The sinking of the USS Indianapolis is perhaps the most horrific incident for the U.S. Navy in WWII. The Indianapolis had delivered the atomic bombs to Tinian and was on its way to the Philippines when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The survivors were in the water for four days and were decimated by sharks before they were spotted and rescued. The post- script was the court-martial of Captain Charles McVay III for not zig-zagging and not abandoning the ship quickly enough. The combination of tragedy and courtroom drama is perfect for a war movie. And there have been two attempts at bringing the story to the screen. The first was a made-for-TV movie entitled “Mission of the Shark” (1991) starring Stacy Keach. In 2016, Hollywood weighed in with “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage” starring Nicholas Cage. Did either do justice to the men of the Indianapolis?
The Cage movie begins with “the following is based on a true story”. Ah, the old “based on” claim. Viewer beware. If that was not enough of a warning, the first scene doubles down. The Indianapolis is attacked by kamikazes off Okinawa and Capt. McVay (Cage) is on the bridge yelling “fire!” to his batteries. What a hands on captain he is! In a terrible CGI scene, one of the kamikazes hits the ship. Meanwhile, in a smoke-filled room, a group discusses the need to destroy Hiroshima with an atomic bomb. Kill every man, woman, and child. “Radioactive fallout” is mentioned which is prescient since even the Manhattan Project scientists were unclear about this effect. A fast ship should be sent on a “suicide mission” to deliver the bomb to Tinian. Nick Cage talks to his wife’s portrait. This is our first warning that we are getting the bad Cage. Thankfully, this is not a biopic and we will have to suffer through command and tar characters. A military love triangle is introduced as two buddies are in love with the same girl, but the fiancé of the two is unaware. If you think both will survive to duel for her, you have never seen a military love triangle depicted in a movie. At this point, all optimism (or delusion) about quality is erased by the appearance of Tom Sizemore as crusty Chief Petty Officer McWhorter. That’s right, this movie has bad Cage and Sizemore. Why do the producers hate us?
The ship returns to San Francisco to repair and take on a mysterious box. Someone asks if it has anything to do with the Manhattan Project. I guess historians referring to the atomic bomb development as top secret was an exaggeration. The ship is in port so we must have a night on the town scene, but since this is a modern war movie, the clicheish fight is not between sailors and soldiers, it is between a white sailor and a black sailor. Hollywood diversity!
On the trip to Tinian, McVay decides that the doctrine of zig-zagging is a waste of time because the Japanese subs have “kaiten” (human torpedoes) that can outrun any ship. Apparently McVay thinks the Japanese no longer use regular torpedoes. A meeting with the I-58 awaits. The I-58 is a hard-luck boat that has had little success in the war. That is about to change. Along comes a fat juicy target sailing blithely along in a straight line. The torpedoes result in hilarious chaos. All the main characters hit the water, including the black fighter who rescues his antagonist. War brings enemies together. Or war movies do.
The survivors are in several groups in the water. Besides the sharks, they have to deal with lack of food and water. Some become delusional. Some are suicidal, like members of the audience at this point. McWhorter has a leg wound which means Sizemore has to play pain. Come on sharks! There is a hated officer who insists on a cushy seat in a life raft. Someone has to break the shark monopoly on villainy. Eventually the few are rescued, but not us because there is that pesky trial that we were promised. Here is one case where you will beg for a title card post script.
In case you haven’t figured it out, this movie is terrible. It is very disrespectful of the men who were on board the Indianapolis. They deserved better. I suppose if you know nothing about the event and you do not care about historical accuracy, you might get something out of it. But there is no way you will find it entertaining. Unless you are big fan of current Cage and Sizemore. Or you find “Sharknado” to be a documentary. Or you watch it as a comedy. It could be argued (over a six pack) that it is one of the funniest war movies ever made.
The dialogue is trite. The plot is lame and riddled with clichés. The cast is weak and the acting is what you would expect from a cast that is headlined by Cage/Sizemore. At least there was no pressure on the rest of the actors. Besides, how would director Mario Van Peebles even recognize good acting?
“Mission of the Shark” begins with McVay (Keach) arriving at the five year reunion of the crew with some trepidation. We then flash back to 1945. The Indianapolis sails for Tinian with a box on deck. McVay mentions kaiten as the excuse for not zig-zagging. However, when the ship is on the way to the Philippines, McVay orders the cessation of zig-zagging due to the darkness of the night. Like the Cage movie, this one intercuts with the sub’s actions. When the torpedoes hit, there is made-for-TV chaos which are less laughable compared to straight-to-DVD chaos. The effects are very cheap. The survivors are divided into four groups. One of them has Doctor Scott (Richard Thomas). This film completed his vaunted war trilogy (“Red Badge of Courage” and “All Quiet…”) and made him the rare actor who has appeared in war movies set in the Civil War, WWII, and WWII. Another group includes this movie’s dickish villain. Kinderman (Don Harvey) is a malcontent who believes it is every man for himself. The shark attacks are ridiculous and consist of fins causing the men to thrash about. Some of the men drink salt water and go crazy. Not every man is a hero. Some of the deaths are poignant. And some are unpredictable. This movie is not as funny as the other.
“Mission” also concludes with the court-martial. There are some interesting differences. In both films, the surprise witness is I-58s Captain Hashimoto. In “Mission”, he claims that if the Indianapolis was zig-zagging, it would have forced him to maneuver to get off a shot. In “Courage”, he testifies that zig-zagging would not have made a difference. Oddly, in "Mission", he confesses this to McVay when they meet after the trial. McVay does not ask him why the hell he did not mention that on the witness stand!
I had seen “Mission” when it first appeared on TV and had remembered it as better than it actually is. It is merely an average made-for-TV movie. This is apparent in the acting and effects. As blah as those are, they are superior to “Courage”. Keach and Thomas are not at their best, but they run rings around (swim circles around?) Cage and Sizemore. The plot is too cursory to do the story justice. It merely touches on problems other than the sharks. It introduces the theme that the brass were partly to blame, but does not pursue it much. It takes less liberties with the truth and is a slightly better history lesson. I don’t think the dead turned over in their graves as much as they did with the more recent movie. It is boringly sincere.
What does it say when after two movies about the Indianapolis tragedy, the best memorial to the crew is still Quint’s soliloquy in “Jaws”?
COURAGE = F-
MISSION = C-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The USS Indianapolis was not the victim of a kamikaze. But it was hit by a bomb dropped by a Japanese plane off Okinawa. It was sent to San Francisco for repairs and there was given the secret mission. The delivery was uneventful. Because the mission was top secret, it was decided that the ship would proceed to the Philippines without escort. McVay was not told that a destroyer had been sunk by a sub in the area and an ULTRA intercept proved there was a sub in the area, but notification was above McVay’s rank. The I-58 was the sad sack ship depicted in “Courage”. It had been in action since Pearl Harbor and had zero kills. Ironically, it left for patrol from Hiroshima the day the Indy left from San Francisco. McVay (who was the son of an admiral) declined to zig-zag due to the darkness of the night. The ship happened to cross I-58s path and it had to do little other than fire six torpedoes. It seems clear that if the Indy had been zig-zagging it may well have survived. Two torpedoes hit and knocked out power and communications. For this reason, the second charge of not abandoning ship with alacrity was unjustified. McVay could not contact the engine room so the cruiser continued to plunge ahead at high speed. Ten minutes after the first explosion, McVay gave the order to abandon ship. There was indeed chaos as fire and smoke consumed the ship. The ship sank within twelve minutes of the first torpedo. It did not break in two. More than 300 men went down with the ship, but that left around 800 men in the water. About 200 died by dawn due to wounds.
Although a message from the I-58 was intercepted and decoded, the message was deemed fake and was not followed up on. When the Indy failed to arrive on time, there was no concern. Meanwhile the men were going through a hell that no movie can realistically depict. It became the largest recorded encounter between men and sharks in history. The dead were shoved away as food. The wounded were shunned. The screams were nightmare-inducing for decades. But that was not the extent of the horror. The days were sun-baking and sun-blinding and the nights were chilling physically and emotionally. Life jackets were designed for only three days before getting water-logged and many sailors did not even have one, much less place in the sparse life rafts. Some men drank sea water and became deranged. There were some murders. Some men simply gave up the fight for survival.
On the fourth day, a PV -1 Ventura on routine patrol spotted one of the groups and called it in. A PBY under Lt. R. Adrian Marks was immediately dispatched. Outbound, Marks passed over the USS Doyle and radioed for it to follow. When Marks arrived, he made the decision to land and become a large floating raft for survivors. He saved 56 men. The Doyle arrived a few hours later and subsequently several other rescue ships got to the area. Out of 1,196 crewmen, only 317 survived.
In November, 1945 the Navy needed a scapegoat and chose McVay. He was court-martialed for not zig-zagging and not abandoning ship quickly enough. The Navy covered up the fact that his orders said he could “zig-zag at his discretion, weather permitting.” It also did not take the blame for not informing McVay of the warnings about a submarine in the area and for messing up the rescue. Hashimoto testified that zig-zagging would have made no difference. He was not a surprise witness. McVay became the only ship captain to be court-martialed for losing his ship in WWII. Soon after, Adm. Nimitz remitted the sentence and restored McVay’s rank. He retired in 1949 as a Rear Admiral. Although most of the survivors forgave their captain, some of the relatives of the deceased were harsh. In 1968, McVay took his own life. In Oct., 2000, Congress passed a resolution exonerating McVay and Pres. Clinton signed it.