If you’ve seen Jaws, you’ll remember the nighttime scene in Quint’s boat, the Orca, in which the three protagonists get drunk and sing songs, trading stories, until the subject of the USS Indianapolis comes up.
Indianapolis was the warship that delivered parts for the atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy to the Pacific island of Tinian in the Marianas, where bombers of the 509th Composite Bombardment Wing waited to launch the first atomic raid. She was a heavy cruiser, and on the return trip provided a juicy target for a Japanese sub that sent her to the bottom. Ships of that era had enormous crews, and Indianapolis went down with 300 drowned and 900 left floating in the water for days, where many were eaten by sharks, or died of other causes. Only a few over 300 survived.
This is the subject of Robert Shaw’s famous monologue, when Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfus, is playing a game of one-upmanship with Quint about their respective scars, inflicted by various encounters with eels, sharks, and Mary-Ellen Moffatt, and Chief Brody, played by Roy Scheider, asks Quint about a scar on his arm – and this one turns out to be from a tattoo removal. Hooper jokes “Don’t tell me – Mother“.
“Mr. Hooper, that’s the USS Indianapolis.” Hooper is a young but educated man, and knows just what Quint is talking about, and it’s a nice touch that Quint, who has to this point denigrated Hooper for his girly-man education, obviously knows that Hooper will understand. Things get deadly serious in just a second or two.
This scene is notable not just for the mesmerizing manner in which Robert Shaw delivers his lines, but also for the way that Dreyfus and Scheider say nothing, nothing at all, yet convey a world of dismayed and somber awe. As Quint’s story unfolds, the two others exchange glances, the warm buzz of their little booze party falling away. This is a horrifying tale. Terrifying. Men were in the water, helpless, as sharks devoured them piecemeal, screaming, trying to group together as if there might be some safety in numbers, pounding on the water to try to scare the monsters away. Well, sometimes, the sharks would go away. Sometimes they wouldn’t go away, and then you’d hear that horrible, high-pitched screaming.
Jaws was the first proper summer blockbuster. Unlike so many that followed, it worked because you really came to care about these three guys out hunting a monstrous Great White in their boat that seemed, as events unfolded, to be just too damned small for the task. You got to know them, and their distinct personalities. You very much worried over their fate. Here they were, bonding over the most terrible of stories, and we were suddenly afraid for them. They were all alone out there. Maybe they too would witness, as the last thing they ever saw, those horrible eyes of the shark roll back in its head as it delivered the killing bite, those lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.
In this scene, Jaws stopped being just a horror movie, and turned into something else entirely. A master class in acting.