Bringing the story of the USS Indianapolis to the big screen

Several attempts have been made to bring the story of the tragic sinking of the USS Indianapolis to cinemas. Here, Ti charts their often abortive progress…

“Eleven-hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. 13-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail…”

The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis was famously recounted by Robert Shaw’s Quint in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, when he told the horrific tale of how the US Navy ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in July 1945.

The USS Indianapolis had just delivered a highly secret cargo to Tinian island. Only a few members of the crew even knew it was a new, powerful weapon, and no one knew it would later be dropped on Hiroshima. On the ship’s return journey, it was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine.

Of the ship’s original 1100 crew, 800 survived the initial attack, but they were left floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean battling hunger, dehydration and hundreds and hundreds of sharks.  Over five days, the sailors fought the sharks and each other as exposure and dehydration drove many to madness. Eventually, 321 were spotted by a plane and pulled from the water.

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The ship’s captain, Charles McVay, was court-martialled over the whole incident, becoming the only ship captain to stand trial for the loss of his ship and crew. McVay later committed suicide in 1968, haunted by his actions (or inactions) during the incident.

The USS Indianapolis’ story continued, however, through the success of Jaws and the tenacity of an 11-year-old boy.

In 1996, Hunter Scott decided to write a school report about the incident after being inspired by Spielberg’s film. His research did more than he ever dreamed – not only did it vindicate Captain McVay of any wrongdoing, but after testifying before Congress in 2001, Hunter persuaded the US Navy to exonerate McVay’s record. This resolution was even signed by President Bill Clinton.

Heading To The Movies

Last month, it was announced thatIron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr, and his producing partner and wife Susan Downey, would be attempting to bring the tragic tale of the USS Indianapolis’ sinking to the big screen. Robert Schenkkan, who was a writer on HBO’s The Pacific, has been announced as writing a script for it.

I have always thought that the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis would make for a gripping film, as have many studios over the years, but each project has been cancelled for various reasons, and it’s easy to imagine why.

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Firstly, it would require a generous budget to do the initial sinking justice – the Indianapolis was a large ship, and it would take a sizeable effects budget to properly show the chaos and carnage of a torpedo attack.

Secondly, there is the sheer bleakness of the subject matter – McVay’s suicide and the terrible loss of life would surely put off many viewers.

Third, the perils of shooting on water for an extended period of time has tormented many a director (see Spielberg on Jaws, and Peter Weir on Master And Commander). Then there are the logistical nightmares of filming with sharks. Do you go CGI or go the Open Water route, and use real ones?  You can see why many studios have simply opted not to bother, though this hasn’t stopped many actors and directors trying to do so over the years. 

The One That Got Made

Before I describe the many failed USS Indianapolis projects, I should point out that there has already been one film made, called Mission Of The Shark: Saga Of The USS Indianapolis. A TV movie, Mission starred Stacy Keach as Captain McVay and Richard ‘John-Boy Walton’ Thomas as the ship’s doctor.

While it suffered from a limited budget, the film doesn’t shy away from the tale’s more brutal incidents, with sailors going mad from drinking sea water, turning on their shipmates, and even killing each other. However, it suffered from a problem that could also hamper larger studio films.

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You see, not all of the Indianapolis crew were together during their five days at sea. Many groups of survivors were spread out all over the ocean – McVay was with some of his men, the ship’s doctor with others, and various non-commissioned officers were trying to stop the men from killing each other. On the big screen, this could prove to be both confusing and repetitive for the audience, who will have to watch several groups of survivors going through similar experiences.

This fact didn’t deter Mel Gibson, however.

The Captain And The Shark

In 2001, Mel Gibson was lined up to play McVay in a version of the events called The Captain And The Shark. The project was being developed by Warner Brothers, and reports stated Barry Levinson was going to direct. The Captain And The Shark was based on Doug Stanton’s book In Harm’s Way, which remains the definitive account of the tragedy. Even if you have a passing interest in the story, I suggest you pick it up, as it is one of the most harrowing books I have ever read.

The Good Sailor

At the same time, Universal was planning its own take on the story. This project was called The Good Sailor, and they also wanted Mel Gibson for McVay. The Good Sailor was written by Brent Hanley, who had written Frailty, but Gibson was leaning towards Warner Brothers’ script, as it was being rewritten by John Hoffman. However, the whole thing fell apart following the actor’s much-publicised drink driving arrest and anti-Semitic rantings.

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The Good Sailor was then circled by a number of directors at Universal, including Ron Howard and Peter Weir (who reportedly wanted to reunite with Russell Crowe on the project). There were even rumblings of Steven Spielberg himself directing the film. However, there was one name that seemed to be constantly attached to the project: JJ Abrams.

Even before he had directed Mission: Impossible III, Abrams was being courted to direct The Good Sailor. In January 2005, it was all-but confirmed, with the studio putting out press releases and casting calls, but then Tom Cruise made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. After Mission: Impossible III came Star Trek, and the rest is history.

The Good Sailor was put back into development hell. Then, in 2006, there was a new development. Universal announced it had hired Robert Nelson Jacobs to pen a version of the tale based around Hunter Scott. Universal still wanted Abrams, but they wanted the story to centre on Hunter Scott and his project that saw McVay vindicated.

Jacob, who had previously written The Shipping News and The Water Horse, allegedly produced a script that would have created a fictional relationship between Scott and an aging survivor of the ship disaster, and told the story in flashbacks. 


Then came rumours of another script. Aint It Cool reportedly got their hands on a script called Optimistic, written by Donnie Darko’s Richard Kelly. It was said to be fantastic, with one reader saying, “Richard Kelly cuts the script neatly in half… the first half building character and tension, the second half being some of the most harsh and graphic and disturbing shark attacks I’ve read”.

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However, none of this seemed to amount to anything, and in December 2006, Warner Brothers announced it had dusted off its The Captain And The Shark script and hired a director, Chris Kentis. Kentis had directed Open Water, and thus had experience filming on water and working with sharks. Trade reports also stated that Mark Gordon, Akiva Goldsman and Betsy Beers were producing and financing the film.

The new version of the script reportedly fleshed out the back story on why the ship’s distress signal went unheeded, how the survivors were spotted, and how the military made a scapegoat of McVay. But then nothing nothing was heard – that is, until last month.

Robert Downey Jr

With Downey Jr reportedly teaming up with Warner, we can only assume that Robert Schenkkan is either reworking the long-gestating The Captain And The Shark script, or writing something completely new. One thing is for sure, it will be a bold gamble for Warner Bros.

For the US Navy, it is an embarrassing part of their history. For the US, it’s one of its worst military disasters, and for everyone else, it’s one of the bleakest and brutal survival stories of recent times. 

Yes, it will make for compelling and uncomfortable viewing, but one wonders whether it’ll match the sheer impact of Robert Shaw’s speech.

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