Based on Peter Benchley's novel of the same name, 'Jaws' centers on a fictional resort town called Amity Island that's suddenly terrorized at the height of tourist season by a flesh-eating Great White shark. As the body counts starts to stack up, local police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) tries to keep swimmers out of the water, but faces opposition from the local town council. Brody finally takes matters into his own hands, and enlists marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and weathered shark hunter Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) to send the shark to the great big ocean in the sky.
With its gory scenes and big box-office performance, 'Jaws' gave birth not only to a new genre of film, famous lines and a bright future for Spielberg, but also to a new, dubious distinction for Martha's Vineyard, the island off of Massachusetts where the movie was filmed. Well-known to MA locals looking for an idyllic getaway (and now to more of the world, thanks to presidential visits by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), the Vineyard, as it's known locally, has about 15,000 year-round residents and swells to more than 75,000 during the summer.
Location as Character: Spielberg is said to have chosen the Vineyard as his primary filming location because it has up to 12 miles of shallow water over sand, which he thought would suit shooting with the mechanical sharks (known collectively as Bruce). Located six miles off the coast of Massachusetts, several areas of the Vineyard's 87 square miles served as locations for 'Jaws,' for which crew members were allowed to build new structures, on the condition that every inch of the island would be restored to normal following the shoot. Filming on the Vineyard arguably enhanced the film's sense of terror: Part of 'Jaws's' tension stems from the notion of being surrounded by a killer that could strike at any time.
Spielberg's choice of location also lent the movie many of its substantive details. The Vineyard's quaint Edgartown, with its Cod Codder houses and small-town feel, served as Amity's town center. The fishing village of Menemsha, meanwhile, at the island's southwest corner, provided the right atmosphere for the 'Jaws' crew to build Quint's little cottage.
While many of the Vineyard's locations became well-known to audiences worldwide, 'Jaws' also employed locals to work as extras in the movies many beach scenes. "The people who were involved in the movie are proud of that," Edgartown policeman Tom Smith recently told Reuters. "It's part of the[ir] identity." Smith was in third grade when he appeared in the original 'Jaws.' When he was in junior high, he was cast again for the sequel, and took a week off of college to work as security for the franchise's fourth installment, 'Jaws: The Revenge.' Neither Spielberg nor Benchley worked on any of the film's subsequent installments.
Historical Significance: While visitors to the Vineyard won't find vendors hawking 'Jaws'-related memorabilia or offering Los Angeles-style location tours, the blockbuster's legacy still lives on. To mark the movie's 30th anniversary in 2005, the island threw JAWSfest, a three-day homage to the shark thriller. More than 4,000 people attended the event, which featured an outdoor screening of 'Jaws,' a local location guide and appearances by Benchley and members of the cast and crew.
While a 35th anniversary JAWSfest has yet to be approved for 2010, some fan blogs suggest that the island will host another event in 2011. In the meantime, Vineyard locals pay homage in their own ways: This summer, a local bar unveiled a life-size reproduction of Bruce the shark. This winter, writers Jim Beller and Matt Taylor will release 'Jaws: Memories From Martha's Vineyard,' a 300-page book on the making of the movie, which will include archival photos and a DVD of behind-the-scenes footage.
Fun Fact: Despite its idyllic setting, 'Jaws' was plagued with problems from the moment the crew arrived on the Vineyard -- not the least of which were mechanical troubles with the various shark models, which had previously only been tested in Hollywood pools. The salt water eroded the machines' inner workings, and a marine mechanic had to be called in on location to try and fix the sharks. The mechanical troubles reportedly affected how Spielberg filmed the shark scenes, which often showed only the dorsal fin, instead of the entire animal, and resulted in what some critics thought was a Hitchcokian approach to suspense.
Directions: Martha's Vineyard is accessible by plane or ferry from several locations, but the most popular route is the ferry from the Steamship Authority in Woods Hole, MA. From Boston and points north, take route 128 South/I-95 to MA-24 S toward Brockton/Fall River. From 24 S, take exit 14A and merge onto 495 S toward Cape Cod. Continue over the Bourne Bridge, and take the second exit to MA-28 toward Falmouth, Woods Hole and the Islands. Follow signs to the Steamship Authority parking lot. Free shuttle buses take passengers from the parking lots to the ferry.
Visitor Info: The island is open to tourists year-round, but advance reservations are required for ferry travel. While cars are allowed on the ferry (with advance reservations), bikes are the preferred mode of transit on the Vineyard -- and easier to transport across the bay.