Directed By: Robert Iscove
Starring: Stacy Keach, Richard Thomas, Steve Landesberg
Trivia: In Italy, this film was released as Food for Sharks
In a scene from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) is telling Brody (Roy Schieder) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) about his experiences as a crewman aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, a Navy Cruiser that was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese in 1945. Left floating in the water for days, Quint tells of how a good number of his shipmates (hundreds, in fact) were devoured by sharks. It was a dramatic scene from a classic film, but as the 1991 made-for-TV movie, Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis shows us, it’s also based on a very true, very tragic story.
After delivering a key component for the atomic bomb that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima, The U.S.S. Indianapolis, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay (Stacy Keach), begins its long journey home. Unfortunately, the ship and many of its crew would never make it back because on the night of July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes, which destroyed the Cruiser and sent hundreds of crewman to a watery grave. Those who survived the attack floated in the Pacific for about three and a half days, and despite the best efforts of the ship’s officers, including Lt. Steven Scott (Richard Thomas), Lt. D’Angelo (Robert Cicchini) and U.S. Marine Wilkes (David Caruso), many would perish in the shark-infested waters before the rescue boats arrived. Looking for a scapegoat, the U.S. Navy court-martialed Capt. McVay, finding him guilty of negligence, and even though the men under his command knew he was innocent, Capt. McVay blamed himself for the tragedy until his dying day.
The strength of the film lies in its depiction of several key events, chief among them the sinking of the ship. When the Indianapolis is hit by the torpedoes, we get an extended scene showing its destruction, a sequence that’s extremely well-staged. But the real terror sets in once the survivors are in the water, and while the shark attacks aren’t particularly gory (most involve sailors letting out a scream, followed by crimson-colored water floating to the surface), they're a grim reminder of just how treacherous this entire ordeal was.
As a movie, Mission of the Shark is direct and to the point, with no real filler to speak of. Unfortunately, it also tries to cover too much ground (everything from dropping off the cargo to the aftermath of the court martial of Capt. McVay), and some events didn’t get the attention I hoped they would, especially the shark attacks (history tells us that hundreds died as a result of these attacks, whereas the film only shows about a half-dozen or so). That aside, Mission of the Shark is an effective look at a real-life tragedy, and as complete an account of this terrible incident as we’re likely to see.