“In the old days, I remember a wind that would blow down through the canyons. It was a hot wind called the Santa Ana, and it carried with it the smell of warm places. It blew the strongest before dawn, across the Point. My friends and I would sleep in our cars, and the smell of the offshore wind would often wake us. And each morning, we knew this would be a special day,” says our narrator (Robert Englund). In the summer of 1962 on a beach in Malibu, three friends assemble on the shore to surf.
Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) is regarded by the kids as a living legend, but has little desire to serve as a role model and spends most of his time drunk. Jack Barlow (William Katt) is a loner, an old soul in a young body. Leroy the Masochist (Gary Busey) is the resident wild man of the bunch. The Point’s elder statesman – Bear (Sam Melville) – builds surfboards for the kids. He predicts the coming of a swell so strong that the courage of the friends will one day be tested.
Jack falls for Sally (Patti D’Arbanville), a recent transplant to the West Coast. He invites her to a party at his mother’s house, which is invaded and wrecked by crashers from the Valley. On a fateful trip to Tijuana, Matt’s plucky girlfriend Peggy (Lee Purcell) announces she’s pregnant. She’s the only one ready to really embrace adulthood. By the fall swell of 1965, the boys have received their induction notices from the Draft Board. Some employ various tricks to get out of service, but Jack chooses to go to Vietnam willingly.
By the winter swell of 1968, Matt has pulled himself together and become a semi-responsible family man, quietly lamenting the passing of his glory days on the Point. Jack returns home to discover Sally has married. Leroy is devoted to waves and little else. Spring 1974 comes and sees even more changes in the lives of the men, but when once in a lifetime swell predicted by Bear comes to the Point, it unites the friends one last time.
John Milius had scored a critical and commercial hit with a movie he wrote and directed – The Wind and the Lion – while an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness he’d written in the late ‘60s – as Apocalypse Now – was set to start shooting in the Philippines under the direction of Francis Coppola. With the success to make nearly any movie he wanted, Milius turned to a subject he considered the most important in his life; his days surfing and growing up in Malibu.
Milius had at one time envisioned Big Wednesday as something he might write as a novel. Realizing the visual magnificence inherent to surfing, he brought in childhood friend and surfer Dennis Aaberg to remember everything they could about their youth and to write a screenplay together. Warner Bros. agreed to produce the memoir to the tune of $12 million. With an eye on casting actors who “all looked kind of heroic,” recreational surfers Jan-Michael Vincent and William Katt were selected, as was Gary Busey.
To substitute the actors for the big wave sequences, Jay Riddle & Billy Hamilton, Peter Townsend and Ian Cairns doubled for Vincent, Katt and Busey respectively, while Jalama and Cojo Bay – both near Point Concepcion in Santa Barbara County – stood in for Malibu. Released in May 1978 with anticipation that the epic might elevate Milius to the status of his friends Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas, Big Wednesday was reviled by critics, many who still had an ax to grind over the politics in movies Milius had written like Dirty Harry.
Milius recalled, “I was devastated. I wanted to join the French Foreign Legion. Boston and Chicago liked Big Wednesday. And Hawaii. But the rest of the United States? Not so good.” Though the film was ignored at the box office, many surfers came to regard it as the best ever narrative about their sport. Other moviegoers caught on as well, including Quentin Tarantino, who put Big Wednesday on a short list of his favorite movies of all time. An event commemorating the film’s 20th anniversary drew 8,000 fans to Santa Monica.
Milius sums up the film’s appeal on the DVD audio commentary: “Surfing is a sport you do alone. You judge yourself alone. The only competition you have is yourself. You don’t bring anything back. There are no trophies, no antlers. You ride the biggest wave and the wave just dissipates on the beach. And so, it is a thing that’s internal. But what is strange about surfing is that the thing you remember most are the relationships. So really, it is something that is best done alone, but it is also something that builds incredible camaraderie and friendship. It is a brotherhood.”
Big Wednesday practically defines the category “cult classic.” There may be little political material, and the coming of age story is tame by today’s standards, but there’s not much middle ground to occupy here. Moviegoers have either dismissed Big Wednesday for its flat characters, its melodrama or its inaccuracies – like a twenty-foot swell in Malibu – or been struck by the beauty of its mythos and its atmosphere, which capture the feeling of old time surfing better than any movie ever made.
Borrowing a page from Sam Peckinpah, Milius is less interested in exposing reality and more interested in exploring archetypes; larger than life characters achieving some sense of destiny against adverse forces. Instead of a plot, the story unfolds as any memoir would, as a series of loosely knit recollections. The characters aren’t as important as the memories: a house party smashed up by crashers, a dangerous excursion into Mexico, civil disobedience against the Draft Board. Milius and cinematographer Bruce Surtees capture these moments with real visual panache.
Gary Busey and Lee Purcell stand out among the young cast, while Jan-Michael Vincent – who deserves to be next in line for a Quentin Tarantino career intervention – gives the best performance, as the fallen star athlete in search of redemption. The water photography by Greg MacGillivray, George Greenough and Dan Merkel is as world class as the surfers, which includes a cameo by Gerry Lopez. Basil Poledouris composed a tremendous musical score, at times relaxed in Polynesian strings, other times as rousing as a samurai epic.
Terry Kemp at DVD.net writes, “Big Wednesday is to guys what Beaches is to the gals – almost. It is a story about friendships and the changes that we go through as we mature. The film would have worked almost as well in any other number of sporting arenas, but there is the added bonus of the cinematography and the beauty, power, and lure of the sea. The film may take a while to appear as if it is going somewhere, but your patience will be rewarded.”
“Not everyone will appreciate having their surfing served up with such a generous helping of philosophy and there’s certainly a sense in which Milius is over-egging the pudding … Yet it remains a considerable achievement, a rites-of-passage movie which has an individual vision and a genuine passion, in which juvenile hijinks are kicked aside in favour of a thoughtful reflection on how people can come to terms with the disappointments of everyday life,” writes Mike Sutton at DVD Times.
Warwick Gaetjens at DVDActive says, “This film is honestly a welcome change from the mind-numbing thoroughfare that is streaming out of Hollywood currently, I don’t mind being taken for a more intellectual ride nowadays – I must be getting older, that’s what it is. The best thing that this film shows is that even old men were young once too as it shows the passage of time that we all eventually go through.”