It was a relatively low-budget movie directed by a young man with only two feature films to his credit who also happened to be an Eagle Scout.
It ended up being the biggest blockbuster of the year and would remain the highest grossing movie of the next couple of years, until it was unseated by another action movie from a similarly unknown director.
Jaws, released on June 20, 1975, is considered one of the greatest films ever made, ranking No. 48 on the American Film Institute’s original 100 Years … 100 Movies list from 1998.
Based on the novel of the same name released the previous year from author Peter Benchley, it is the movie that propelled the career of Steven Spielberg into the stratosphere: The Distinguished Eagle Scout went on to win two Academy Awards for Best Director, and his films are collectively among the highest grossing of all time.
The film is perhaps most remembered for how its limited special effects actually increased the tension of the movie. Instead of filming the shark scenes in a giant water tank in the safety and comfort of a movie set, Spielberg insisted on filming on location in the Atlantic Ocean.
The sun, wind and saltwater wreaked havoc on the crew and the mechanical shark, which forced the director to hide the monstrous creature from view more than he had originally planned.
In hindsight, it worked out brilliantly, as the suspense of rarely ever actually seeing the shark kept audiences on the edge of their seats throughout the movie.
The Boy Scout reference
There are lots of famous lines and popular scenes in Jaws — for my money, you can’t beat Quint’s all-time great USS Indianapolis monologue — but there’s one scene you might have missed unless you just happened to be looking for it.
Around 11 minutes into the movie, our hero, police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider), is shopping for supplies at a hardware store to make signs warning people to stay out of the water. As he exits the store, Deputy Hendricks pulls up in his truck and delivers the following message:
Chief! Chief! Polly sent me to find you to tell you that there’s a bunch of Boy Scouts out in Avril Bay doing their mile swim for their merit badges. I couldn’t call them in; there’s no phones out there!
Chief Brody, ever the man of action, gives Hendricks the materials to make the signs and gets behind the wheel of the truck himself to go warn the Scouts of the danger they’re in.
“Beach is closed. No swimming!” Brody says as he drives away.
It’s this proclamation that invites the disapproval of the movie’s secondary villain, Mayor Larry Vaughn. In fact, in the movie’s next scene, we see Brody watching from shore as the Scouts complete their swim. Vaughn approaches Brody and tells him there’s no need to shut down the beaches since it might hurt the local economy.
Taking a closer look
There are a few interesting nuggets to unpack here. Spielberg was in his late 20s when Jaws was filming. Surely he wasn’t far enough removed from his days in Scouting to forget that the Mile Swim isn’t a merit badge, nor was it a merit badge when Spielberg was working his way toward Eagle in the late 1950s. It is unknown whether or not this was a mistake, or if Spielberg wanted the dialogue to represent what someone might say who isn’t familiar with the Scouting program. (Apparently, Deputy Hendricks was not a Scout.)
Of course, Spielberg didn’t actually write the script, but surely he would have noticed the inaccuracy at some point, right?
Another possibility is that the Scouts in the movie were working on a merit badge that required them to swim one mile (hence the line doing their mile swim for their merit badges), but that doesn’t exactly hold up under scrutiny, either. Thanks to our friends on the BSA Records Management team, I got my hands on several old Lifesaving and Swimming merit badge pamphlets from that era and could find no evidence of a one-mile swim “requirement” in any of them. (If you have evidence that suggests otherwise, let us know in the comments!)
To earn the Lifesaving merit badge, Spielberg himself would have had to swim just 100 yards. For the Swimming merit badge, the requirement was 150 yards. (Nowadays, the Eagle-required Lifesaving merit badge requires a 400-yard swim.)
Diving even deeper
In a biography on Spielberg published in 2002, the author writes, “Somehow he managed to earn the swimming merit badge, even though it required him to swim a mile.” This is incorrect, though it’s an easy mistake to make if you aren’t familiar with the Scouting program. A different book published in 2011 says, “Completing his one-mile swim requirement was a major challenge.” Technically, this is also incorrect, as the Mile Swim is an award that you have the option to earn, not a requirement for any rank or merit badge, and as best as I can tell, it has always been that way.
While Mayor Vaughn wasn’t concerned about safety, it appears that the Scouts’ fictional Scoutmaster was. At least a little. When Brody watches the Scouts swimming offshore, you can clearly see an adult leader in a rowboat or a canoe (or maybe it’s a kayak — it’s hard to tell) supervising the Scouts and shouting words of … I think it’s encouragement? It sounds like he says, “Hey Albert! Come on you goof! Keep your arms up!”
At least Spielberg didn’t have the Scouts out there on their own.
Later in the movie, the shark devours a boater in a red vessel similar to the one the Scout leader was in. There is some speculation among Jaws fans that this victim was the same Scout leader from earlier in the movie, but no one seems to know for sure. The character from the later scene is listed as “estuary victim” in the credits.
The uncredited Scout leader
The role of the Scout leader isn’t listed in the movie’s credits. However, IMDB says the role of “Scout Master (uncredited)” was played by a man named Rex Trailer. It’s important to note that IMDB is one of those websites that anyone can contribute to, and Trailer’s obituary from 2013 does not mention a role in Jaws.
Trailer, however, was in show business – he hosted a children’s TV show and recorded an album — so it is possible that he had connections with the movie’s production and landed the uncredited part. Trailer also spent many years living and working in Boston, while Jaws was filmed less than 100 miles away in and around Martha’s Vineyard.
Thanks to Scouting magazine reader Todd from Troop 76 in Park Ridge, Ill., for the story idea.
Jaws is rated PG, but it’s pretty darn intense and scary and might not be appropriate for younger audiences. It also might make you never want to enter the ocean again. Just saying.