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Jaws: How George Lucas Became the Mechanical Shark’s First Victim

The iconic film was notable for its mechanical shark, which kept breaking down during the Jaws shoot, claiming George Lucas as its first victim.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up to more or less invent the blockbuster, both separately with movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and together with their collaboration on the Indiana Jones films. Fast friends as well as creative partners, the two shaped the mentality of Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s, aided by their mutual love of cinema and a passion for dynamic storytelling.

That extends back to earlier in their careers when both were more or less journeyman directors just working to put movies together. In fact, Lucas visited Spielberg on the set of 1975’s Jaws — the record-breaking thriller that officially launched the blockbuster era — and inadvertently became an early participant in one of the movie’s more bizarre behind-the-scenes stories.

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Jaws was based on a novel by Peter Benchley about a great white shark terrorizing a Long Island beach town just as the tourist season gets underway. Spielberg had cut his teeth directing television shows and had scored a notably early hit with the 1971 made-for-TV movie Duel: a thriller about a hapless motorist pursued on the highway by a psychotic truck driver. That made him a good fit to adapt the novel, and the results catapulted him to the top of the filmmaking world.

But it was a rough road getting there. Jaws became one of Hollywood’s more notorious shoots, with delays and budget overruns of all varieties bedeviling the young director. Actors Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss reportedly hated each other, for instance — a fact which Spielberg ingeniously worked into the drama between their characters — while Shaw himself would show up to work inebriated.

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Worst of all, the film’s mechanical shark — nicknamed “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer — would constantly malfunction. This, too, inadvertently aided the film’s reputation, as Spielberg turned to Alfred Hitchcock for inspiration and did far better hinting at the shark than openly displaying a decidedly dodgy prop. Lucas became an inadvertent trendsetter in that process, as Bruce’s mechanical failures literally reached out and bit him.

According to a 2020 article by CinemaBlend, Lucas arrived for a visit to the set in 1974. His interest in technology induced him to pop his head inside Bruce’s mouth to give the mechanics a look. Spielberg, along with filmmaker John Milius who was in their circle, played a prank on him by activating the shark mouth. It closed around Lucas’ head, leaving him stuck there.

The joke was ultimately on Spielberg and Milius when the shark mouth wouldn’t reopen, continuing Bruce’s legendary track record of poor performance. Lucas freed himself in short order, but the image speaks volumes about that era of filmmaking. Somewhere in there, he, Spielberg and Milius were just kids having fun. Jaws — and the legacy it spawned — benefited immeasurably from it.

A native Californian, Robert Vaux has spent over 20 years as a professional film and television critic: working for such outlets as Collider, and The Sci-Fi Movie Page. His favorite superhero is Nightcrawler and his lucky numbers are 4, 9, 14, 16, 36, and 40.

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