Wednesday, January 5, 2011
"Anyway, we delivered the bomb."
"If you were injured, you were in trouble, because sharks go after blood. I was fortunate not to have any serious injuries. You’d hear somebody scream, and you’d know the sharks had got him.”
-USS Indianapolis Survivor Woody James
Steven Spielberg has made tributes to many people in his films before. (Amistad, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan)
But maybe his greatest and most lasting tribute was from a 4 minute scene that was not in the script.
Spielberg, for all his immense talent, lucked out in some ways with his breakout film, Jaws. The film was very difficult to make, running over budget and Spielberg thought he might never work again. So he probably never felt lucky. But chaos sometimes helps create a masterpiece, as is evidenced in Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, The Wrath of God.
We were supposed to see the shark.
What works so well in Jaws, is the tension that builds up because we so seldom see the shark. We saw so little of it because the mechanical sharks almost never worked. The shark is seen throughout the original script, but they were forced to rewrite out of necessity.
The iconic Jaws theme music composed by John Williams; Spielberg did not much like. He was not convinced it would work.
But where Spielberg really shines as a director in Jaws, beyond the water level camera work he was forced into, was the famous Indianapolis Monologue Scene. It is the best scene in the film. It is not in the original book, but Spielberg recognized the Quint character needed to explain his motivation.
Actor Robert Shaw wrote parts of it himself, and all of the main actors gave ideas to screenwriter Carl Gottlieb to flush out. Shaw performed the scene the first time drunk. Then he came back and did it again sober the next day. The second day is what they used.
This film, which became the most successful of all time during its run, told a generation a story they did not know.
The USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. They were returning from delivering much of the bomb, "little boy" that would be dropped on Hiroshima.
Most of Quint's speech is accurate. The exact date is all he really got wrong. The ship went down in just 12 minutes. The mission was so top secret; nobody was even going to look for them until a week later. A distress signal was indeed sent out but it was taken as a bluff by the Japanese to flush out more American ships. It was therefore ignored.
Having to wait 5 days to be rescued, 879 men would die in total. There were only 316 survivors. Though you might argue less.
Commanding Officer Charles McVay survived. Despite numerous mistakes by people for what happened and why it took so long for anyone to know, McVay was made the scapegoat. He had only recently been awarded the Silver Star for a previous battle.
He was court martialed and convicted of "hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag." This despite the Japanese Commanding Officer who shot the torpedoes saying it would not have mattered, or the dispute whether the elements were appropriate for such tactics.
McVay had also requested a Destroyer escort during this time but was denied.
Throughout the following years McVay would receive letters and phone calls from relatives of deceased Indianapolis crew members, blaming him for the tragedy.
In 1968, McVay was found on his back lawn. He had shot himself with his Navy issued revolver. He had been holding a toy sailor in his left hand. It was given to him by his father when he was a boy.
Despite talks, a high budget Hollywood film has yet to be made about the Indianapolis. I almost hope this continues to be the case. I think that one scene in Jaws, might be the best tribute possible.
Survivors loved the tribute from that scene.
Sometimes film can get a tragedy just right and do it honor. Other times it seems like a slap in the face. (Pearl Harbor)
In 2000, Congress passed a resolution stating McVay's record would now indicate he was exonerated for the Indianapolis tragedy.
The Navy would soon after release a statement saying he was without fault.
The formal conviction still stands on his service record, as no court martial has ever been erased.
"I would not have hesitated to serve under him again. His treatment by the Navy was unforgivable and shameful."
-Florian Stamm, one of the USS Indianapolis survivors.