By Sean Gardner
Jaws may be remembered by some for its music, others for its frightening imagery, and others still for being Hollywood’s first summer blockbuster. However, what sets Steven Spielberg’s classic above other films is Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech.
Delivered by the great Robert Shaw, it is one of the best speeches in movie history. It may even be one of the best scenes, period, in movie history. Everything about it is perfect. The setting, the performances, even the lighting and wardrobes give us insight into all the characters involved, not just the storyteller, Quint.
It is the crux of the film, being placed in the perfect spot, just after the start of the third act. When the scene begins, we have already experienced how much carnage this one shark can perpetrate. So, hearing Quint’s account of being trapped in the water with hundreds of sharks after his naval vessel sank, puts us in an even more terrified state moving forward in the film.
The scene is set up like a stage play. There’s only three characters, a small table, and a light hanging over the table. Two characters are sitting at the table in the light: Quint and Hooper. Brody is standing away from the table, in the shadows. Quint and Hooper sit, as equals, in many respects. This is particularly evident when they are sharing stories about their various scars and drinking to each other’s legs. They understand why the shark they are chasing is such a freak of nature. They are both experts on sharks but in very different ways.
Chief Brody, however, has no idea what’s going on. It’s stated earlier in the film that he doesn’t even like the water. He’s completely out of his element when it comes to understanding or hunting sharks. In the speech scene, he stands away from the brightly lit table, in a black shirt, literally and figuratively “in the dark.” He’s only peripherally involved in Quint and Hooper’s conversation. That is, until he casually asks About a small scar across Quint’s arm.
When Quint says it’s from the USS Indianapolis, Hooper immediately knows what that means and goes silent. Brody, again, by his lack knowledge, is separated in understanding from the other two and has to ask for further explanation. So, in an effort to enlighten the naive police chief, Quint turns his back on Hooper, addresses Brody directly, and launches into his speech.
Of all the elements that went into making this scene great, Robert Shaw’s performance is at the center. He makes us believe that he actually heard and saw his fellow sailors being eaten alive by sharks as they are waiting to be rescued. He creates an unsettling mood with his effortlessly natural delivery of horrific details. This mood can be seen in the shocked looks on both Hooper’s and Brody’s faces. Then the way that it ends, anticlimactically with Quint matter of factly saying, “Anyway, we delivered the bomb…” like none of the rest of it mattered, puts it above anything else before or since.
Jaws may have been one of Hollywood’s first blockbusters. It may have some frightening scenes and ominous music, but Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech represents the special nature of filmmaking. When the elements of acting, writing, directing, set decoration, and wardrobe all come together, they form something magical and ultimately unforgettable.
Watch the speech here.