The original shark tale

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema... Fiona Sturges on the anniversary of the first blockbuster

Jaws may have been a blockbuster but it was no empty-headed monster movie. Not for nothing did it make the American Film Institute's top 100 films of all time. Since its release 30 years ago, Jaws has become known as the original summer movie, the standard by which all others are judged. The film, which was based on Peter Benchley's best-selling book, not only made generations of seasiders think twice about going into the water but transformed the way mainstream movies were made and marketed. It also earned 27-year-old Steven Spielberg a place among the Hollywood A-list, and remains among his finest pictures. The director quickly followed Jaws with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark and wisely distanced himself from the Jaws sequels.

With its relatively modest budget of $12m, Jaws became the highest-grossing film of all time - a record it held until George Lucas unveiled Star Wars two years later - and shattered Hollywood film executives' belief that no one goes to the cinema in the summer. As well as spending an unprecedented amount on TV marketing, Universal studios, realising it had a hit on its hands, took the unusual step of booking the film into more than 400 cinemas on its opening weekend. It was a wise move: Jaws sold 25 million tickets in 38 days.

The story, about a 25ft great white that starts snacking on the Amity Island seaside community, tapped into a primal fear of what lurks beneath the surface of the sea. It saw three very different men - Richard Dreyfuss's bespectacled oceanographer Hooper, Roy Scheider's principled police chief Brody, and Shaw's malevolent shark hunter Quint - head out in a tiny boat to hunt the shark down. It culminated in an epic, man-versus-beast, battle, but Jaws was primarily a human drama that saw its protagonists grappling their own demons - Brody with his fear of water, and Quint with the memory of his wartime crew being turned to mincemeat by marauding sharks.

Along with the shark, Jaws had another set of villains: politicians. For the first half of the film Brody's biggest fight is not with the oversized fish picking off his fellow islanders but with the mayor (Murray Hamilton) who refuses to close the beaches for fear of losing out on the summer tourist trade. "You yell 'barracuda!' and everyone says 'Huh? What?', he barked. "You yell 'shark' and we've got a major panic on our hands on the fourth of July."

No one expected Jaws to be so successful. There was certainly little hint of its destiny during the calamitous shoot that ran over budget and behind schedule. The biggest problem was the mechanical shark (known on set as Bruce), a hydraulically operated contraption that was given to frequent malfunctions, often sinking to the bottom of the sea mid-shoot. In the end, Spielberg turned the technical hitch to his advantage, conducting the attack sequences from the shark's point of view. It was a master-class in suspense. Moviegoers saw the victims, the moving water and the occasional dorsal fin, but the rest was left to the imagination.

The music was also crucial to the sense of fear. John Williams's famous two-note tune, which has been used in countless spoofs, helped create the illusion of the shark's presence in the early scenes. The moment when the fabled shark finally appeared, nearly 90 minutes in to the film, going eyeball to eyeball with Chief Brody, was the ultimate in horror-movie climaxes. The fact that it looked like a lump of rubber didn't matter - the audience was already hooked.

But despite being a critical and commercial smash, Jaws now shoulders the blame for inventing the blockbuster and generally lowering the tone of summer movies. "[Jaws'] lasting meaning is the money it made," wrote the critic David Thomson in The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. Post-Jaws, the blockbuster was synonymous with big stars, big budgets and big merchandising. As the film continued to do roaring trade in the cinemas, so did the merchandisers, flogging everything from "Jaws"-emblazoned beach balls and sun-visors to toothy blow-up sharks. The poster of a shark looming beneath a lone swimmer has become one of the most recognisable pieces of mass-advertising in history.

Jaws has spawned endless imitators. Among the first was Orca, which boasted a huge killer whale as the monster seeking vengeance for the death of its mate. This was closely followed by The Deep, the 1977 Bermuda-set thriller which starred Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset alongside a giant man-eating eel. And let's not overlook 1978's Piranha, which saw a gaggle of flesh-nibbling fish released into a river by a deranged scientist, and Deep Blue Sea, which had real sharks though precious little real suspense.

Rumours abound of a Jaws remake, which would give some CGI boffin a chance to improve on that silly rubbery shark. The eponymous predator aside, however, it's impossible to see anyone improving on Spielberg's original film - not even Spielberg himself. Such a project would surely be dead in the water.

'Jaws' will be screened on Brighton's East Beach on Saturday 27 August. To apply for tickets, visit www.coolroom.com; 'Jaws: 30th Anniversary Collector's Edition' is released on DVD on 29 August, priced £39.99

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