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Surf Films | The 5 Best Films About Surfing

Arguably the 5 most successful marriages of surfing and cinema, these surf films are essential viewing for all surfers

Films about surfing come in all shapes and sizes. Some are beamed onto giant screens at multiplex cinemas, where they’re met with fascination and bewilderment by mainstream audiences. Other surf films bypass this arguably overrated part of the moviegoing experience and proceed directly to DVD, or, in the olden days, video. Then there are the hardcore surf porn flicks, filmed in exotic locations and unencumbered by narrative… but perhaps let’s leave these for another time.

Here we are concerned with plot and character, directorial finesse and acting excellence, thought-provoking dialogue and fundamental philosophical questions. The following five films are among the most successful marriages of surfing and cinema, and should be seen at least seven times by all self-respecting surfers. Failing that, at least memorise a choice quotation for each — the number of quotable lines being the true measure of any surf film’s success, after all.

Big Wednesday (1978)

Gary Busey, Jan-Michael Vincent and William Katt star in John Milius’s Big Wednesday.

Three hotshot young surfers conquer waves and women in the heady early years of Californian surf culture, but they fall out and drift apart under the strains of adult life. Their friendship is restored in dramatic fashion with the help of a solid midweek swell. Gary Busey, himself a surfer, does good work as draft-dodging Leroy “The Masochist” Smith; hard-charging but heavy-drinking Matt Johnson is played by the dashing Jan-Michael Vincent, in the years before his own devastating alcoholism took hold.

The film was written and directed by John Milius, another keen surfer, who also co-wrote the screenplay to Apocalypse Now; it’s Milius we have to thank for Colonel Kilgore’s surfing obsession and the famous “Charlie don’t surf!” opening scene.

Is there much surfing in it?

Not heaps but the footage is generally very good, filmed by legendary surf cameramen Bud Browne, George Greenough and Dan Merkel, and featuring stunt work by 1976 world champion Peter Townend, that year’s runner-up Ian Cairns, and Bill Hamilton (father of Laird).

SHOULD YOU SEE IT?

Yes: not because it’s a brilliant movie — it’s stilted and predictable and was largely panned by critics upon its release — but because its clichés are entertaining and there are several great set pieces. A cult classic.

QUOTE TO REMEMBER:

“That’s just the lemon next to the pie.” — surfboard shaper Bear as the Big Wednesday swell begins to show.

Blue Juice (1995)

UK surf flick Blue Juice, starring Sean Pertwee, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ewan McGregor

One year before Trainspotting and three years before The Mask of Zorro, Ewan McGregor and Catherine Zeta-Jones starred in Blue Juice, a UK surf comedy centred around “JC” (Sean Pertwee), a local legend who suffers from a chronic lack of responsibility and nightmares about a terrifying Cornish big wave spot called the Boneyard.

Is there much surfing in it?

No, not really. But Catherine Zeta-Jones is a fox.

Should you see it?

Yes, because it’s the best — wait, only — proper narrative film about surfing in the UK.

Quote to remember:

Sarah. He said you had lots of unfulfilled potential.

Dean.  Did he? That’s a very nice way of saying I’m a never done anything fuck-up yob.

North Shore (1987)

North Shore, the epitome of celluloid surf cheese.

18-year old phenom Rick Kane, who has learnt to surf in a wave pool in Arizona, reckons he’s ready to take on the North Shore of Hawaii. Cue rude awakening, liberal haole abuse, young love, ideological conflict over the “soul” of surfing, and a glut of one-liners that are now staples in the surfing vernacular. Gerry Lopez features as a bad-ass but ultimately benign local enforcer, Laird Hamilton as the skilful but obnoxious Lance Burkhart, and best of all Mark “Occy” Occhilupo as himself, giving one of the most hilariously wooden performances in the history of film. Basically it’s the epitome of celluloid surf cheese.

Is there much surfing it?

A fair bit. Fortunately most of the cast were better surfers than they were actors.

Should you see it?

“The surfing, writing, direction and performances are of a caliber to interest only undiscriminating adolescents,” wrote the New York Times film critic Vincent Canby. That’s a yes, by the way.

Quote to remember:

Like, the whole thing, by heart. But maybe start with, “Chandler, you’ve still got a single-fin mentality!”

Surf Nazis Must Die (1987)

1987’s Surf Nazis Must Die… it does what is says on the tin.

Surf nazis are wreaking havoc on the beaches of California, and there’s only one person who can stop them: Leroy’s Mamma, an elderly African-American woman who breaks out of her retirement home to avenge the death of her son. Atrocious ‘80s B-movie fare which does pretty much what it says on the tin; film critic Roger Ebert walked out after 30 minutes when it premiered at Cannes, but there’s a PhD thesis in there somewhere just waiting to be written.

Is there much surfing in it?

The occasional token wave.

Should you see it?

Absofuckinglutely.

Quote to remember:

“I’m more interested in something that’ll take the head off a honky at twenty paces.” — Leroy’s Mamma contemplates which firearm to purchase.

Point Break (1991)

“Young, dumb, and full of come…” Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze star in the original Point Break.

Hollywood’s most famous foray into the world of surf. Keanu Reeves fended off Johnny Depp, Val Kilmer, and Charlie Sheen for the role of Johnny Utah, a promising college quarterback turned FBI agent. Utah’s first job is to track down and infiltrate the “Ex-Presidents”, a notorious criminal gang who hold up banks wearing Nixon and Reagan face-masks, and who also happen to be surfers. Patrick Swayze, named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine after his turn as modern savage Bodhi, performed many of his own stunts, although it was big wave pioneer Darrick Doerner who subbed in for the “ultimate ride”. Gary Busey, again very good, plays Utah’s partner Angelo Pappas — who, by the way, “was takin’ shrapnel in Khe Sanh when you were crappin’ in your hands and rubbin’ it on your face.” The Red Hot Chilli Peppers enjoy cameos as a crew of hardcore locals.

Behind the camera was Kathryn Bigelow, who later became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director with The Hurt Locker, a markedly different film. She does a great job, but one can’t help but wonder how the film would have looked had Ridley Scott directed it as originally planned.

Is there much surfing in it?

Just enough to keep you satisfied, and it’s done pretty well — in fact all of the action scenes are expertly orchestrated.

Should you see it?

Affirmative.

Quote to remember:

“Lawyers don’t surf.”

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