An Outdoor View: ‘Jaws’ at 40

Three shark attacks occurred recently off East Coast beaches, a reminder that fish that sometimes try to eat people are still out there, somewhere.

On that same subject, June marks the 40th anniversary of the release of my favorite movie, “Jaws.”

“Jaws” is to fishing flicks what “Apocalypse Now” is to war movies. It has everything a fisherman could want: suspense, action, adventure, terror and poundage.

“Jaws” is a story about a great white shark that made people nervous about being on the beach in a New England resort town called Amnity. After part of a body is found on the beach, the town’s police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches to the public. However, Amnity merchants want the beaches closed about as much as Soldotna merchants want the Kenai River closed. Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) convinces the city fathers that their beach has become the territory of a great white shark. Fearing that the shark will scare off tourists, they hire Quint, a crusty charterboat captain (Robert Shaw), to find and kill the shark. When Quint, Brody and Hooper set out to find the shark in Quint’s boat, the “Orca,” the fun begins.

Before “Jaws” became a movie, it was a book by Peter Benchley, a relatively unknown writer. Interviewed later, Benchley said, “I knew that ‘Jaws’ couldn’t possibly be successful. It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a first novel about a fish, so who cares?”

The book hit the stands in 1974. Hyped as “a novel of relentless terror,” it jumped to the top of best-seller lists, selling 5.5 million copies before the release of the movie in 1975. Worldwide, an estimated 20 million copies have been sold to readers who wanted to feel their hair stand on end. Like sex, terror sells.

Steven Spielberg was only 27 in 1974, when he began directing what would become the first blockbuster hit of his stellar career. “Jaws” held the title of highest-grossing movie of all time until the release of “Star Wars, Episode IV – A New Hope” in 1977. To this day, “Jaws” continues to swim strongly in the market. A Blu-ray version is now available.

The great composer John Williams, who later wrote the scores for “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park,” won an Oscar in 1976 for the unforgettable music in “Jaws.” The film, itself, won the award for “Best Sound.” The score stimulated suspense and fright like nothing heard since “Psycho.” Who can forget those ominous notes from the opening scene, when the shark is homing in on a girl skinny-dipping in the moonlight? If those notes don’t speed up your pulse, nothing will.

After the release of the film, shark fishing become more popular, to the detriment of sharks. Some people were left with the impression that sharks represent an unstoppable threat, that they’re a malevolent eating machine. The shark was rated as the 18th greatest villain on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains. A seafood restaurant in Cape Cod displayed a sign, “Eat fish – Get even.”

Interestingly, both Benchley and Spielberg later tried to dispel the image of sharks as man-eating monsters. I think they, like most movie-goers realized that, in truth, sharks tend to be cautious around humans, and never — well, hardly ever — attack them.

One of my favorite parts in “Jaws” is when a couple of locals decide they’re going to catch the marauding shark for the $3,000 bounty. They go out at night to a remote dock. Their bait is a beef roast, their line is about 100 feet of heavy chain, and their bobber is a big inner tube. They wrap the chain around two pilings and heave the baited hook off the end of the dock. They’re sitting there, waiting for a bite, when their inner tube bounces a couple of times and heads out to sea.

At this point in the movie, you haven’t even had a glimpse of the shark, but you can’t help but feel a sense of menace and foreboding. When whatever has taken the bait comes to the end of the chain, it doesn’t even slow down. It effortlessly tears 20 feet off the end of the wooden dock. causing one of the fishermen to fall in. The now-floating dock turns around and starts back toward the guy in the water, who is frantically swimming toward shore. His buddy yells, “Don’t look back!”

Now, that’s a fishing movie worth watching.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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