Jaws: Why the USS Indianapolis Speech is Steven Spielberg’s Favorite Scene

Forty-five years later, Robert Shaw’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis remains the best scene in Jaws… and its director agrees.

Robert Shaw as Quint in Jaws
Photo: Universal Pictures

Steven Spielberg always appears a little wary when the subject of Jaws comes up. While the blockbuster maestro frequently enjoys chatting about past triumphs, the mere mention of his career-making success seems to transport him back to those endless days floating in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, waiting for a mechanical shark to work, actors to stop squabbling, and maybe some type of spiritual deliverance. “I was more courageous or I was more stupid,” the director once said about that time in his life. “And I think of both of those things existing underwater.”

For that reason, when he’s asked what his favorite part is of his first masterpiece, Spielberg doesn’t say the innovation he created out of necessity by shooting shark attacks from the fish’s perspective, nor does he jump to John Williams’ primal score. Rather it’s always the image of three characters sitting around a crumbling ship’s table, swapping war stories of battles against leviathans of the deep, and then wily Quint’s actual tale of war: one that involved true story horrors, a nuclear bomb, and the doomed USS Indianapolis.

Sitting pensively in a simple close-up, Robert Shaw delivers a soliloquy fit for the Globe Theatre about the horrors more than 800 men faced for several days in the Pacific Ocean, drifting between life and death, dehydration and shark attacks. It’s the stuff of cinematic legend and remains scarier than any special effect. It is, indeed, the best part of the movie.

The actual history of the USS Indianapolis is so harrowing that it’s surprising it took a movie like Jaws to make it a household name. Launched in 1931, the Indianapolis was once the pride of the U.S. Navy, acting as the flagship of the Fifth Fleet during the heart of World War II in 1943 and ‘44. From its decks, Adm. Raymond Spruance commanded his fleet through the battles of Tarawa and Saipan. But on July 30, 1945, it earned a much more tragic legacy. The ship, tasked with delivering the nuclear bomb that would fall over the skies above Hiroshima, secretly entered the waters outside of the island of Tinian in the dog days of summer. There its crew of 1,195 men delivered the bomb. But at 12:15am on the 30th, while en route to the Philippines, their ship was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.

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Three hundred men are estimated to have died on impact. More than 800 did not, surviving the fires and mounting water long enough to abandon ship and flee into the sea. There they would find the sharks waiting.

“It was gruesome,” Indianapolis crew member Harlan Twible told the filmmakers of Jaws: The Inside Story. “The sharks would pull them down and eat their extremities, and the rest of the body would bob to the surface.”

In Jaws Quint states, “Eleven hundred men went into the water, 316 men came out and the sharks took the rest.” While there may be some exaggeration there that overlooks how many died of dehydration, burns from the sinking ship, or drowning, it was undeniably a feeding frenzy for the men who were really there.

“Men started getting ideas that the [rescue] ship wasn’t far in the distance,” survivor Tony King remembered to the History Channel. “Promises of pretty girls carrying fresh buttermilk biscuits or a cold drink just over the horizon. It wasn’t hard to be talked into things out there. So a group of us swam off, following the leader, not wanting to be left behind… There were so many sharks. So many. I’d see them swimming below me.”

These are just a snapshot of the terror these men endured, and yet it wasn’t until Jaws came out in 1975 that the story finally got the attention it deserves. How Spielberg builds to the moment is a case study in restraint and complete command of framing, even at the age of 28. Opening the scene as a humorous harpoon-measuring contest between Shaw’s gruff sea captain and Richard Dreyfuss’ well-educated, well-bred, and well-fed scientist, Matt Hooper, Spielberg lets their oil and water chemistry stew for what appears to be a single long take. The shot is only interspersed with telling reaction shots from Roy Scheider as Police Chief Brody, whose quiet emasculation before their hefty collection of sea creature scars is obvious. The scene plays like a kind of drunken tension-breaker in a pirate adventure movie.

The long take of Shaw and Dreyfuss allows the scene to breathe, but it turns out to only be a deep breath before Brody makes the faux pas of asking about the scar on Quint’s arm: It’s a removed tattoo of the words “USS Indianapolis.” Suddenly, the good ribbing’s oxygen vanishes from the room, and even smartass Hooper is instantly chilled by the ship’s mention, signaling to unsuspecting audiences that they’re about to hear something sobering.

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What’s all the more impressive about the moment is that Shaw himself helped write it… and that it has nothing to do with Peter Benchley’s source material novel.

“[It was] a very little credited writer who made the biggest breakthrough on Jaws,” Spielberg said about Howard Sackler. Sackler was a playwright who was working on the side in the 1970s as a journeyman screenwriter. Despite never getting credit for his contributions to Jaws, it was Sackler who insisted “you must explain why this man has a biblical vengeance against sharks.” As Spielberg told The Shark is Still Not Working documentary, “[Sackler] suggested what became a Rosetta Stone for Quint’s entire character.”

Despite what some folks, including Dreyfuss, have suggested, the story of the USS Indianapolis was not a hidden, classified report until the 1970s. Indeed, it was front page news in 1945 when the Navy attempted to court-martial Capt. Charles B. McVay III, who survived the sinking and the sharks, for what they considered negligence and a failure to evade a Japanese torpedo in a zigzag fashion. The Navy even made shocking global news when they flew the Japanese submarine commander, Mochitsura Hashimoto, to the U.S. as a witness against McVay.

Many of his crew members believed their captain was being railroaded, and even Hashimoto said he would’ve sunk the Indianapolis had it been zigzagging, but McVay was still convicted of hazarding his vessel. It was eventually overturned but he’d never go out to sea again. Instead he’d go on to commit suicide with his service revolver in 1968.

But even though the sinking of the Indianapolis before the end of the war was news, the actual horror of floating in shark infested waters wasn’t given visceral shape to most Americans until the fictional Quint conveyed what occurred. This was Sackler’s inspiration, although credit for the actual speech rests with John Milius and Shaw himself.

Spielberg said, “I remember sending it to my friend John Milius and saying, ‘John, read the script and maybe you can help me.’ John actually read the whole script and made a lot of interesting changes and adjustments… and he wrote a brilliant 8-page soliloquy about the sinking of the Indianapolis.”

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Milius, something of a history buff with an interest in red meat storytelling, saw the immediate potential of turning what was Sackler’s two short paragraphs about the Indianapolis into a spotlight on an overlooked moment in history. Keep in mind this was the man who’d already written the first two Dirty Harry movies and turned in early drafts for his idea of setting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the Vietnam War—Apocalypse Now—to his buddies George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Milius returned to Spielberg with a speech that was anywhere between eight and 10 pages (accounts differ) written in longhand. It was beautiful—but it was also a potentially 15-minute scene.

Said Spielberg, “When Robert Shaw, who was himself a writer from Man in the Glass Booth, read Milius’ 10 pages, he said, ‘I can’t go on for 10 to 15 minutes just talking. Let me have a crack at it.’ Shaw took it and edited it down to five pages.” Or as Spielberg summarized in  the movie’s 25th anniversary “Making Of” documentary: “The speech in the movie is basically Shaw’s version of Milius’ version of Sackler’s version.”

It also proved to be a perfect strainer of creativity from playwright, to screenwriter, to another playwright with an outlook every bit as hardboiled as Quint. Indeed, Shaw was among a generation of English actors who drank hard, lived hard, and turned roustabout debauchery into enlightened artistic craft. That’s how they saw it anyway. Think of Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, or Oliver Reed—and how hard it is to find that particular kind of charisma or energy in younger actors today. In fact, Shaw so embraced his Hemingway-like image of a man of words and shots that he took up Quint’s antagonizing of city slicker Hooper off-screen.

“He thought Dreyfuss needed a slapping down,” Scheider said in 2007. “Young punk with no stage experience.”

As Dreyfuss himself explained, “Robert was a pretty Promethean character. Truly bigger than life. A man who intimidated me, who scared me, who exhilarated me. And I liked him. And I hated him.” Dreyfuss’ own frustration about it though is countered by Spielberg’s clearly lingering bemusement.

“Robert would basically humiliate Richard into taking a chance,” the director said in Jaws: The Inside Story. “For instance, Robert would say, ‘I would give you a hundred bucks if you climb up to the mast of the Orca [ship] and jump off into the water.’” Dreyfuss would agree and then realize there was no way he’d actually jump from that height into the water. But then he’d respond in kind to Shaw, who later asked him for help while he was carrying a bottle of bourbon and a shot glass onto the Orca, by saying, “Sure, I’ll help you” and throwing Shaw’s shot glass into the sea.

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“That was the shot heard around the world,” Spielberg smiled. “It got ugly, but it was Quint and Hooper living out that relationship as Shaw and Dreyfuss.”

Still, that behavior came to something of a head during the actual shooting of the Indianapolis speech. After rewriting it to his own specifications, Shaw asked Spielberg if he could take a few shots before shooting the sequence to better live in Quint’s bitter revelry. His director granted permission, but the actual first night of shooting the scene turned out to be a disaster.

“That was the longest day of our lives,” Dreyfuss recalled without a hint of sympathy. “Somewhere in a parallel universe, that day is still going on.” It was apparently so bad that Shaw called Spielberg at three o’clock in the morning to ask how badly he humiliated himself. “Not fatally” was the director’s answer.

“He really wasn’t able to do it that day,” Spielberg said. “The next day he came in stone sober and absolutely knocked it out of the park.” And the final scene in the movie uses shots from both days, according to cinematographer Bill Butler.

The result, like much else of the suffering on Jaws, proved worth it. In the final film, the speech is a quieting antidote to the high seas adventures of the first day that the film’s triumvirate of heroes battled the shark. In previous scenes, real popcorn-killing lines like “you’re going to need a bigger boat” slayed, as did the sudden unexpected emergence of Bruce, the mechanical shark that finally started working. Forty-five years later, Bruce’s legacy to cinema is enormous… but the robo-beastie has not exactly aged gracefully.

Yet on a boozy and listless evening inside the Orca’s cabin, Jaws still thrills as three men drink to their legs, and then chills by offering a beautifully written and acted piece of historical reverence that had been long overlooked and forgotten by most Americans. As a film today, the scene speaks to the artistic achievement of Jaws, which is sometimes unjustly dismissed by critics as the paterfamilias of numbing blockbuster spectacle. But there is still a dark soul worthy of New Hollywood’s 1970s mantra of downbeat authenticity. And it’s brought to life by a sober Shaw conjuring ghosts that American culture had ignored.

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“I mostly kept away from things that [would let my family] know what I did in the war,” Twible recalled about the days and years before he saw Jaws in theaters in 1975. “It was a shock when I heard it [in the movie], I’ll tell ya. It disheveled me just a bit. Here was a man telling my story to the world… We owe a great deal to Robert Shaw. I never met him, but as a member of the crew of the Indianapolis, I can honestly say we owe a great indebtedness to him.”

Forty-five years later Shaw and Spielberg keep that memory alive, as well as their own, one drink at a time.