate for a ten-year-old boy to see. Happily for me, my sister was off her nut. In the end, my mother agreed to let me go and off we went to the local movie house.

I’d never been so scared in all my short ten years. And this from a kid that used to see ghosts. I was enraptured from the moment the movie began, all the way to the end.

I was in love.

I ended up seeing that film over twenty-five times in the theater. Even much later on, when it was the second film in what was called a “Fish an’ Ships” double feature of Orca and Jaws.

Why did I love it so much, you may ask?

That’s an easy question to answer. It’s just a great film, all the way around. The script, written mostly by Carl Gottlieb with some uncredited minor touch-ups by John Milius, is out of this world. Robert Shaw, who played Quint, even contributed a complete rewrite of his famous speech about the Indianapolis. That speech is still one of my all time favorite scenes from ANY film. Shaw was done wrong when he was overlooked by the Oscar committee that year for a best supporting actor nom.

The novel, the best seller written by the late Peter Benchley, wasn’t something I was really into as a kid (I’d read it after seeing the film). I found it dull in comparison, except of course for the dirty parts between Hooper the Oceanographer and Sheriff Brody’s wife, parts they thankfully cut out when adapting the book for the screen. There’s genius in turning a book that was really a soap opera into an action/horror film. Again, after Jaws came out, the world was never the same. You know you’ve made it when you’re parodied (at the time) on The Carol Burnett Show, kiddo.

And there’s yet another reason why this movie holds a special place in my heart: it gave me what was probably my earliest case of total, unabashed hero worship. Of course I’m talking about Quint, the shark fisherman. He’s got a great, beat-up boat that he loves, The Orca. He’s a boozer. He’s cynical. He’s been… around. (And I have to admit here that I own the same army coat he did, though he wore it better.)

I so wanted to BE Quint, much to my mother’s dismay of course. Why would I want to be the lawful Sheriff Brody? Or the knowledgeable geek Hooper? No, I dreamed of being the worn, wry, cynical, boozing Quint who lived in a crucible with all things shark.

Let me just hip you to some fun facts about the film:

1. While they were filming on Martha’s Vineyard, Murray Hamilton, the actor who played Mayor Vaughn, got drunk one night (something they did a lot of back in the ’70s, kids) and tried to get a stray kitty cat to follow him back to his hotel room. Turned out to be a skunk. I believe he paid the price.

2. During the scene in which Quint gives the famous, aforementioned speech about the Indianapolis, Robert Shaw was actually very drunk. It all works, naturally.

3. Richard Dreyfuss was adlibbing in that same scene when he started singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” The other two just fell in with him. Again, it totally works.

4. They were frantically rewriting the scenes for the next day’s filming the night before.

5. Roy Scheider adlibbed his famous line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

"You’re gonna need a bigger boat."

I’ve always felt that this film was sort of a mirror to what was going on in society at the time. We were living in the disillusionment of the early 1970s after the flower powered late 1960s had strung out. We didn’t know how to handle the ending of the Vietnam War. There was Watergate. We were adrift. In Jaws, man is no longer king over his domain. The world has been upended in the form of a huge shark that shouldn’t really exist where it does, but does. Nobody in the movie’s first half knows how to handle this event (the shark setting up with a fork and knife), just as American society did not really know how to handle events that were going on in the country at that time.

It may have been a nightmare of a shoot (or so the story goes), but out of that came one of the best movies ever filmed. One that still thrills and entertains today.

Robert K. Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, California. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.

See all posts by Robert K. Lewis for Criminal Element.


  1. Joey Francisco

    Good job Robert. I couldn’t agree with you more. Although most was shot in Martha’s Vineyard, they did shoot some scenes between Destin, Navarre Beach, and Pensacola, Florida (one of my fave cities).

    One nuance I always loved was a scene showing the boat at night, before the famous speech (Indianapolis) and the whale song. Above the boat in the night sky, a lone comet flies through the heavens. And as we know, in ancient times, comets were believed to be a portent of bad news (hence the shark). Nice subtle touch by Speilberg.

    It’s also one of my favorites, and a summer can’t go by without watching Jaws. Now dammit, you’re making me wish for warmer weather!

  2. Robert K. Lewis

    Hi Joey! Just saw this comment. You know, Speilberg put that comet thing in the movie twice. Another one flies behind Roy Schieder’s head right after he gets his pistol and loads it. And I think Speilberg used that comet thing in a couple other of his earlier films. I could swear I’ve seen that in his other films, but my mind ain’t what it used to be! 🙂 Thanks for commenting! Appreciate it! 🙂

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