I’ll start with a confession. When I was a kid, I was terrified of Jaws. I’d never seen the movie, but I can remember hiding videos of Jaws and its three sequels behind other videos in the supermarket when I went there with my parents. I have a memory of being at my grandparents house and turning away from the TV to bury my face in a cushion to ‘hide’ from an advert for Jaws 3D.
My parents went to see Jaws when it was released in the cinema in 1975, and both of them found it scary. I can’t remember when I first saw it, but I’m sure I was scared too. In fact, before starting this article I watched it in a cinema for the first time, and the moment when Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is surprised by the head of Ben Gardner popping out of a hole in his sunken boat STILL made me jump, even though I knew it was about to happen. But although that moment still shocks, the reason I love Jaws isn’t for the scares, it’s for the script and the three outstanding central performances from Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Dreyfuss.
To put it simply, Jaws is one of the greatest movies of all time. Despite a torturous shoot plagued with difficulties (not least of all the ones caused by Bruce, the constantly faulty mechanical shark), Stephen Spielberg crafted the original summer blockbuster, a movie that was originally written off as an out of control waste of money going on to become one of the highest grossing movies ever made. It’s an iconic movie in many different ways. It set Spielberg on his way to becoming one of the most successful directors ever, and the dialogue and set-pieces are memorable and still a joy to watch. John Williams created a wonderfully ominous soundtrack that became as much a part of the movie as the shark itself, adding tension and dread to what’s happening on screen whenever that main theme starts to gain speed and momentum.
But although the movie will always be one of my all-time favourites, there are elements of it that can’t get on board with. Throughout the film, sharks are described as man-eaters and killing machines. And while sharks are of course predators and all they do is indeed ‘swim, eat and make baby sharks’, to call sharks ‘man-eaters’ is completely inaccurate.
There are certainly a number of recorded shark attacks on humans every year, but how often do you read a story where a person has been swallowed whole by a shark? Yes sharks bite people, and yes those bites can result in devastating blood loss that can lead to the removal of limbs and/or death, but sharks are not hunting down anyone that goes into the water. Sharks have survived on the planet for millions of years, but when someone is attacked by a shark near a beach or an otherwise heavily populated area, they are hunted down and usually killed, and just like in Jaws, it’s often the case that ‘innocent’ sharks are killed while people hunt for the shark that actually did bite someone.
People have become conditioned to react with shock and disbelief when a shark attacks a human, but it’s not like sharks have started marching out of the sea to bite people walking down the street. Sharks are predators, and it is in their nature to hunt and eat, and they will eat anything they can find. But they don’t have a taste for human flesh, they don’t go looking for it. If someone was to wander into the natural habitat of a lion or a tiger and be attacked, there wouldn’t be calls for that creature to be hunted down and killed, but the Jaws effect and exaggerated media headlines make people believe that sharks are somehow more dangerous than any predatory land animals, even though shark attacks are still incredibly rare.
Then there is shark finning, the incredibly cruel, and ultimately, completely pointless, slaughter of sharks for their fins to make shark fin soup. Although many countries around the world have banned shark finning, it still happens, and millions of sharks are killed each year as a result. What happens is that when a shark is caught, it isn’t killed, but instead has its fins removed before being thrown back into the ocean, where it will die of suffocation or be eaten alive by other predators. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, but the fins themselves are mostly tasteless, and only added to the soup for texture. This industry has resulted in several species of shark, including great whites, becoming endangered but the protection of sharks does not get as much attention as that of other animals because of their perceived danger to mankind.
But it would be unfair to blame Steven Spielberg, Peter Benchley or Jaws entirely for this, and there is a lot of great work being done across the world to protect the survival of sharks. While I hope that Jaws will continue to thrill audiences now and in the future, I hope that people will also realise that sharks aren’t all as bad as Bruce.