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Fortune favors the bold
on May 27, 2017
They asked a 26-year-old kid named Steven Spielberg, who had just put a silly comedy called "Sugarland Express" in the can for Universal, to make a monster movie. Before that, he had done some TV work, notably a "Night Gallery" episode for Rod Serling that starred Joan Crawford. Crawford concluded he was a young genius.
They asked for a monster movie; what they got changed the industry forever.
Let it be said at once that the changes have turned out to be bad, but that's not the fault of "Jaws", which is a hardcore Seventies movie all the way, full of post-Watergate cynicism about politicians, even small-time ones in a tourist town. But with Spielberg there was a difference: a way forward out of the cynicism, a happy and explosively satisfying ending. The main thing he did was get a bunch of writers to make major changes to Peter Benchley's rather sleazy novel: gone were the subplots about the mayor in hock to the Mafia and Brody's wife and Hooper having an affair (ew). He kept the 3 protagonists on the open sea in the movie's second half (in the book, they go home every night). He got a comedy writer named Carl Gottlieb to deliberately add humor, to lighten things up, to please the crowd, rather than have the movie become some dour remake of "Moby Dick". All such changes were correct, to say the least. And because it was the Seventies, he still took chances, such as the astonishing monologue by Robert Shaw's "Quint" character, mostly written by the actor himself.
Quint relates to the other two men on the boat that he was on the crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and describes the horror of how hundreds of men were eaten by sharks for several days after the craft was torpedoed. The Indianapolis was the ship that delivered the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and so the mission was top secret -- assistance was delayed. One can feel that Seventies cynicism creeping in again. But to me, it's as if Quint was spared in 1945 so that he would someday face the greatest shark of all, and meet his fate fighting it.
For all the (justified) talk about how this movie was the Proto-Blockbuster, no summer popcorn flick today would dare have such a scene.
It's a Seventies Blockbuster, so ideas and characters and performances are important. Roy Scheider as the frustrated Chief of Police is our anchor, our Everyman. Richard Dreyfuss is the young hotshot representing Progress and Change, much like Spielberg himself (in fact, Spielberg called Dreyfuss his "alter ego"). And Shaw's Quint? There were many Quints in Seventies cinema (late Sixties, too), like Newman's Cool Hand Luke and Nicholson's Randle P. McMurphy from "Cuckoo's Nest", unable to fit into society, uncontrollable forces of nature. They all came to similar ends.
It's a movie warranting a book-length discussion (and books have been written about it), and I haven't even talked about the mechanical problems with Bruce the Shark or John Williams' immortal score. All that remains to be said here is that Spielberg didn't compromise his vision of what a fun movie could be, he dared to do things his own way despite studio pressure, and the result was one of the most important movies ever made. As Shakespeare said: fortune favors the bold.
5 out of 5.