Looking Back at “Bruce”: An Ode to the Shark From Jaws (Weekly Feature)

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat…”

“That’s a 20 footer.”

“25. Three tons of him.”

-Jaws

It’s an interesting thing. A 25 foot ft, man-eating Great White Shark is something most modern-day audiences would see on the Sci-Fi network. A cheesy sea monster than can be destroyed in a supernatural explosion. It’s not something that’s an immediate, or even a potential threat to most people. As a matter of fact, a 25 ft long Great White Shark has never definitively been recorded on film. In 2013, A pregnant female shark named “Deep Blue” was filmed lazily inspecting a shark cage off the coast of Mexico. She is estimated to be over 50 years old, and measure about 20 ft long. She’s the largest Great White in her territory. Despite her massive size however, she exhibited no highly aggressive behavior and eventually returned to the depths of the ocean. There was nothing about her that warranted immediate fear.

This wasn’t the case in the summer of 1975.

Originally written as a novel by Peter Benchley, and adapted into an Academy Award winning film by Steven Spielberg, Jaws is widely regarded as the first modern-day summer blockbuster.  For two years until the release of Star Wars in 1977, Jaws was the highest grossing film of all time. The film is regarded as a cinematic masterpiece that combines some of the best uses of horror, special effects, and drama. It stars Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw as three men who are forced to hunt down and kill a great white shark that is terrorizing a town in Martha’s Vineyard. Scheider plays Chief Brody, a police officer from New York with a fear of the water who just wants to protect the citizens and his family. Dreyfuss plays Matt Hooper, a oceanologist who is called in to study the creature. Finally, Robert Shaw portrays Quint, a WW II veteran and modern day Captain Ahab. All three of these men turn in iconic, extremely well acted performances, but the three play second fiddle to the undeniable screen presence of the film’s actual star.

The Shark itself.

Jaws made audiences terrified people of going into the water. Listed #18 as one of the top 100 movie villains of all time by the American Film Institute, the shark absolutely steals the movie. Driven by nothing more than an instinctual desire to eat, the shark lays claim to the beaches of Amity right in the middle of the summer season, a mere few weeks before the fourth of July. First it kills a women, and then a young child in broad daylight. Finally, on the fourth of July in a period of hysteria, a man is knocked out of his boat and eaten by the shark. The shark holds the town in fear as it threatens the lives of their friends and family. Furthermore, the livelihoods of the locals are threatened as the shark scares away tourists. Forced with no option other than to kill the animal, Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint are tasked with hunting it down.

Even in scenes the shark doesn’t appear, its presence its felt. The shark sets every major plot point into motion, and lies at the root of every piece of dialogue. Theres almost no scene in which the shark isn’t mentioned, discussed or alluded to. This was a brilliant trick used by Spielberg. After the mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce”) faced technical challenges in the salty open ocean, Spielberg was forced to figure out a way how to make the shark feared without actually being able to fully show it. The answer was only briefly showing the shark’s fin, or obscuring it in some way. The fear comes from the anxiety that the characters go through, and the gradual building up to the shark’s appearance. It’s a trick that’s been employed by countless horror films since. The shark itself doesn’t fully appear until the film’s final act, as shown in this iconic scene.

Important to note, Roy Scheider’s annoyance and then look of surprise and fear are genuine. After several failed takes in which the shark failed to surface, Scheider was frustrated that the shark was failing to operate, and was finally taken aback when the beast finally broke the water.

The Shark animatronic was initially three seperate mechanical sharks that all had different purposes and utilities depending on what type of scene was being shot. Because of the ocean conditions, and other factors the animatronics repeatedly needed upgrades and repairs. Breakdowns on the set weren’t uncommon. For the famous Shark cage sequence, shots of actual Great Whites circling cages off the coast of Australia were used. Shark naturliasts Ron and Valerie Taylor orchestrated the shots, and placed short actors in small cages with cameras in order to enchance the illusion that the sharsk were massive. One shot of a shark destroying the cage was so well done that Spielberg rewrote the script so that the character of Hooper survives and escapes the cage in order for the shot to be used.

A fourth shark was created for promotional purposes from the original “Bruce” mold where it was on display from 1975 to 1990 at Universal Studios. The model was then purchased by Sam Adlen from Alden Brothers Auto Wrecking in California. There, the model was hung up as a sort of decoration in the parking lot where it was weathered and forgotten. In 2010, NPR writer and correspondent Cory Turner found the shark in the lot, and brought a new sense of interest into preserving and visiting this old model.

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The fourth and final model of the shark hung at the Alden Brother Auto Wrecking  parking lot for two decades until it was donated to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in 2016. 

In 2016, after Adlen Brothers closed, owner of the establishment Nathan Adlen generously donated the final model to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures where it will be refurbished for a Jaws memorial exhibit. It will be the largest object on display at the museum. The exhibit is set to open in 2017, where even you will be witness this 25 ft giant for yourself. Until then, you should be safe going back into the water.

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