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Hollywood to tell the story of the USS Indianapolis

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Survivors of the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis pose for a group photo on Friday

INDIANAPOLIS » The story of the USS Indianapolis has been often told.

Yet despite the violence and horror of what is considered the worst disaster in U.S. naval history, the story is still not widely known.

At least seven books have been written, but books about World War II history don’t usually attract wide attention. In 1991 a movie was done, but it was a made-for-TV effort starring Stacy Keach.

Suddenly though, as the 70th anniversary of the July 30 sinking approaches, two major motion pictures are in the works. "USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage," starring Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage, began filming last month. Another project, still in development, would involve Robert Downey Jr., either on screen or in a producer role.

For the Indianapolis’ crewmen, who are in their 80s and 90s, the widespread recognition that a major motion picture can bring has been a long time coming. Although many of them were haunted by their ordeal, "they want their story to be remembered," said Maria Bullard, the daughter of survivor Harold Eck and the chairman of Second Watch, a club for the crewmen’s families.

"I have a whole box of documentaries," Bullard said, "but a Hollywood movie is the best way to get this story across to a worldwide audience. We all just feel like it’s time for this to be told on the big screen."

The sinking of the USS Indianapolis occurred the night of July 30, 1945. The ship was returning from a U.S. base on Tinian Island in the Philippine Sea, where it had delivered enriched uranium and other components for an atomic bomb. That bomb would later be dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

A Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into the Indianapolis. The ship sank inside 15 minutes. The 900-some crewmen not killed in the initial attack went into the water, poorly equipped, some without so much as a life jacket.

The men huddled in small groups and wrestled with dehydration, hunger, hallucinations and sharks.

"There soon were hundreds of fins around us," wrote Eck in the 2002 book "Only 317 Survived," a compilation of survivors’ stories. "The first attack I saw was on a sailor who had drifted away from the group. I heard yelling and screaming and saw him thrashing … then I just saw red foamy water.

"My legs dangled in the water and were constantly being bumped by the sharks swimming below. I curled my legs up under me as close as I could."

Crewmen died for lack of water, too, and of exposure. Survivors would remove the life jackets from crewmen who died in the water and set them adrift. Sharks would come, Eck wrote, "and the floating dead were taken in a feeding frenzy."

A rescue came on Day 5. Nearly 600 men had perished in the sea.

Such drama would seem to be the stuff of box office gold.

But unlike "Unbroken," the World War II true story that was made into a movie last year and posted $30 million in ticket sales its first weekend, the USS Indianapolis story did not end happily. Most of the crewmen died. Their well-liked commander, Capt. Charles B. McVay, was court-martialed and driven to suicide. The ship’s mission, though it did speed the war to its conclusion, led to death and destruction of a scope never before seen in human history.

"The overall picture is depressing," said Tim Irwin, artistic director of the nonprofit arts organization Heartland Film, "so you’d have to focus on an individual. Often they make it an amalgamation. I’m guessing they’ll find a more positive side."

Filmmakers typically do.

With "Titanic," the 1997 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, director James Cameron turned the story of the doomed ocean liner into not just a special-effects maritime disaster but a testament to everlasting love. It ranks among the biggest grossing films of all time.

Michael Bay’s "Pearl Harbor," the 2001 film starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale, is about the deadly surprise attack but also about human bonding.

At least seven movies have been made about Pearl Harbor, and 22 about the Titanic.

Ironically, it was a movie, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster "Jaws," that gave the Indianapolis story its first wide audience by way of an arresting four-minute monologue by Robert Shaw’s character, Quint.

The flurry of big screen action now would seem to be a coincidence — and proof that making a major motion picture is a huge, fraught undertaking. For years the Indianapolis survivors had their hopes raised then dashed as one film project after another started, then stopped.

Prospects seemed especially promising in 2001 after the Indianapolis story got a happy ending — the official exoneration of Capt. McVay. An indomitable 11-year-old named Hunter Scott, who after learning of the Indianapolis while watching "Jaws," led the charge to exonerate the captain.

Later that year, Entertainment Weekly reported that Mel Gibson was mulling playing McVay in a film based on Doug Stanton’s best-seller "In Harm’s Way." A director was picked: Barry Levinson. A title was picked: "The Captain and the Shark."

Nothing came of it.

Other industry reports followed of projects involving luminaries such as Ron Howard, Russell Crowe and J.J. Abrams.

Nothing came of those either.

And now, the deluge.

"USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage," which is directed by Mario Van Peebles ("New Jack City" and episodes of TV’s "Empire," ”Nashville" and "Law & Order"), also stars Tom Sizemore ("Saving Private Ryan," ”Black Hawk Down") and Thomas Jane (TV’s "Hung").

The Downey film would focus on the exoneration of Capt. McVay. The first script was tossed out, and a second one is expected to be completed by the end of the month, said Hunter Scott, an adult now who is in the Navy.

Scott said movie rights have been purchased for at least two other books: Peter Nelson’s "Left for Dead," which focuses on Scott, who wrote the preface, and the Stanton book. Efforts to reach Stanton for comment were unsuccessful.

"There is no shortage of people trying to make a movie about the Indianapolis," Scott said. "Whatever happens, I hope they do the crew justice."

The predicament now for the long-obscured story is a surprising one: Can multiple films about the tragedy each succeed?

There is, to a degree, precedent. In 1997 two volcano movies fared OK: "Dante’s Peak" ($178 million worldwide) and "Volcano" ($123 million). And in 1998 two films involving earth-threatening asteroids were profitable: "Armageddon" ($554 million) and "Deep Impact" ($350 million).

Thirty-two men are still alive from the crew of the USS Indianapolis, including Richard Stephens, 89, who eagerly awaits the Cage film.

"I think it’s going to be a good movie," said Stephens, who was 18 when he and the others received the command to abandon ship.

He visited the set in Mobile, Ala., earlier this month. "I told (Cage) I didn’t like movies that were fictional, and they should be trying to show more respect, they should be using the facts. He said it’s going to be pretty true to facts."

Stephens attended the annual survivors reunion in Indianapolis, which was held Thursday through Sunday at the Hyatt Regency.

Many of the other survivors aren’t well enough to attend the reunions. Last year 18 made the trek.

Films can take years to make. The Cage movie, the first expected to hit the big screen, is expected to be released late next year.

Eck has had a stroke and is not up and around much, said his daughter, Bullard. He was able to muster a smile last month, however, when his daughter told him the Cage movie had begun filming.

"I always knew," Eck whispered.

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