Jaws! (and Airport 1975)

jawsForty years ago, Jaws hit the theaters. The opening weekend box figure was more than $7 million, which almost covered the film’s estimated budget of $8 million. By the Independence Day weekend in 1975, just a few weeks after its launch, Jaws was holding steady at the box office. It would go on to gross more than $470 million worldwide.

Forty years ago, Anna saw Jaws at the theater. That was the summer between fourth and fifth grade. Anna was just nine years old, when her great aunt Ro took her to see the film. Her sister, Brigid, remembers not being allowed to go because it would be too scary. Their mother had stayed up all night reading the book several months earlier. Anna hadn’t read the book yet (the two differ in some significant ways) but thoroughly enjoyed the film, and we both can’t help but watch it if we’re flipping through the channels and come across Jaws.

In honor of its 40th anniversary, Turner Classic Movies has brought Jaws back to the big screen. Jaws showed again in theaters this past Sunday (we saw it! it was amazing!) and is showing again TODAY, probably at 2pm and 7pm. If you read this post early enough, check your local listings and get yourself to the theatre.

Lest you think that sharks are old news, the beach-goers in Huntington Beach, California, near where we live have sighted a group of roughly a dozen 6- to 10-foot sharks feeding on stingrays about fifty feet offshore lately. Several of those sharks have now been tagged so that researchers can follow their movements and post warning signs on beaches. And then there’s the shark stories out of North Carolina.

SharkSharks have been around long before vertebrates started traipsing around on land. Even white sharks—the shark in Jaws is a great white—have been around for more than 60 million years. One of the fascinating characteristics about sharks is, of course, their teeth, which are implanted in the gums rather than in the jaw itself and are continuously replaced so that one shark may have tens of thousands of teeth over a lifetime.

Not all sharks need to swim almost constantly, but many species lack enough buoyancy to take even a short nap without sinking. Their buoyancy is aided by their cartilage, which is half as dense as bone, and by a large liver filled with an oily substance called squalene. Some sharks also keep moving in order to keep breathing because they must keep water flowing over their gills, whereas other sharks have the ability to pump water over the gills.

Sharks have a keen sense of hearing, far superior to humans. Sharks also have an adept sense of smell and can detect the direction of something they smell because it hits each nostril at a different time. Like cats, some sharks have a nictating membrane that covers their eyes when extra protection is needed, as when they attack. Great whites, like the one in Jaws, however, lack this membrane and, instead, roll their eyes back during attack.

(photo NOAA)
(photo NOAA)

When you read Jaws or watch the film, you may come away with the idea that sharks are dumb, single minded, and aggressive. Sharks actually have a brain-to-body mass ratio akin to our own, suggesting that they aren’t as dumb as Peter Benchley, who wrote the book, led us to believe. Moreover, recent studies have shown that they exhibit curiosity, memory, and recognition.

In the 2013 Ballantine paperback re-issue of Jaws, Benchley provides an introduction that recounts how Jaws came to be. The most interesting aspect of that introduction, though, is Benchley’s reflection on the difference between what he knew about sharks when he wrote the book and what he has come to know and appreciate about sharks and the need for conservation.

I prided my self on knowing more about sharks than the general populace, but I succumbed nevertheless to anecdotal evidence and accepted it—or them, for the anecdotes were legion—as truth. […] Time and again, I confidently assured interviewers that every single incident of shark behavior described in Jaws (the book, remember, not the movie) had actually happened—not all at once, not by the same shark, but over the years and in some sea somewhere in the world. I was correct, too; every episode described in the book had happened…just not for the reasons I had posited, nor with the results I had imagined.

I learned about them slowly, firsthand, often in company with scientists or fishermen or divers, and each discovery was fascinating, albeit humbling. One of the first lessons I learned was that sharks not only don’t seek out and attack human beings, they avoid humans whever possible—we are, after all, large, noisy, ugly aliens that, for all a shark knows, may pose mortal danger—and bite them very rarely. They don’t even like the taste of us, and great whites often spit humans out because they’re too bony and fat-free (compared to seals, that is).

I could never write Jaws today. I could never demonize an animal, especially not and animal that is much older and much more successful in its habitat than man is, has been, or ever will be, an animal that is vitally necessary for the balance of nature in the sea, and an animal that we may—if we don’t change our destructive behaviors—extingush from the face of the earth.

Jaws has also given me a second career. For the past decade or so, I’ve been working in marine conservation pretty much fulltime, though I still find diving with big critters in remote locales irresistible and I’ll abandon almost anything for the chance to visit with great white sharks under water. I don’t know how much I can accomplish—I don’t know how much anyone can accomplish—but I do know that after all I’ve received from sharks, I’d feel like an ingrate if I didn’t give something back.

Though the movie Airport 1975 was released the previous year. That film’s star was Karen Black, a native Illinoisan who plays flight attendant Nancy Pryor. Today is Karen Black’s birthday; she would have been 76 years old.

We also want to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the fictional events it depicts. The jumbo jet on a cross-country flight is damaged in a midair collision after being diverted to Salt Lake City because of West Coast weather. The co-pilot is propelled out of the plane, the flight engineer is killed, and the blinded captain engages the autopilot before passing out.

747-100 like in Airport 1975 (photo Arpingstone)
747-100 like in Airport 1975 (photo Arpingstone)

Nancy, with help from folks on the ground, must fly the plane herself so that it won’t crash into the mountains. Finally, another pilot, who is Nancy’s former lover and is played by Charlton Heston, is lowered safely into the cockpit from a helicopter and lands the plane.

Airport 1975 cost $3 million dollars and grossed more than $47 million. It wasn’t, however, the top-grossing film of 1974. The top two spots were held by The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. Helen Reddy, who plated a singing nun in Airport 1975, was nominated for the Globe Globe for most promising female newcomer, but the award went to Susan Flannery, who was in The Towering Inferno and went on to soap opera fame. And so go the seventies.

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