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)
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.