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You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat!

Jaws Benchley (190x286)It was one year after the release of the Steven Spielberg horror/thriller Jaws that Universal Studios Hollywood created their Jaws ride on their Studio or Backlot Tour. In that pre-digital age, the awesome special effects of the Jaws exhibit were animatronic Jaws, some foamy water and bright red blood, and a terrorizing tram ride along the shores of Amityville. Hardy riders watched the demise of a replication of the notorious boat, The Orca.

For four decades the ride scared, thrilled and mesmerized millions of visitors, especially those who had seen the movie. And who hadn’t seen the movie? The Jaws sensation was perfected and redesigned at Universal Studios Florida and at Universal Studios Japan.

Over the years, however, children and teenagers were dragged on the spectacular ride (in the eyes of their parents and grandparents) and they found it lame and fake. Even those of us who rode again after the run of the century found it hokey and tired. The Jaws Attack ride went through several iterations across the world and was, finally, fully retired by 2012.

Author Peter Benchley was a 31-year old struggling journalist in 1971 when he wrote a novel about a shark that terrorized a community on Long Island, New York. He had become captivated by one particular shark hunter, Frank Mundus. Frank was a fisherman and a sensational boat captain and he capitalized on a fear, awe, and fascination with sharks. He led “Monster” fishing expeditions in hunt of sharks all for a pretty price. At the same time, he caught what might be the largest shark ever in 1964. Its weight was estimated to be 4,550 pounds.

Mundus was a colorful character who drank beer during the day, sported an earring in his ear, and skippered the Cricket and Cricket II off the coast of Long Island’s Montauk. Those of us who have seen Jaws know that this was the real life Quint, the passionate shark hunter that was written into Benchley’s book.  No fish was too big for Mundus to tackle in 1964. He eventually became discouraged when his catch of a 3427 pound Great White on one of his sport fishing trips was disqualified. He moved to Hawaii but traveled back to New York in 2005 as the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary, Shark Hunter – Chasing the Great White. (The one-hour documentary can be seen in full on You Tube.) He died in 2008 in an airport in Hawaii, returning on yet again another trip to New York.

There is no doubt, then, that Mundus inspired Benchley’s book that was commissioned and then published by Doubleday in 1974. It was a sensational thriller, staying on the bestseller lists for 44 weeks. Of course, the rest is history when Benchley co-wrote the screenplay and a 30-year old Steven Spielberg directed.

In the early 90s, sharks had virtually disappeared in the waters off Montauk, assuredly the result of Mundus and others who followed him. Nearly 1000 sharks were caught each day off Long Island. Both Mundus and Benchley eventually came to regret spawning both the appeal of shark hunting and the fear of sharks that was invoked by their successes. Benchley followed the success of Jaws with The Deep in 1976 and The Island in 1979, both made into films but never with the success of Jaws. He wrote more novels and works of non-fiction about the oceans and seas, was the first host of Shark Week in 1994 and created Peter Benchley’s Amazon television show.

The producers of Jaws invented the summer blockbuster. Up until the summer of 1976, films very infrequently became huge successes. It helped that the beaches were open and the days were hot for swimming and Spielberg spent heavily on advertising and planned for simultaneous release of Jaws across many markets.

None of the three sequels reached the triumph of the original Jaws. Jaws 2, Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge made money but never held the allure or achieved the success. The book and the movies all managed one thing, however. It kept people from going in the water. Beach attendance after the release of the first Jaws was at an all-time low. The fears experienced by millions of people was similar to that induced by Hitchcock’s movie Psycho in 1960.

Jaws is included on any number of “Best Film Ever” lists and there are few people who haven’t seen or heard about the film or the book. A 2007 documentary, The Shark is Still Working, studies the influences and power of the 1975 film. The images, let alone the impressionable music, conjure smiles, smirks and squeals from most of us. Richard Dreyfus, the young oceanographer was 29 when Jaws was released. Roy Schneider, police chief Brody, saw his first success in French Connection but had amazing and multiple successes in Jaws and Jaws 2.

Beloved (or hated) shark hunter Quint was played by Robert Shaw who died only four years after Jaws was released. Unlike Dreyfus, Spielberg, Williams and Schneider, whose careers exploded after the success of the movie, Jaws was one of Shaw’s last appearances. He also starred in Benchley’s The Deep in 1977, and died in Ireland of a heart attack at the age of 51 in 1979. Composer John Williams had already won an Academy Award for Fiddler on the Roof in 1971 but he won again for Jaws in 1976 and for Star Wars in 1977.  Peter Benchley’s legacy of shark conservation and education lives on in the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.

The Morrill Memorial Library has copies of all three of the Jaws films and Peter Benchley’s bestselling book. The Minuteman Library Network has many more. June 20, 2017 was the 42 anniversary of the film, Jaws, and sharks have been fascinating, terrifying and intriguing us for all forty-two years.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Charlotte’s column in the June 29th issue of the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.


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