This July 4th, I’ll be sitting on a beach in Westhampton, NY, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, and, as I do so, my thoughts will be on those things that represent the holiday to me: America’s independence, fireworks, hot dogs, and the movie “Jaws.”
What? “Jaws” is a July 4th institution?
Absolutely. The film is quintessentially July 4th.
“Jaws,” based upon a novel by Peter Benchley and directed by Steven Spielberg, premiered 43 years ago and shocked movie audiences and Hollywood alike. Moviegoers were horrified as they watched a giant great white shark terrorize a fictional New England beach town over the July 4th holiday. The movie industry was stunned as a horror film (traditionally a B-Movie genre) became the most successful movie of all time (before Star Wars passed it two years later). For better and for worse, the success of “Jaws” made it the first summer blockbuster and Hollywood eagerly followed the prototype in their moviemaking designs, plans still in place today.
That’s all well and good, but “Jaws” a July 4th symbol?
I could argue that “Jaws” is a metaphor for the American Revolution. The shark feeding off of a town in New England, where the Revolution began, represents Great Britain (and its naval supremacy), which, through its taxes, fed off of the thirteen colonies. In the movie, the shark is ultimately defeated, not by the professionals (an oceanographer and fisherman) with the tools of their trade, but by a regular man with a rifle just as the British were defeated by the muskets of ordinary citizens – farmers, merchants and working men.
Or I could argue that the movie, with its troubled production and eventual enormous success, mirrors America’s troubled start and its eventual emergence as a superpower. Spielberg’s shooting schedule failed to account for the troubles of filming on the Atlantic, where bad weather often led to delays. The three prop sharks (nicknamed “Bruce” by the crew) frequently malfunctioned as a result of the bad weather and saltwater. As a result of these problems, the movie’s cost (over $9 million) more than doubled its $4 million budget.
As a sidenote: the problems with the shark props were blessings in disguise. Because the props couldn’t be used often, Spielberg was forced to shoot the movie differently. Instead of showing the shark early and throughout the movie as he originally wanted, Spielberg hid the shark until the final quarter of the film, thus heightening the film’s suspense. I can’t imagine the film being as entertaining or anywhere near as successful if Spielberg had been able to his early plans.
Any attempt, however, at casting “Jaws” as a July 4th metaphor would be pure equine excrement (although, I admit, fun to formulate).
In the end, the ties that “Jaws” has for me to July 4th lay in my history with the film. I grew up in Central Minnesota where I sometimes spent the July 4th holiday on lakes where the beaches were man-made, the water held nothing bigger than a northern pike, and the lake’s horizon held the other shore. I didn’t see the Atlantic Ocean in person until I was eighteen or step foot into an East Coast beach town until I was 23.
I first saw “Jaws” when I was a teenager and it was my first experience with many things depicted in the movie. In it, I first saw an island beach town, dependent on summer tourists and their summer dollars pouring in on crowded ferries. In “Jaws,” I was able to sit on an immense, sandy beach, covered with people, staring out at the ocean with no land on the horizon. In “Jaws,” I saw for the first time the rolling beach dunes framed by sandfences and beach grass.
Since taking root on the East Coast twenty-four years ago, I have spent many July 4th holidays on Atlantic beaches: the Jersey Shore, the Long Island Hamptons, and Cape Cod. Each time that I do, I’m reminded how the movie, despite being 43 years old, still accurately reflects the experience. Beach towns are still dependent upon tourist money. On beautiful days, especially July 4th, those tourists still flock to the towns and cover their beautiful beaches. Those beaches still look the same as they did in the movie; only the bathing suits have changed. Otherwise, “Jaws” still perfectly encapsulates July 4th today.
Well, except for the shark. Thank God, the shark is not a regular July 4th feature (despite what the horrid “Jaws” sequels may have you believe).