In the New England beach town of Amity Island, a bunch of kids are staying up late around a fire, getting drunk and making out. Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) goes skinny dipping and the next day her remains are found washed up on the beach. The medical examiner declares it a shark attack and Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) closes the beaches, but Mayor Larry Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) convinces the coroner to call it a boating accident, because a shark attack would be bad for business.

Brody goes along with this until a young boy, Alex Kinter (Jeffrey Voorhees) is killed as an entire beach full of vacationers looks on. A local shark-hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) offers his services for $10,000 and an oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an expert on shark behaviour, examines Chrissies’ remains and says she was killed by an unusually large Great White.

Local fishermen catch a tiger shark and the mayor declares the problem solved. Alex’s mother (Lee Fiero) confronts Brody and blames him for her son’s death. The contents of the tiger shark’s stomach is examined and they find some fish and tin cans and a license plate, but there are no human remains. Hooper and Brody discover a half-sunken boat and a fisherman’s body and Hooper finds a very large shark tooth, but the mayor opens the beaches for the Fourth of July. A bather is killed before the eyes of Brody’s son Michael (Chris Remelo) and he goes into shock. Only then does Brody convince the mayor to hire Quint.

They set out in Quint’s boat, the Orca, to hunt down the Beastie. It appears for the first time in the movie and they determine that it’s 25 feet long and weighs 3 tons. They harpoon it and it pulls marker barrels underwater. From then on, the barrels keep popping up and get to be as scary as the shark itself. Talking and drinking in the night, Quint reveals that he was on board the USS Indianapolis when a shipload of sailors were left to die in shark-infested waters—a chilling true story. The shark attacks the Orca, disabling the ship’s power. An obsessed Quint smashes the radio so Brody cannot call the Coast Guard for rescue. After a long chase, they harpoon the shark again, but it drags the boat around, swamping the deck and flooding the engine. The boat is slowly sinking.

Hooper descends in a shark cage, which the shark promptly pulls to pieces. Hooper drops the poisoned spear he was going to use and hides in the bottom. The shark leaps onto the boat and devours Quint in a powerful, horrible scene. Brody shoves a SCUBA tank in its mouth as the boat sinks, then shoots the tank with a rifle and it blows the shark to bits. Hooper reappears and he and Brody paddle back to shore on the remaining barrels.

The film was directed, of course, by Steven Spielberg, based on the best-selling 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. It was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard and was the first major motion picture to be shot on the ocean. The problems with the shoot constitute a story of their own. A mechanical shark which Spielberg named after his lawyer Bruce was constantly breaking down, and as a result, glimpses of the shark were few and far between, creating Hitchcockian suspense until its spectacular appearance. This was enormously helped by the brilliant minimalist score of John Williams. It was the first summer blockbuster and appeared on 450 screens with a huge publicity campaign. There were three sequels, unfortunately, made without either Spielberg or Benchley, which are among the worst movies ever made, and it launched a spate of monster movies about beasties ranging from piranhas to bunnies, with varied success.

Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, producers at Universal Pictures, and the latter’s wife Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, all ran across Benchley’s novel Jaws. Universal purchased the rights, and Spielberg immediately wanted to direct. It reminded him of his 1971 TV film Duel. Benchley began writing the script and, later, Spielberg’s friend Carl Gottlieb. Much of the magic is in the three main characters, who pretty much improvised their relationship. Roy Scheider’s dedicated cop, Richard Dreyfuss’s intellectual marine biologist, and Robert Shaw’s eccentric and grouchy shark-hunter have to remind you of Kirk, Spock, and Bones.

The producers wanted to train a Great White but were convinced that this was impossible. Bob Mattey, known for creating the giant squid in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, led the 40 technicians who created the artificial shark. It took 14 operators to run it, when it worked. Budget for the film more than doubled because the shark and the Atlantic Ocean would not co-operate. The Orca ship actually began to sink and Spielberg thought his career was doing the same. John Williams received an Oscar for his brilliant score, which ratchetted up the suspense throughout the movie. Williams said the music, like a shark, was designed to be instinctual, relentless, and unstoppable. Williams always stole from the best and there were touches of La Mer by Debussy and Rite of Spring by Stravinsky in the music.

Quint reminds you of Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, and there are echoes of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Thing from Another World, Godzilla, and King Kong. The plot is similar to that of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, in which a doctor discovers danger in a seaside town’s medicinal hot springs. Many have read all kinds of politics in the town’s reaction to the menace. Now, the whole thing can be seen as a story of climate change and human helplessness. The film was studied for cinematic neurosis, along with the Exorcist, as people complained of trauma from watching it. The film was praised by critics, made a boatload of money, and won three Oscars. It is now considered one of the greatest movies of all time.

In the scene in which Chrissie’s remains are discovered, the arm looked fake, so they buried a female crewmember in the sand with her arm exposed. When John Williams played the score for Steven Spielberg, the latter thought it was a joke. “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” was an ad-lib on the part of Roy Scheider. Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss could not stand each other for real and it made for great tension between the characters. The first choice for director was Dick Richard, until it became clear that he could not tell the difference between a shark and a whale. When the boat sank during filming, they thought the pictures in the camera were lost, but developing solution is saline and they were fine. Residents of Martha’s Vineyard were paid $64.00 to scream and run across the beach.

George Lucas, visiting the effects shop, got his head stuck in the shark’s mouth. The boat Orca is well-named because Orcas are the only creatures who prey on Great White Sharks. When Spielberg was particularly irritated, he referred to the mechanical shark as the great white turd. Robert Shaw did not make any money from the film because he owed too much in back taxes to three countries. He died at age 51, four years after Jaws. When Quint’s shack was built, Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, refused to let it be finished without permission. But when the production realized it would take two months to be served with a cease-and-desist order, they decided it would be faster to build the house, film it, and tear it down again.

After the trauma of making the movie, Spielberg could not sleep on a waterbed again. Robert Shaw did not want to do the film, but his wife and secretary told him to do it. The last time they said that it was regarding From Russia with Love, and he decided to follow their advice again. The story of the sinking of the Indianapolis was brought to light by Quint’s powerful speech. The ship was found 18,000 feet down in the Philippine Sea by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Actually, the truth of the story was somewhat different. Many witnesses said that the sharks mostly fed on those who were already dead. Shark-experts say the creatures do not like to eat anything that can fight back. Most of the victims actually died by drowning or were killed by fellow crewmembers who had gone mad from drinking seawater. It was still pretty awful.