With all of the action and special effects on display in Jaws, it’s easy to forget that the film also features a well-crafted screenplay (attributed to novelist Peter Benchley – who took several cracks at it -- and Carl Gottlieb, with assists from Steven Spielberg, Howard Sackler, and John Milius) that manages to improve upon the novel in some very key ways.
Jaws is filled with examples of how good screenplays show things rather than tell them – but one of its most famous (and important) scenes is a lengthy monologue from Robert Shaw. Shaw’s character Quint tells Hooper and Brody of his time aboard the USS Indianapolis during World War II – most notably the days spent floating in the ocean after the ship sank – a time when sharks feasted on servicemen like it was an all you can eat buffet (at least according to Quint -- history finds that while sharks did attack some of the sailors, many died from exposure and dehydration).
The Indianapolis scene is arguably the most powerful moment in the entirety of Jaws – a masterful piece of writing, acting and filmmaking that achieves multiple objectives in the span of roughly four minutes. This was Robert Shaw’s moment to shine – and the actor was more than up to the task.
That being said, the scene accomplishes even more than just showcasing Shaw’s formidable acting chops (it’s interesting to note that it showcased Shaw’s foibles as well – he tried to do the first take while legitimately drunk and the footage was unusable. He apologized the next day, asked to try it again, and nailed it) – it pulls extra duty in that it reveals not only something integral about Quint’s character (and allows the audience to identify with the character in a completely new light), but Brody and Hooper as well, while upping the emotional stakes for all involved and changing the antagonistic relationship between Quint and Hooper. Pretty impressive for a single sequence.
Up to this point in the film, the young oceanographer and the crusty old sea dog have been at odds. They’re from different economic backgrounds, different generations, and have radically different ideas about sharks. This tension between the characters was real – Dreyfuss and Shaw weren’t exactly buddies during the film’s arduous shoot.
This all changes in the prelude to Quint’s memorable monologue. As that scene plays out, we see Hooper and Quint find common ground in the comparing of their battle wounds (in another interesting bit of characterization, Brody – who’s been the middle man between the two adversaries – suddenly finds himself on the outside looking in. He considers sharing his own scar, but doesn’t – it’s a continuation of the idea that the chief, a former big-city cop, is an outsider in Amity and on the Orca). When Quint reveals he’s had a tattoo removed – one commemorating his time on the Indianapolis – the change in the relationship is instant. Hooper knows from the mere mention of the ship’s name what Quint endured, and why he has such an intense hatred for sharks. Quint gains respect for the “college boy who’s been counting money all his life” because Hooper knows – and more importantly, respects -- what he went through.
The scene even foreshadows events at the climax. Quint tells his harrowing tale of being afloat in the sea for days, hearing his friends die horribly as sharks pick them off one by one – and he says he’ll never put on another lifejacket. True to his word, Quint meets his fate without a personal floatation device.
Watching Shaw perform the scene is mesmerizing – the line delivery is incredibly intense and the story itself is as harrowing as any of the actual deaths shown on camera. Shaw’s Quint is something of an unpleasant character up to this point in the film – he’s crass and demanding and he’s not the least bit shy about putting everyone in their place. This scene changes that, and Shaw’s performance brings an unexpected vulnerability to Quint by the time it ends. It humanizes a character who we already respected but might not have liked.
The monologue is the sort of scene that would sell an actor on taking the role when first reading the script – there have been countless tales of actors scrolling through potential projects looking for how many lines they have and for big “character moments” – but in this case, Shaw had no idea that the moment in the film would be nearly as epic as what wound up on-screen.
Much of Jaws was written on Martha’s Vineyard as Spielberg struggled to keep the project moving forward while technical difficulties threatened to derail the film. According to Spielberg, early versions of the script featured an Indianapolis monologue conceived by uncredited writer Howard Sackler. Sackler knew about the Indianapolis story and thought it would make a great bit of story to give Quint’s character background context. When Spielberg heard the details, he agreed.
Sackler’s draft of the speech was significantly shorter than the one in the finished film, coming in at around three quarters of a page. When writer John Milius saw it, he asked if he could flesh it out, and turned in a 10-page speech that Spielberg describes as “absolutely brilliant,” but too big for the film.
Shaw, a gifted writer in his own right, revised the Milius version of the scene and that’s what ultimately ended up on-screen. Spielberg recalls that it took Shaw approximately four takes (not counting his drunken first attempt the night before) to get the speech down. Unfortunately, Milius’ text that served as the foundation appears to have been lost to time – another piece of Jaws history lusted after by fans but gone forever.
While that’s certainly disappointing, we’re all lucky to have Shaw’s take immortalized forever on film. The Indianapolis scene has become something of a cultural touchstone in a movie that had no shortage of such moments. Beyond just being a brilliant piece of writing, acting and directing, it’s also crossed over into the mainstream collective consciousness – inspiring many to learn more about the sinking of the Indianapolis. It’s an invaluable learning tool for aspiring filmmakers and actors to study in that it teaches so many things in such an effortless way. Most importantly, though, is that it’s just a fantastic scene smack dab in the middle of a fantastic movie. Whether viewed with a critical eye looking for the hidden details or simply enjoyed in the context of the film’s narrative, it’s hard to deny that this scene is one of the finest moments in Spielberg’s film.
Follow along on Twitter @Horrorgeek and @Moviesdotcom.