In 1973, had history taken one of those odd, chaotic turns caused by butterflies breaking wind over the Gobi desert, Jaws would never have happened. Instead, in those years before magazine editors had had to install "wunderkind" on the spellcheck, Steven Spielberg would have made a biopic. Specifically, he was going to make Flushed With Pride: The Story Of Thomas Crapper, the tale being that of the inventor of the toilet. It will remain one of those intriguing little after dinner conversations, along with what would have happened had Hitler lived, as to what would have happened to Spielberg's career and therefore film history, had the 26 year-old not wandered into Richard Zanuck's office, picked up the script to Jaws and pulled the chain on the Crapper flick.
Jaws was Steven Spielberg's first fully realised commercial movie. Certainly Duel had been had been an impressive calling card — so masterfully wrought that in Europe it was given a quick re-edit and a cinema release. It had demonstrated that Spielberg could expertly and relentlessly increase tension without recourse to hackneyed cliche while Sugarland Express had revealed his facility with actors. But Jaws would add the final element to the patented Spielberg mix — namely gargantuan financial success.
By the time it was spent Jaws had reeled in $485 million and there had been a marketing explosion. In amid the T-shirts, mugs, towels and not-to-be-used-as-a-floatation-aid inflatables (though not the little chocolate sharks with cherry "blood" filling that the director had hopefully suggested) Universal ran an ad smugly announcing, "It's a movie too" thus celebrating the phenomenon and putting paid to the rumour that George Lucas invented film merchandising. Lucas just invented keeping the money.
After Jaws, Spielberg would be on his way to being anointed the people's film director. He had found that the things that charmed, excited and terrified him, did the same to cinemagoers the world over. The set pieces — that pre-credits sequence; the killing of the Kinter boy; the USS Indianapolis monologue, whoever wrote it — are as intimately known and cherished as any in film. But the success of Jaws relies not on these alone but also on the fact that it is riddled with the everydayness that people sitting in the auditorium connected with. The visits to the seaside; kids demanding just 10 more minutes in the water ("Alex your fingers are beginning to prune," a mother in a silly yellow hat advises her poppet — in a sequence Spielberg probably wouldn't feel so comfortable about in his post-fatherhood days — before he erupts in a geyser of gore); families under the pressure of moving to a new town and a dad who can't switch off from his job. Once the young director has armlocked us into believing in Amity Island and the people who live there, getting us to accept a 25 foot Great White with rubbery teeth is no problem.
The yarns about the trials and tribulations of the making of Jaws are as well hammered into most cinephile's heads as the one about the big fish itself. There's the shark that steadfastly refused to perform (though testing it in the water might have been an idea); the shoot that was scheduled for 55 days but ballooned into 159. Producers Zanuck and Brown deserve their slice of the credit for not taking one look at the expensive mess and pulling the plug, or at least replacing their youthful protege with a more experienced helmer. Instead they encouraged Spielberg to continue with his vision.
Spielberg himself had the sense to surround himself with the most experienced, talented technicians available. Bill Butler's cinematography— gracefully handheld in those pre-stedicam days — is a sun drenched triumph; John R Carter's sound design won an Oscar; John William's unsurpassed score wormed its way into the culture as aural shorthand for impending terror while film editor Verna Fields ("mother cutter" to the tribe of young filmmakers she gathered round her) may have caused consternation by claiming the lion's share of the credit later on, but certainly cuts the movie with ruthless efficiency. She not only avoided gimmicks but succeeded in editing around the movie's only real disappointment, the shark, which remains one of the single worst special effects in a big budget film. That Jaws not only survives but thrives even in the face of the patently rubber great white is a testimony to the skill with which it is made.
Critics have mostly unsuccessfully tried to divine all sorts of sub-texts, from a post Watergate critique of capitalist society (leading Fidel Castro to announce that it was "one of the better films I have seen") to a demolition of movie machismo (Quint turns out to be a dangerous nutter who gets himself killed). But for most audiences Jaws was just one hell of a ride (as one critic put it "I wasn't scared — and neither was the man under my seat"). The people sitting in the dark had found a new hero, and for the first time since Hitchcock, he was behind the camera.