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Thursday, July 30, 2020

July 30, 2020: Great Movie Speeches: Jaws

[On July 30th, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine on its way back from delivering the components of the atomic bombs. That wartime tragedy became the basis for one of the great speeches in American film history, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy that monologue and four other knockout cinematic orations!]
On two ways Quint’s iconic speech captures a historic horror.
As I wrote in this prior post on Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking summer blockbuster is really a tale of two films: the Amity-set first half, which is as much about the community on that resort island as the unseen killer shark terrorizing it; and the ocean-bound second half, which is as much about the three men aboard the Orca as about the now-seen killer shark terrorizing them (well, technically they’re hunting it, but we all know how that goes). All three of those men are compelling characters given multi-layered life by the very talented actors playing them, but there’s no doubt that it is Robert Shaw’s Captain Quint who stands out and from whom the audience can’t look away. That’s true from the moment he enters the film until the (far more gruesome) moment he leaves it, but it’s never more true than in the scene where both the audience and his two companions finally learn a bit more about what has made Quint the way he is, both when it comes to sharks and overall: his experience aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis.  
That speech is interestingly inaccurate on a basic detail about that historic horror (Quint says in the speech’s closing lines that the Indianapolis went down on “June the 29th, 1945,” perhaps because that date flows more poetically than “July the 30th” would have, perhaps because he just got it wrong but had done such a beautiful long take that Spielberg didn’t want to re-film), but to my mind captures perfectly two sides to the event in the intimate and affecting ways that the best historical fiction can. The more obvious, but certainly crucial, side is the many stages of fear through which Quint’s masterful storytelling takes his audience, from the most graphic (that “high-pitched scream” when a shark attacks) to the more mundane (the look of a shark’s eyes, “like doll’s eyes”) to that ironic final fear as the men wait to be rescued. History and humanity are not always easy to keep in mind at the same time, and the numbers associated with the Indianapolis (which is considered the single most fatal sinking in US naval history) are a good example: Quint highlights those staggering numbers of both overall sailors and sailors lost in his closing lines too, but to my mind they don’t and can’t capture the event’s horrors and tragedies as well as the speech’s exploration of how it all felt for just one of those men.
How it all felt and, in the case of a surviving veteran like Quint, how it all continues to feel. To my mind, the single best and most important line in Quint’s speech is another one from that closing section, directly following the line about the time he was most frightened (while waiting to be rescued): “I’ll never put on a life jacket again.” 316 of the ship’s 1195 total crew survived the ordeal, and it’s fair to say that all of them likely suffered from some form or another of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But PTSD (especially in large cohorts of veterans) is another of those overarching categories that can at times be difficult to think about in its most individual, intimate realities. And in this one line, both the words themselves and how he delivers them, Robert Shaw captures that human side to the traumas of war and their lingering effects; indeed, both the line and the speech as a whole force us to rethink the character in every way, including his seemingly obsessive and certainly self-destructive pursuit of the film’s titular shark. That’s a pretty darn good film speech!
Last movie speech tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other movie speeches you’d highlight?

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