E ditor's note: This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” a revolutionary film for the director, movie soundtracks and skinny-dippers everywhere. This beloved piece of cinema sits at the top of many critic’s favorite films list. So what did our critic, Charles Champlin, think of the fishy film? Not much.
Champlin was not swayed by the plight of the townsfolk of Amity Island. In fact, you could say he really, really disliked it.
“Jaws” was harpooned by the Los Angeles Times on many levels. Champlin labeled Robert Shaw “a poor man’s Captain Ahab,” slammed the script, but most of all, he detested the violence. To be fair, this complaint preceded the future PG-13 rating change in 1984. But perhaps the movie could have used a warning not to bring children under the age of 13 to a movie about a shark that eats a lot of people. And the first trailer was pretty devoid of red water. But it's hard to get behind what he says about a young Spielberg that, "Intimacy is not yet his strength."
Ah, well, I'll drink to your review, Champlin.
Here's the full review from then-Times entertainment editor Champlin, published on June 20, 1975, with the headline, "Don’t Go Near the Water":
The first and crucial thing to say about the movie Universal has made from Peter Benchley’s best-seller “Jaws,” opening citywide today, is that the PG rating is grievously wrong and misleading. The studio has rightly added its cautionary notices in the ads, and the fact is that “Jaws” is too gruesome for children, and likely to turn the stomachs of the impressionable at any age.
A severed leg drifts toward the sea bottom, a severed arm and other shark-chewed remains are studied ashore, a man dies horribly in the jaws, spewing a last gout of his own blood; children die and the sea foams red.
Careful studies by the Children’s Film Foundation in England have confirmed what common sense suggests: Children identify most strongly with what happens to children on screen, are most impressed and terrified by the violence done to or endangering other children. “Jaws” is nightmare time for the young.
Even the mature are apt to be jolted harder by “Jaws” than by the earlier jeopardy films. Violence done to the helpless, always the hardest to watch, is here compounded because the victims are in the water, an alien environment, demanding and potentially dangerous at best. The inability to flee or fight back, as in a nightmare of paralysis, is real and only too easy to identify with.
It sounds, all of it, like a backhanded compliment for a potent and well-made movie. But while I have no doubt that “Jaws” will make a bloody fortune for Universal and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, it is a coarse-grained and exploitive work which depends on excess for its impact. Ashore it is a bore, awkwardly staged and lumpily written.
The opening sequence, an underwater camera giving a swift shark’s-eye view of the depths, over the ominous murmuring basses of John Williams’ good score, is excellent, carrying the promise of suggestive power. Then an abrupt and jolting cut takes us to a beach beer party to establish the great shark’s first victim. The tension rises again as we are allowed to imagine the evil lurking beneath the water’s placid, moonlit surface.
Land and sea quarrel thereafter. Peter Benchley’s story, which he adapted with Carl Gottlieb, has Roy Scheider as the sea-fearing resort town chief of police, trying in vain to close the beaches over opposition of the merchants led by Murray Hamilton. A reward offered for the shark evokes a comical flotilla of amateurs.
Most of this, despite an intense performance by Scheider, is flat-bush melodrama, broad and obvious. Richard Dreyfuss arrives as the rich boy who, after a childhood experience, has become a shark expert. Robert Shaw is the local shark hunter, more than half-mad, a poor man’s Captain Ahab who, having survived the shark infested seas after wartime torpedoing, is out to exterminate the species.
If the whole project from manuscript forward has been a commercially calculated confection, the tipoff in the movie is the stubborn refusal of the key characters to come in to sharp focus.
Hamilton is a caricature of greedy shortsightedness. Shaw, raking fingernails across a blackboard to gain attention, stewing shark bones and humming chanteys, is undeniably colorful but his actions, ranging from the shrewd to the suicidal, serve the needs of a pot to be kept boiling. They don’t reveal even the logic of madness.
Dreyfuss, in a lively, individual and sympathetic performance, comes off best, even if the demands of the plot make him alternately very wise and surprisingly inexperienced.
But at what seems long last, the three men set to sea in quest of their Nantucket Moby Dick and the adventure which is the heart of the movie begins. It is well and suspensefully done, the footage of real sharks joining indistinguishably with the chompings of the fearsome model. John M. Dwyer is credited with the special effects and Ron and Valerie Taylor the filming of actual sharks. Bill Butler was the cinematographer, and he must have had his hands full. Rexford Metz did the underwater work, including a sequence of the Dreyfuss character in a shark cage under heavy attack.
Young Steven Spielberg, who was the director, shows as he has before an uncommon flair for handling big action. He, and the script, are much less successful in the man-to-man confrontations than in the man-to-shark meetings. Intimacy is not yet his strength.
The ending is a pulp story hokum, calculated I suspect to affirm that it has all been in gory good fun; the nightmare was only a dream. Still, it would not be surprising if “Don’t go near the water” turned out to be the motto along the ocean beaches this summer. The frights, like those from “Earthquake” and “Towering Inferno,” are not put away by happy endings.
The argument has always been that tragedy, violence and terror, witnessed, purge us of them. The Grand Guignol theater of Paris, with its bloodlettings and eye-gougings ingeniously faked, was thought to have denatured shock by making it amusing. After “Jaws,” you do wonder what it was that was purged and what it takes to entertain these days.