Key Scene is a new feature series on entertainment.ie where we look at a key scene from movies, how it locks into the overall story, and why it works so well that we're talking about still to this day.
There are few monologues in movie history as storied and as dissected as the Indianapolis monologue from 'Jaws'. The exact authorship has been disputed for years. John Milius, Howard Sackler who did an uncredited rewrite of the script, and of course, Robert Shaw himself all have a part to play in it, as do credited screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb.
John Williams' gentle scoring, in a movie that's defined by its repetitive, overbearing music, sets the tone. It's one of the few moments, in fact, where music doesn't feature. It begins with Dreyfus and Shaw cackling over war wounds before Scheider points out a scarred piece of skin on Shaw's forearm that he fails to discuss until prompted. Spielberg's camera eases in and Shaw begins his story.
Then it begins with a stiff gulp of his drink, all while Dreyfus - previously barfing with laughter - now in silent confusion and horror. The terrifying part is that what Shaw describes actually happened. The USS Indianapolis, to this day, remains the single greatest loss of life at sea in the US Navy. The wreckage was only discovered in 2017, with 316 of the crew's 900 men surviving to tell of the horrors they faced.
In this scene, Shaw lives it all in the space of five minutes. He is detached from it, as those with PTSD often are, and chuckles as he compares the desperate pack survival to infantry squares. Yet, it's only when he describes the shark that the horror begins to reveal itself, describing a single-minded monster that slips beneath the waves and feels nothing except relentless hunger.
Shaw's line about the "terrible high-pitch screamin'..." is bone-chilling in how he delivers it. You just know he can still hear it, the exhaustion in his voice that he knows it's never left him all those years. When he talks about how they lost a hundred men by the first dawn, how he can't even number the amount of sharks in the water, it's clear that Quint's life from the day on was ripped to pieces by sharks.
The camera closes in slowly as he describes the rescue, the Lockheed Ventura and the PBY, waiting for his chance to escape, and we see not just the lines on Shaw's face but the emptiness in his eyes, how they never blink, and why he'll never put on a lifejacket again. He's been waiting to go back to the ocean because, in truth, it never left him.
In truth, the Indianapolis monologue is more terrifying than any scene in 'Jaws', more than the reveal when Scheider sees it for the first time, when the Kintner boy is eaten, or even when the shark itself chomps down on Shaw's screaming body. We relate horror to those who experience it, and while 'show, don't tell' is often the watchword of filmmaking, telling a story like this does so mcuh more because we fill in the blanks.
In his voice, we hear years of torment, and in his detached humour, we see decades of anguish. As much as Shaw's performance is every inch of this scene, credit should be given to both Scheider and Dreyfuss for giving themselves over entirely to it. Neither one of them says a word, and the few glances exchanged between them accentuate what he's describing.
All the while, the very horror they face circles their boat and waits for the light to attack.
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