Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis (1991)

Fries Entertainment.  Director: Robert Iscove.

Creature Feature Bleachers Award: Least Accurately Named.

I’ll be honest with you, “Mission of the Shark” lies on the fringes of the sharksploitation genre.  In fact, it might be better classified as the World War Two movie with the strongest sharksploitation elements.  If any skeptics choose to question its inclusion on this blog, however, I will point out that the character Quint from “Jaws” was a fictitious survivor of the real disaster depicted in this film.  And if the movie doesn’t klspoit sharks as much as most others do, we should be happy for its respectful attitude.  After all, of the 880 men who escaped the initial sinking, only 321 survived the ensuing four days of exposure, hunger, thirst, and sharks.  “Mission of the Shark” may not appeal to all sharksploitation aficionados, but if you’re in the mood for something different, give it a try.

“Mission of the Shark” tells the tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, an American cruiser that delivered essential components of the atomic bomb Little Boy.  A few days after making the delivery, the Indianapolis is hit by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine.  The ship promptly sinks, stranding Captain Charles McVay III (Stacy Keach) and about 880 of his crew out in the Pacific.  They drift for days, struggling to survive on the few supplies and rafts that made it off the ship.  Due to oversights, the Navy fails to note the absence of the Indianapolis for several days.  Eventually a small airplane crew spots the men, radios for help, and sets down to get as many sailors out of the water as possible.  After the rescue, McVay is called to a court martial, where it is determined that he should have zig-zagged to avoid the torpedoes.  Though the Japanese submarine commander states that zig-zagging would have made no difference, McVay lives with guilt for the rest of his life.

The DVD Cover

The greatest mystery about “Mission of the Shark” is why it’s called “Mission of the Shark.”  True, the Indianapolis had a historically important mission to deliver parts of the bomb, but it completes this mission in the first 13 minutes of the film.  The Indianapolis‘s connection to the nuclear attack on Japan is only heavily implied, and no other shark-like behavior is ascribed to the ship.  Furthermore, no character ever refers to the Indianapolis as “the Shark,” nor does there appear to be any historical evidence of such a nickname.  Thus, neither “Mission” nor “Shark” seem to apply to the Indianapolis itself.

Ah, WWII, when women were classy and men were beet red.

Ah, WWII, when women were classy and men were beet red.

Taking the film’s title more literally doesn’t help either.  Unlike “Jaws,” this movie has no central, villainous shark around which the plot moves.  Instead, a shiver of normal-sized, natural sharks occasionally plagues the floating men.  There’s nothing to suggest that these sharks have any sort of mission, other than their instinct to survive.  I double-checked, and found out that the Japanese sub wasn’t called “the Shark,” either (its name was I-58).

All things considered, it seems odd that a film about a very real maritime disaster should be named as if it were an action-packed war film.  I mean, “Mission of the Shark” is every bit as interesting as your standard war film, but it’s not really the same thing.  A movie with a title like “Mission of the Shark” should focus on a cruiser that ruthlessly sails the seas in pursuit of Japanese vessels, tearing into them like a shark into its prey.  For this particular movie, the title fails to capture any of the film’s salient points: the Navy’s negligence, the horrors of exposure at sea, or McVay’s mental anguish.  A more accurate name for this film would have been “Left Adrift by the Navy.”

When all is said and done, “Mission of the Shark” doesn’t leave much to criticize from a cinematic point of view.  While there are surely some factual errors and instances of artistic license, the film does a good job of paying tribute to those who died.  I like that the film begins and ends with a survivor’s dinner commemorating the 15th anniversary, even if no one appears to have aged a day since 1945.

Except this guy, who grew a mustache.

Except this guy, who grew a mustache.

Desensitized sharksploitation fanatics may gripe that the film doesn’t fully utilize what may have been the largest shark attack in human history, but when it comes down to it, these are real people we’re talking about— men who died in the cold wet grasp of the ocean.  In the sharksploitation business, bigger is better and absolutely ridiculous is best.  Usually that’s not a problem, since the number of real-life shark-related deaths is so low.  Every once in a while, however, a large disaster like this one occurs.  “Mission of the Shark” handles the story respectfully, down to its very last shot.


This was the best trailer I could find:

“Mission of the Shark” is available on Amazon.


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