With a few more dark nights ahead we reached out to our ambassador Sam Bleakley for some film and book recommendations to take us through to spring. For the next few weeks Sam will be dropping some insight into some of the surf films and books that have shaped surf culture. He kicks off with his favourite surf movie of all time.
Big Wednesday (1978) John Milius
My all-time favourite surf film is John Milius’ Big Wednesday (1978). Director Milius grew up surfing in California in the 1950s and 1960s and co-wrote the script with Dennis Aaberg. Through the Beat and Vietnam eras Big Wednesday uses the changing Californian seasons as a metaphor for the changes in life. It is a poignant cultural history and realistic character narrative. This is embodied in the tight friendship between Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack (William Cat) and Leroy (Gary Busey), the Three Musketeers. Matt, the ‘natural’, embodies grace, but finds solace in the bottle. Jack is an achiever, a worker, cautious and competent, who willingly enlists for Vietnam. Leroy the Masochist is the ‘no brains, no headaches’ hell-raiser out for a good time. Put the three together, Milius seems to be saying, and you have the ideal man (Big Wednesday is undeniably masculinist).
Matt is the iconic surfer, but as the film unfolds, he cannot adapt to change. Milius tracks the emergence of the ‘quick buck’ in surfing and the exploitation of laidback surfers with raw talent who would be turned into stars through the surfing industry. The film climaxes with the ‘great swell’ that reunites the boys for a tearjerker scene for men (recall the masculinism), putting aside all differences. This is where they will all ‘eat it’, but not before each has a moment of glory. Heroism is not grounded in war, neither literally in Vietnam nor in the lost battle against change, but in finding kinship through a common love of the sea. Watching Big Wednesday makes you want to go surfing, desperately. There could be no better accolade for a surf film. You wake up early the next day, the following Thursday - Thor’s Day - ready to make some local thunder and lightning. But you will not find Big Wednesday on the list of ‘all time great films’. John Milius was a classmate at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts with George Lucas. American Graffitti (1973) was Lucas’ ode to his California youth, but despite an $11 million budget spent mostly on shooting the surfing sequences, Milius’ Big Wednesday did not rival the audiences of American Graffitti.
Only later would it become a cult hit.
Photo - Warner Bros