A blockbuster, ‘Jaws’, cracks the surface in Ambler


In the sweltering summer of 1975, a great white shark emerged from the depths of the ocean and splashed onto the silver screen, forever altering the landscape of cinema. Directed by a then relatively unknown Steven Spielberg, "Jaws" wasn't just a movie; it was a cultural phenomenon and the very first summer blockbuster.

Set on the fictional Amity Island, "Jaws" is the story of conflict and bravery on multiple fronts. Brody, a New York cop recently transplanted to a coastal New England town must contend with that town’s civic leaders and business community’s willful blindness in the face of a man-eating shark terrorizing and eating swimmers. “Jaws” is about the strength, wherewithal, and bravery it takes for a normal man to not only face down the townsfolk but also the biggest and most hostile shark anyone had ever seen. “Jaws” is at once an action movie, a horror movie, and a suspenseful thriller, and it also offers insightful commentary on capitalism and group think.

Spielberg's suspenseful storytelling keeps audiences on the edge of their seats from start to finish. We see a dorsal fin slide smoothly through the waves; we hear screams, the water churns, and turns red. We don’t see much of the monstrous shark at first, which adds to the overall sense of dread. The film's theme music, composed by John Williams, is so iconic it has become synonymous with impending danger.

Released on June 20, 1975, the film took audiences by storm, quickly becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, until it was dethroned by "Star Wars." What made "Jaws" stand out wasn't just its trilling soundtrack or groundbreaking special effects. The film’s success also was the product of a brilliant and expensive marketing campaign that capitalized not only on families flocking to theaters seeking relief from the summer heat, but also their fear of the unknown. What huge and dangerous creatures could be lurking in the ocean’s depths? Come see “Jaws,” and "you'll never go in the water again," the film’s tagline warns.

Prior to "Jaws," studios typically released their biggest films during the fall and winter months, leaving summer to less significant releases. But Spielberg's shark-sterpiece changed all that, and the concept of wide releases, where a film opens simultaneously in thousands of theaters nationwide, became standard practice thanks to the unprecedented demand for Spielberg's shark thriller. “Jaws” served as a blueprint for all future summer blockbusters from "Jurassic Park" to “Barbie.”

The legacy of “Jaws” is as bloody and murky as the water around the sinking Orca at the film’s end. It convinced international moviegoers that sharks are dangerous maneaters. After the film’s release, attendance at beaches was down and reports of shark sightings were up. Shark hunting also became a more popular sport, with some species of sharks and rays almost being hunted to extinction. Shark scientists and shark lovers have been trying to dispel the dangerous myths created by the film since it hit the big screen.

The success of "Jaws" also created the era of filmmaking as we know it, in which big-budget spectacles are prioritized over auteur cinema. It ended the New Hollywood era, taking control away from visionary filmmakers and putting it back into the hands that controlled the purse, i.e. the studios. Like life imitating art, “Jaws” the film became the monster that ate smaller, more personal, more unique forms of filmmaking.

As we near the 50th anniversary of "Jaws," you can celebrate this groundbreaking film at Ambler Theater’s Hollywood Summer Nights series on Wed., June 26 and, appropriately, on Thu., July 4.

For information, visit amblertheater.org/specials.