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Shaw and the Indianapolis: Horror’s Greatest Scene

by Landon Evanson

Sift through a buffet of classic horror scenes in search of those which elicit the precise viewer reaction and emotion as they had when they first hit theatres, and you’re sure to learn that discovering one would be rare. In fact, it’s likely that rare is insufficient as a descriptor. Nearly nonexistent would probably put a finer point on it.

Nosferatu (Max Schreck) appearing in the bedroom doorway and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) creeping up on a showering Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), as well as our first glimpse at Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) all have a negative impact on our collective blood pressure. While they leave our abdomens fluttering with eager anticipation, they simply cannot replicate the feelings that we experienced upon first laying eyes upon them.

No, that distinction belongs to just one film. And one scene.

Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).

It goes without saying that one could’ve heard a pin drop in theatres across the nation after Mr. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) ceased laughing at his own joke about a “Mother” tattoo, and Quint described the perils that he and his shipmates endured in June, 1945.

Transitioning from a lighthearted exhibition of scars to the gravity of incomprehensible horror, Shaw’s delivery of Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s words was measured and mesmerizing over the course of three-and-a-half minutes that stop viewers dead in their tracks.

Whether watching alone during a quiet evening at home, with a group of friends or just as you’re working around the house, when the Indianapolis scene surfaces, viewers stop.

They stop surfing their phones, they stop cleaning or working on finances, and groups of loved ones stop talking. It’s silent. For a little over 200 seconds, you are hypnotized. There is nothing else.

Image credit: cdn.quotesgram.com

Quint noted that “The thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes,” but housed within Shaw’s eyes was the haunting beauty of perfection.

With pacing that offered just enough detail to send a shiver down the spine, it was more than a performance, because there was an authenticity to Shaw’s moment, almost as though he were telling the story as it came to him, an incredible feat of believable delivery. It truly felt as though Shaw were recounting an event that he’d lived through. Though only in glimpses, the pain and fear were palpable, which was in keeping with an old school, hardened seaman like Quint. They’re there, however, whenever Quint’s orbs and mind drifted to flashes of what he’d witnessed and heard floating in the ocean. The entire scene captured the very essence of Bertolt Brecht’s “you can’t make a man unsee what he has seen.”

In a magical moment that has stood the test of time, and been repeated on innumerable occasions since, the intense dread displayed by Hooper and Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) were the very feelings experienced by all those who were watching in 1975, and since.

“I’ll never put on a life jacket again” is agonizing and delicious and real.

Quint’s tale of delivering the Hiroshima bomb, when 11-hundred men went into the water and only 316 came out evokes the same, frozen reaction today as it had 42 years ago. And that will never change. Whether you’re seeing it for the first or hundredth time.

Jaws is a classic in every conceivable way, but Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis sermon is more than that, even stretching beyond indelible. It is the single greatest scene and performance not just of horror, but that any genre has ever known.

Feature image credit: youtube.com