An ongoing love affair with the first summer blockbuster.
News that Jaws is to get an entirely unnecessary and money-grabbing 3D and IMAX ‘upgrade’ this September – crowbarring a format onto a film that was never made with nor needs the empty spectacle that this visual overload provides for otherwise shoddy and vacuous films – reminds me of my own personal history with Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough film. For a period of my youth, I believed Jaws to be the pinnacle of filmmaking achievement – and I still think that it is a perfectly crafted piece of cinema, one that you can watch over and over again and still take satisfaction from, even if the shocks and surprises no longer shock or surprise quite as much.
As everyone knows, Jaws opened in the summer of 1975 and was an immediate sensation. It was the first of the summer blockbusters in fact, though perhaps more by luck than design; it would be Star Wars a couple of years later that set the template for what we have now, and I would still remove Jaws from that history of increasingly cynical SFX spectaculars that are ruthlessly marketed as this year’s big summer hit. Jaws is less the point when the director-driven New Cinema of the 1970s gave way to studio spectacle than it is the first chip, with George Lucas’ film leading to the inevitable crack. By early 1970s standards, Jaws was a merchandising juggernaut. By modern (or post-1977) standards, it was barely merchandised at all, and most of that was hurriedly arranged after the film’s massive success. You did not walk into toy shops prior to release and see endless amounts of Jaws merchandise. In fact, as a kid, it was entirely possible to be completely unaware that the film even existed until it arrived at your local cinema. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Now we have the official version of the Jaws release history, let’s go back to the mid-1970s when films were distributed internationally in a way that would be unthinkable today. As we have noted, Jaws opened on June 20th 1975 in the USA. In Britain, the film would not be seen until Christmas Day – and then only in London. If you weren’t around at the time, you might look at old movie press ads and wonder why national advertising hyped London screenings above anything else. Well, London tended to get films before everyone else in the UK. It would then filter out to the bigger cities and would eventually play the smaller towns and cities once the bigger places were done with it. Jaws made its way to ‘national’ release on New Year’s Day. Part of this was a cultural snobbery, part of it was practical – this was before films opened with hundreds of prints (Jaws pioneered this in the US, but old habits died hard in Britain, even with 100 prints in circulation) and there were not enough copies to go around. If you lived in less important places, as I did, you might be waiting a while to see big new releases (1). As a marketing move, it was quite effective – by the time a hit movie finally turned up in your grotty satellite town, you would have had weeks – maybe months – of hype from the UK media.
Anyway, all this preamble is to really explain that I can’t quite put my finger on exactly when I first saw Jaws, other than it was probably some time in January 1976. It was the opening day in my home town, but late in the day on a national scale.
I was, at this time, entirely oblivious to the existence of Jaws. I was nine years old and media hype had entirely bypassed me. I suspect that there was a lot less hype back then anyway. But clearly, my dad was aware of it. “Do you want to go to the pictures?”, he asked casually one Sunday afternoon (2). Well, I was always up for going to the movies back then. In the sort of faux choice that we are all used to in modern politics, I was then given two screenings to choose from. Did I want to see The Jungle Book, then on re-release – or did I want to see this film Jaws, about a giant shark? Well, that was a decision that didn’t take long. I’d been working through Disney re-releases since I was first taken to the cinema – not necessarily by choice, it must be said, but you took what was on offer at that time – but The Jungle Book didn’t stand a chance against ‘a giant shark’. In retrospect, I wonder how disappointed my dad would’ve been if I’d plumped for the Disney film – he knew me well enough to know that there was little chance of that, but still… on our walk to the local cinema, he told me all about the mechanical shark that the film used along with other bits of trivia that suggested that he was very keen to see this film himself and I was probably just an excuse to him to go.
The fact that a nine-year-old could go to see Jaws in 1976 is fascinating in itself. Here was a film being hyped as the most terrifying ever made, with severed limbs, kids being eaten and one scene – you know the one – that has consistently made audiences jump out of their skin. That the film had a PG in the US was interesting but not entirely unexpected, given that horror films were still seen as kid’s stuff in America at the time (the infamous story of The Night of the Living Dead playing at children’s Saturday matinees shows what a different world it was). But the British censors had been very concerned with horror and violence since forever. The Amicus film From Beyond the Grave, released two years earlier, had an ‘X’ rating despite being less bloody and less terrifying. But the BBFC has long been oddly inconsistent, especially with major movies. The Bond films, awash with casual violence and even more casual sex, were always seen as family entertainment and the treatment of ‘serious’, ‘important’ and (most importantly) major studio films was often notably different to that of indie releases. More to the point, Jaws wasn’t seen as a horror film. It was a thriller, an adventure film, call it what you want – but not a horror movie (3). Jaws was passed with an ‘A’, now a PG, which meant that kids could attend, unaccompanied.
Hype works wonders, especially for kids, and by the time we reached the cinema I was all set for the more terrifying experience of my life. Curiously, although I already loved horror films, my mother – for reasons best known to herself – had decided that I was ‘squeamish’ (she also talked me into believing I had travel sickness for years – go figure) so the idea of seeing this film about a shark eating people seemed scarily challenging. The discovery of Chrissie’s body on the beach, telegraphed as it was, seemed too much and I covered my eyes. But that was early in the movie and by the time the rest of the bloody violence happened I was fully engrossed in the film and no way were my eyes leaving the screen.
So yeah, Jaws was an experience unlike anything else. It was beyond everything else that I’d seen at that time. Love at first sight, you might say.
In the days before home video, films would be theatrically reissued frequently; the bigger a film was, the longer it usually took to appear on TV and so you could have several re-releases before seeing it on the small screen. Jaws finally made its UK TV debut on ITV on October 8th 1981, where it attracted an audience of 23.25 million viewers – almost half the British population at the time and still second only to Live and Let Die for viewing figures for films shown on TV.
Before then, Jaws would come back to the cinema every couple of years, which was pretty standard at the time. Of course, it was a case of diminishing returns as things went along – I went to the first re-release with a bunch of schoolmates, the next with a couple of mates and by the end was there on my own. The first re-release was rammed; subsequent screenings were less busy, though the film still attracted an audience. After the first re-release, other blockbuster films were competing for attention but I remained loyal. I have a photo of myself and a school friend meeting ‘Darth Vader’ at a holiday resort – I’m wearing a Jaws necklace and badge, keeping the faith in the face of the new conqueror.
As I mentioned earlier, you could find Jaws merchandise, both official and otherwise – but not huge amounts. There were the standard movie tie-ins – the soundtrack album, the novel (which oddly didn’t make a big deal of the movie) and ‘making of’ books, both official (Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log) and unofficial (Edith Blake’s The Making of the Movie Jaws and cash-in magazines). Then there were the oddities that came along – alongside the necklace, I had (indeed, still have) the coffee mug and the sew-on patch, and long-lost things like a T-shirt, a badge, a ‘shark in a bottle’ model kit and the frankly disappointing Jaws game. There was also Lalo Schifrin’s disco version of the John Williams theme, which – if you are unfamiliar with it – is quite something. I’ve no doubt that there was more out there but don’t be fooled – most of the Jaws merch you’ll see appeared many years after the film was released.
There were the knock-off movies, of course, though surprisingly most avoided using sharks, instead taking the basic narrative and adapting it to another rampaging creature – there was Grizzly, Tentacles, Orca and Piranha and the dismal TV movie Shark Kill (not to mention comic strips like Hookjaw and Gums and weird pop-culture crossovers like the ‘Jaws’ character in the Bond films), but the more specific Italian copycats like Great White/The Last Shark didn’t appear for several years. Of course, the official sequels began to feel like parodies very quickly – while Jaws 2 isn’t bad, Jaws 3D and Jaws – The Revenge are more like cheap imitations than actual sequels. When the cheap Italian knockoff feels more authentic than the official sequel, you know you’re in trouble. I kept going to see these movies but it felt more and more like an ordeal than a pleasure. Perhaps the plans to satirise the film with Jaws 3 – People 0 made more sense after all – better a knowing spoof than an unwitting one.
The decline of Jaws as a cultural force was sad to see. It’s inconceivable now to imagine the most financially successful film ever made winding up with a sequel like Jaws – The Revenge within 12 years but in many ways Jaws was the end of an era, where sequels were still seen as films that will always make less money than the film that came before, made as standalone films for as long as the profits held up and no one thought about a ‘franchise’ – even with films that actually were franchises like Planet of the Apes. As the UKTV viewing figures showed, Jaws was still a very big deal in 1981 but it was never going to be Star Wars – how many stories about maneating sharks can you tell? Today, Jaws is a beloved classic so it’s hard to remember that in the 1980s and beyond, thanks to increasingly shoddy sequels and the contempt of familiarity and Spielberg moving into family entertainment populism and seemingly putting the film behind him, Jaws wasn’t all that highly regarded. Still critically acclaimed if anyone reviewed it, but not seen as all that important. Mad, I know. The film never quite became as dismissed as some of the other iconic hits of the 1970s but no one was making any new Jaws content in the way they were for Star Wars or Alien. It took a long time for the film to be acknowledged as one of the most important films of the decade – or of all time. It’s been a slow resurrection, but a welcome one.
When Jaws was re-released in 2012 – now with a 12A BBFC rating, the film now being seen as too intense for a PG despite 36 years of not causing any problems with that rating – I went along once again. Old habits die hard. We were fortunate to be sat in front of a student who had never seen the film before and who became an unwitting test of just how well this film, now almost four decades old, still worked. When That Scene appeared, it was gratifying to see him react in exactly the same way that original audiences did, shouting out loud and throwing his drink and popcorn in the air. A perfect scare remains a perfect scare (4).
1: Interestingly, the exceptions to the ‘London First’ rule were the 1970s Euro sex and horror films from indie distributors like Eagle. The North was seen as the big market for these films – perhaps because cinemas and audiences alike were kept waiting for new major titles – and so these films often made their debut in Northern towns before slowly making their way to London.
2: Films used to open on Sundays. It was a better system all around and gave space for ‘Sunday Only’ screenings of older films in the space between one film finishing and another starting. The switch to Friday openings was the beginning of the end for British cinema.
3: In fairness, even horror fans of the time tended to dismiss the idea of Jaws as a horror film. Some still do. Notably, the film also had nudity in the opening scene, though just how much bare flesh you saw very much depended on the cinema projectionist’s settings.
4: Watching the film on various re-releases over the years, it became a challenge not to jump at this scene, which you knew was coming but could never quite predict and prep for. It took several viewings to reach the point where it didn’t give at least a little jolt.
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