Feature

The Archivist: The Silver Surf Film

Twenty-five years of Big Wednesday from TSJ 11.1.

Longtime Journal contributor Paul Gross is a worthy read for a multitude of surf cultural touch points—but like any writer, he’s at his best when dealing with scenes in which he was deeply ensconced. For Paul, that includes displacement hull surfboards, anything George Greenough, everything surf mat, and every detail of the Big Wednesday phenomenon. Way insider and sharp as a tack, Gross tore into a quarter-century historical review of the John Milius flick with glee—and some hilarious marginalia. —Scott Hulet


It’s been a quarter century since Big Wednesday premiered, and a recent Google search of “Big Wednesday” netted 5,350 hits.* There were a bunch of e-commerce video sites in the mix, but the number of sincere, privateer homepages dedicated to the film was remarkable. *[Search results from original date of publication in 2002.]

Remarkable, because when it was released in 1978, Big Wednesday was met with mixed reviews within the surf culture. Surf industry types loved it because the film elevated surfing to a mass-culture status. Recreational surfers dug it because it brought an aspect of male-oriented sentimentality to surfing that ran along the lines of an NFL Films documentary. Hardcore surfers, on the other hand, weren’t having any of it. No one had seen a serious longboarder in the water in ten years; our wounds from the Vietnam War were still bleeding; binge drinking had lost favor; and along comes a movie about a bunch of drunken, draft-dodging Malibu longboarders. Oh goody.

Big Wednesday was a Hollywood film about soul, and that kind of enigma was outside-the-box thinking in 1978. Surfers were in no position to appreciate the simple truths that were hard-wired into the story. Surfing for the love of it was something we took for granted. We didn’t need Hollywood to explain to us. In fact, we preferred they didn’t. (Besides, no one is ever happy with a movie made about anything they’re intimately involved with. Even when Hollywood gets it right, it’s still all wrong.)

A number of cinematic devices in Big Wednesday ran afoul of the facts as we knew them, and this was another source of irritation. Early in the film, we witnessed Bear (Sam Melville) glassing a solid balsa gun he rode in big water at Makaha in the 50s. What seemed like an incongruity to surfers (glassing a board that had already been ridden) wasn’t a documentation of fact, but symbolic of The Bear’s need to rejuvenate his past and pass it on to the next generation. When Matt strode down the beach on the final massive day, he had The Bear’s balsa gun under his arm, and it was as pristine as the day Bear faced Makaha with it, reinforcing the great and wonderful truth that when the surf was huge, the aging veteran’s knowledge was still valid, still virile. When Matt went on to conquer huge Malibu (another incongruity), The Bear himself was reborn in the process, even as he collected trash on the beach.

Big Wednesday’s premise that our passion for surfing had an expiration date was unthinkable in the 70s, but it took on poignancy as we got older. Our time in the water diminished due to adult responsibilities, and our peer group faded from the scene for the same reason. We lost out on two accounts. And anyone who had returned after a long absence to an area they grew up surfing knows the feeling—the waves are the same but the people and their values have changed. At best, it’s lonely and uncomfortable. At worst, you can’t even find an unmetered parking spot.

In 1974, fictional Malibu surfer Matt Johnson echoes the feeling of John Milius and Denny Aaberg and anyone else who’s even see their own era in surfing slip away. “It’s all gone,” he says to The Bear in disgust. “There’s nothing left.”

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Shit

When word began to filter out in the mid 70s that writer/director John Milius and writer/musician Denny Aaberg, both surfers, were working on a screenplay about Malilbu in the 60s, several things immediately came to mind. One was the classic passage uttered by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry (1971), which was co-scripted by Milius: “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots, or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?”

The other was the lyrics to “Crumple Car,” a folkie, guitar pickin’ surf tune Aaberg wrote for the soundtrack for The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun (1970):

Down along the coast away, Lies upon her back to stay

A crumple car. A great decay

She ran aground in ’53, Now a victim of the seashore

the shaping waves, Have left her be just a crumple car

Passing captains look her way. At the rusty side that marks the bay

You can hear them say, it won’t be long We’re almost home

Here’s Milius, just itching to blow some punk’s head off, while Aaberg’s sense of bliss is making it home safely. Call me a cynic, but I had a hard time imagining these guys in the same room together for more than five minutes, let alone pounding out the story of 60s Malibu.

As it turned out, their contrary nature gave Big Wednesday an interesting balance between the real and the imagined. A good portion of the story was drawn from Aaberg’s recollection of the youth-oriented rowdyism around Malibu in the 60s, and Milius’s fondness for the tragedy of fading grandeur added a second, more romantic layer to the film. The credibility John Milius had accrued in Hollywood as a director in the early 70s (Dillinger, Wind and the Lion) got their story, largely intact, past the suits at Warner Brothers. During production, Big Wednesday’s stated intent began as “The Story About Malibu,” but was eventually downgraded to “A Story About Surfing.” Claiming Big Wednesday isn’t about Malibu is like saying Citizen Kane isn’t about William Randolph Hearst. There’s little in the film to imply that it isn’t about the legendary L.A. County pointbreak.

In Big Wednesday, Milius and Aaberg had no qualms about portraying Malibu (referred to as “The Point”) as the standard bearer of 60s surfing, and its surfers are shamelessly touted as “the best.” This may seem pretty cheeky to anyone from another time or another place, but there’s a reason why surfers who rode Malibu during the classic longboard era, like Milius and Aaberg, are so consumed by the break and its denizens.

Malibu has one of the longest and most storied pasts in surfing. Only Wakiki can boast more pages in the history books. The world-class pointbreak was first ridden in the 30s by legends the stature of Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake. In the late 40s, it was home to Bob Simmons’ breakthrough from 45-pound varnished redwood boards to fine tuned, 12-pound vessels of balsa and glass. The 50s saw Matt Kivlin synthesize the new balsa boards with that perfect curl line to create a riding style that first infected Dora, then the world.

One of the persistent complaints from mainstream critics is that the first half of Big Wednesday was a slapstick party film, while the second half was a serious look at growing up—and when put together, the two are incompatible. But that dichotomy is precisely what Big Wednesday is about.

By the early 60s, Gidget and foam boards had blown the scene apart, and Malibu was rocking. It enjoyed a reputation of being the surf spot and the beach scene in Southern California—and local geography had everything to do with both distinctions. It was a summer break (before wetsuits), it broke close to the beach (before leashes), it blew side offshore in the afternoon (perfect for go-outs after work of school), it was a right-hand break (suiting a majority of surfers), and the length and consistency of the wall gave surfers the unique opportunity to become aware of themselves as they rode (making Malibu the birthplace of style in California).

Riding the wave was (and is) an utterly thrilling experience. Burning across the long, perfect walls—your board chattering over the perfect afternoon texture, the curl falling across your tail block with the consistency of a still photograph—elevated the spirit of even rank beginners. Surfers just knew there was nothing else out there, in or out of the water, that could ever compare to riding Malibu.

Even when it was flat, so many classic characters hung out around “The Pit” that Malibu was a source of non-stop action. It was an entire society compressed into a stretch of beach that was only several hundred yards long—and this all took place within a half-hour’s drive of the cool/trendy Westside of L.A., and the not-so-cool, not-so-trendy San Fernando Valley. Every swell, the two heavily-populated areas supplied the break with mobs of surfers and hangers-on, and they thought nothing of making the 20-plus-mile drive on a daily basis.

Ultimately, this mobility is what made Malibu the closest thing to an urban legend surfing has ever had. It was the exact spot on earth where ancient surfing became modern surfing.

 

Reality Programming from Hell   

The Vietnam War existed in a window of time when the mass media gave us point-blank, daily coverage of the horrors of war, but world leaders weren’t savvy enough to use that same media as a tool to exploit, then resolve the conflict. The result was more than a decade of blood and guts on the 5 o’clock news, with no end in sight. If you are under 40 and can’t relate to this, imagine watching CNN’s Gulf War coverage every night from the time you were in grade school until the time you graduated from high school, then getting drafted to fight in the same war.

By the early 60s, rumors began to filter back to the states that a tour of duty in Vietnam was a living hell, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon were uncommitted to winning, and the “friendly” South Vietnamese Army was rife with corruption and incompetence. It didn’t take long for the younger siblings of returning G.I.’s to spread the word around school campuses that this was one raw deal. Vietnam was an ill-conceived, convoluted exercise in futility. It festered anger, frustration, and distrust between fathers and sons. Many observers characterized the subsequent generation gap as our nation’s second civil war.

Vietnam-era draft notices carried a gravity far beyond the inconvenience of a couple years in the service. The overall casualty percentage for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were roughly two times higher than those in World War II, and the chances that a draftee would be sent to Vietnam were very high—between 50 percent and 80 percent. Draftees were given short-term, minimal training enlistments (2 years), so they went straight into the infantry, and the infantry did the fighting. A steady stream of boys from our hometowns disappeared within a year of graduating. So many of them returned in pine boxes that by 1965 the obit section in the local paper looked like a high school yearbook.

However juvenile the male characters in Big Wednesday may have behaved, they were simply responding to this reality. They sure as hell weren’t headed for college deferments, and the clock was ticking toward the inevitable call to arms. What they lacked in social grace—which was considerable—they made up for in their instinct for what Vonnegut called “soul-deep fun.” For Big Wednesday’s principals to make a drunken, pre-draft, hell-bent-for-leather run down to T.J. in a beat-up surf car in 1965 doesn’t seem so contrived in light of the circumstances.

Most of the serious, youth-oriented films about the 60s tap into the angst of Vietnam. And, in spite of Big Wednesday’s hijinks and its perch in the comedy section of most video rental outlets, it is a serious film. One of the persistent complaints from mainstream critics is that the first half was a slapstick party film, while the second half was a serious look at growing up—and when put together, the two are incompatible. But that dichotomy is precisely what Big Wednesday is about. Most of the surfers who grew up during that period were forced to make the horrifying transition from an easy-going, middle-class adolescence to a hard-as-nails, life-and-death reality inside of a few minutes—and that transition took place at a draft induction center.

Big Wednesday’s induction scene is the definitive study of the three main characters. Played for laughs in the beginning, we see the lengths some guys would go to in hopes of convincing the U.S. Army that they were either gay, crippled, insane, or all three. Ultimately, the leads live up to our expectations. Jack (William Katt), the considerate, cherubic, guitar strumming good guy willingly goes in, while the hell-raising duo of Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Leroy (Gary Busey) manage to bullshit their way into deferments at the 11th hour.

While their respective outcomes work in terms of the story, the message left for future generations is that flaky, self-centered young men were successful in avoiding service during the Vietnam era, while sensitive, civilized types enthusiastically answered the call. Sometimes that was the case. Sometimes it wasn’t.

Sadly, what makes the serious undercurrent of Big Wednesday seem so frivolous is that they were “just surfers.” If the Big Wednesday gang had been high school basketball stars in Ohio or Harlem gang-bangers or heroin addicts in East London, then the scene where a drunken Matt unintentionally throws a beach towel across the window of a passing vehicle—causing a chain reaction accident—would’ve been hailed as a great metaphor for the impact of disaffected youth on the culture.

As it is, Big Wednesday continues to be dismissed by the mainstream media as a collection of goofy anecdotes from down at the beach. As it was, the 60s were a no-win situation for the young American men, and over 50,000 of them died in Southeast Asia before their elders wised up and pulled the plug.

Sadly, what makes the serious undercurrent of Big Wednesday seem so frivolous is that they were “just surfers.” If the gang had been high school basketball stars in Ohio or Harlem gang-bangers or heroin addicts in East London, then the scene where a drunken Matt throws a towel across the window of a passing vehicle—causing a chain reaction accident—would’ve been hailed as a great metaphor for the impact of disaffected youth on the culture.

Bachelor’s Wives

You might expect a film like Big Wednesday, which falls roughly into the male-coming-of-age genre, to be hinged on the main characters’ awkward relationships with women. (Will the girls notice their nad? Will their bravado land them in the sack? Will they be forgiven for their boyish peccadilloes?) To Big Wednesday’s credit, the standard, adolescent, love-relationship conflicts and resolutions are passed over in favor of something less cozy. On the down side, Big Wednesday’s women are reduced to the most demeaning clichés.

The two females with the most screen time, Matt’s wife, Peggy (Lee Purcell), and Jack Barlow’s mother (Barbara Hale, William Katt’s real mother) are absurdly supportive. When a full-on housewrecker party rages in her home, Mrs. Barlow keeps to her room, calmly reading, of all things, Catch 22. When Matt spends the night on the beach, drunk on his ass after getting his draft notice, Peg cheerfully shows up at The Point the next day to look for him with their young daughter in her arms. (The myth that women graciously accept “drunk” and “men” as one-in-the-same thrives in Big Wednesday.) I don’t know about you, but I would’ve had hell to pay for either student.

The other main female character in Big Wednesday is Jack’s seemingly cool girlfriend, Sally (Patti D’Arbanville), who skips out on him hours before he is due to ship out to ’Nam. In the end, even she lacked the sense of loyalty and honor that Jack’s male friends possessed in spades.

We never get to know The Bear’s bride (Celia Kaye), but his wedding is directly paralleled with the loss of his soul shack on the pier, as well as the loss of his own soul. (He is a complete dick in his flashy inland showroom.) Eventually, Bear drinks away his co-dependent attempts at adulthood—his shop and his marriage. The idea that a woman could come into The Bear’s life without destroying him isn’t even considered.

You could make the argument that these derogatory generalizations about women are a reflection of the attitudes of men during those year, but a knowledge of Milius’s affection for all-things-macho waters down that dodge. The “friends are what matter” theme of Big Wednesday applies only to male buddies, not wives or girlfriends. Women are treated so dismissively in the film you almost crave to see Peggy lose her cool and kick Matt’s lazy, drunken ass.

 

Eddie Would Tow            

For those of us who feel that the sentimentality on the final, massive day of surf in Big Wednesday is excessive, it might not be a bad idea to examine what would happen if Matt, Jack, and Leroy were surfers who saw their prime 30 years late and faced their ultimate challenge in today’s milieu of uber-hyped big-wave surfing…

For starters, their names would be Jason, Adam, and Taylor-Shane. Taylor-Shane has so many tattoos, he can’t be racially profiled by the cops when he drives. Jason and Adam never learned to drive. Their sponsors have handled everything since they were nine.

The boys have long since cleaned up their substance abuse problems, macking in the gym, the smoothie bar, and the group counseling center. They’ve all scored fresh sponsorship deals based on their legends, and their personal webpages are up and flying, averaging a million hits a month.

In interviews, print ads, and homepages, they speak in reverent tones of the day that will come, a day like no other, a day when—well, they’d get their pictures taken a bunch of times and make some serious bread.

Out of nowhere, a big swell begins to brew. While signing autographs for $150 a pop at an ocean sport show, Adam’s pants begin to vibrate. No, it’s not some groupie playing crotch-hockey, it’s a pager communique from a legendary swell guru! Surfs up! Adam alerts Jason and Taylor-Shane via microwave laptop. He frets that he’s lost over a grand in autographs while tipping off the others, but his personal secretary reminds him, “Dude, they’re your bros!”

Over the web, they watch the swell build from frou-frou restaurants, personal appearance venues, and support group meetings. Once the exact swell angle and size is determined, they pick a go-date and a secret location to surf. Their primary sponsor (a wetsuit company) disapproves of the spot, a warm-water break. They are directed to go to another venue featuring 12-degree water, ice floes in the lineup, and 180-foot great whites. A crate of computer-fitted, Kevlar-lined, 24/7 rubber (the latest in ice water/shark repellent wetsuit technology arrives at their staging area the next day.)

Vince McMahon stirs himself into the mix, setting up a live Pay Per View deal with the “Life Outside Your Office Cubicle Network.” Las Vegas, looking to cash in on the 21st Century big-wave surfing boom, signs on as the host city. Using Clark County taxpayer money, Vegas fronts four billion dollars for a gold-and-ivory luxury box, which will overlook the takeoff zone while being supported by a dozen hovering twin-rotor helicopters. They supply topless showgirls and a Danny Gans impersonator. The Luxury box is so exclusive that no one is invited to attend.

On the day the big swell hits, so many boats, helicopters, planes, and landing craft precede them to the “secret spot” that it looks like D-Day. The surfers watching from the shoreline look like an info-tainment commercial audience. They should; they were selected for their demographic appeal and each given 40 bucks and a box lunch for their presence.

Miles offshore, infrared-sensitive reconnaissance aircraft monitor the huge incoming swells. Jason, Adam, and Taylor-Shane don’t bother to suit up until five minutes before the largest sets are due to hit. Vince McMahon is ecstatic with their sense of showmanship, and uses the open-air time to pitch his line of “Eddie Would Tow” t-shirts. Off camera, Vince turns to his personal man servant and asks, “Who the fuck is Eddie, anyway?”

In the spectrum of surf cinema, Big Wednesday seems to function best as a counterpoint to The Endless Summer. Bruce Brown’s classic didn’t even scratch the surface of who Mike and Robert were, or where they were going in their lives. They will always be 20-year-old surf vagabonds. That’s their appeal. But Big Wednesday deconstructs its characters in a way that gives each session in the water emotional impact.

Adam can’t decide which of his 37 tow-in guns will do the job. Board builders aren’t father figures anymore. In fact, Adam has never actually met any of the shapers who make his boards. All he knows is that he gets them for free and throws them away when the graphics stop snagging booty.

Just as Jason is about to strap on his 80-foot surf leash made of edible, high-nutrient, kook-cord tubing, his waterproof cell phone rings. One of his sponsors from CrakAnon is about to go off the deep end! Jason tells the other guys to hit it without him. Adam mists up and hugs him.

Taylor-Shane hugs Jason too, but also realizes his odds of scoring first prize in the “Biggest Wave Ridden” competition has just risen to 50-50. He makes a quick call to his brother in San Diego and authorizes him to lay 10 grand on “Taylor-Shane to win” at the Del Mar Surf Wagering Satellite Facility. His brother withdraws the cash and bails for Indo.

Out in the water, one of the local paddle-in riders is almost decapitated by Adam’s tow-in rope. The near tragedy serves as a flash point. Pay Per View color announcer Jesse Ventura cranks up the loud speaker on his yacht and screams at the local surfers, “Hey you guys—split!!!”

Local harbor patrolmen, being video-cammed for the Cops TV show, invade the takeoff zone and arrest a tow-in vehicle operator for a string of unpaid parking fines in Alabama. The operator turns out to be a shirtless, intoxicated redneck who lives in a trailer outside of Mobile and has been arrested on Cops on three previous occasions.

Every gnarly wipeout results in a flurry of rescue activity. In one particularly heated rush to be a part of the action, three lifeguards on wave runners collide and end up punching it out. The fight results in the highest ratings spike of the live PPV coverage. TV execs are inspired to create a weekly cable show. Working title: “Aussie Rules Lifeguard Brawl.”

When it’s over, Taylor-Shane tosses his “pre-paid surf-alert pager” to a bright-eyed kid on a nearby observation vessel, hoping the grem will carry on the great tradition of not bothering to check the surf himself.

Pete Rose and a video crew from QVC have an 80-foot “studio watercraft” anchored near the break—and the surfers boards, wetsuits, wave runners, leashes, and undergarments are sold on cable TV before the boys make landfall that evening. No one notices that a total of seven rash guards go on the block, all billed by Rose as “Game used.”

The next day, photos of the session are carefully measured with calipers to determine who rode the biggest wave. Any wave a smidgen smaller than the largest 85-foot rogues are snickered at by photo editors in San Clemente who’ve never seen a wave over 4 feet in their lives.

Jason—who never even made it into the water—wins the “Biggest Wave Ridden” award. “It was a business decision,” explains the CEO of the sponsoring surf corporation. “We have to give it to our number 1 boy, or it’ll look bad at next quarter’s stock-holder meeting.” Those in attendance at the awards banquet are moved to tears by the show of corporate loyalty.

A disillusioned Taylor-Shane vows never to ride waves again without getting paid up front.

Adam marries one of the “luxury box showgirls” and moves to Las Vegas where he opens a water park named “Adam’s Big Wave Tow-In Jack Pot.” Taggers soon alter the last word to “off.”

Elton John (tow-in surfing’s absolutely biggest fan) writes a Top 40 hit about the event. Eminem adores the ditty until someone explains the homoerotic lyrics to him. He ruptures both eardrums trying to clean his ears out with Q-tips.

It was a day like no other.

 

The Silver Surf Film

Today’s revered status of Big Wednesday isn’t reliant on its nostalgia or historical accuracy, although it delivers both in varying degrees. It’s popular because it captures the heart of why we go surfing. In the context of the flashy, post 1980s pro scene, any attempt to express the sharing and joy that’s an integral part of real surfing in the real world is worth its weight in gold. That’s the reason why surfers, even those who are generations removed from the characters in Big Wednesday, can related to Matt, Jack, and Leroy.

Even its harshest critics in the surfing world acknowledge that Big Wednesday remains true to the sport. Surfing isn’t exploited as a vehicle to tell a contrived story about assassins or arms dealers or lovesick teenagers. Yeah, there are plenty of negative stereotypes of surfers, but they’re coming from other surfers, not a roomful of Hollywood hacks. (If anyone’s gonna talk shit about surfers, it’d better by other surfers.)

Like a lot of cult classics, Big Wednesday was released before the VCR then found a following years later on home video. The small-screen format minimizes the impact of the surf footage, but in an era when surf films look more like America’s Funniest Home Videos than cinematic expressions, Big Wednesday’s action sequences play like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Of the all-time surf films, Big Wednesday is the only “talkie.” The other classics (Endless Summer I and II, Morning of the Earth, Free Ride, etcetera) are verbally sparse action documentaries. And while not one of the dozens of Hollywood surfer dramas is even worth mentioning, Big Wednesday lives on as a hall-of-famer.

In the spectrum of surf cinema, Big Wednesday seems to function best as a counterpoint to The Endless Summer. Bruce Brown’s classic didn’t even scratch the surface of who Mike and Robert were, or where they were going in their lives. They will always be 20-year-old surf vagabonds. That’s their appeal. Big Wednesday deconstructs its characters in a way that gives each session in the water emotional impact. This may be the salient strength of Big Wednesday, but it also saddles the viewer with an uncomfortable glimpse into what’s in store for Matt, Jack, and Leroy. Surfing their favorite spot with their oldest friends is a finite experience, and while Mike and Robert will ride the curls of Cape St. Francis forever, we have to witness the Big Wednesday boys live out their time together. And it hurts.

The idea that their maturity made it harder for them to simply go to the beach together was symbolized by the decaying staircase down to the water’s edge at The Point. Ironically, perhaps, our own maturity is making it easier to embrace the sentiments of Big Wednesday.