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It is easy to picture John Wayne riding out to meet the enemy in a John Ford movie, but what if he were in swimming trunks riding out on a surfboard, with his enemy 20-foot ocean swells? The Duke may not be the star of Big Wednesday (1978), but his swagger and John Ford's style were the inspiration for this widescreen look at surfing.
Director John Milius is one of the lesser known of the generation of directors that arrived in the 1970's along with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. Best remembered now for The Wind and the Lion (1975) and Conan the Barbarian (1982), Milius never intended to become a director at all. Growing up in Southern California, he wanted to be a writer and one of the novels he planned was the story of the surfers with whom he had ridden the waves before and during the height of America's surfing craze of the 1960's.
He called it "Big Wednesday," a title that came from a short documentary he had seen that noted an odd coincidence; the biggest waves always seemed to arrive on Wednesdays. Milius was not one of the kings of the surf but he knew those who were and the insular world in which they lived with its private lingo and rigid pecking order. The novel was put on hold as Milius, with his writing prowess and proximity to the movie studios, was pulled into screenwriting. One of his first jobs was the script for Apocalypse Now (1979), his Vietnam-era adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness ultimately filmed by Francis Ford Coppola. In that screenplay, Milius invented the character of Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the surfing obsessed leader of the 1st Airborne Cavalry. Further screenplays and script doctoring led Milius to directing and, by 1978, he had the clout to realize his surfing novel as a movie.
Big Wednesday is the opposite of all those "beach party" movies of the early 1960's; it takes surfing as seriously as the surfers themselves. Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack (William Katt) and The Masochist (Gary Busey) are three buddies who are the local surfing champions of Malibu in the early 1960's. They are treated like gods and live only to catch the next big wave. However, as the decade progresses their simple world is invaded by adult responsibilities and a far-away war, insisting that they grow-up and make way for the next generation.
On land, the movie does seem like a John Ford movie with the surfers and their friends treated much as Ford presented the family communities of the Old West. Ford fans will note a cameo appearance by Hank Worden who played Mose in Ford's classic The Searchers (1956). There are also touches of Sam Peckinpah here, notably in a parody of the final march of The Wild Bunch (1969) as the surfers proceed to the draft board induction physical. It is on the waves, however, that Big Wednesday achieves its greatness with surfing photography unequaled before or since.
Using surfing greats like Gerry Lopez and Peter Townend and shooting at Cobo at Point Conception and Sunset Beach in Hawaii, Milius sent his camera team out into the water, alongside the surfers and sometimes with cameras strapped right onto the boards. There are beautiful shots that give some of the physical sensation of surfing and an incredible sequence as one surfer rides the "pipeline," a wave that curls overhead creating a tube of rapidly moving water. Milius' camera rides the pipeline even as it all comes crashing down into boiling, dangerous surf.
A box-office and critical failure at the time of its release, Big Wednesday quickly garnered an avid cult following that has kept its reputation afloat. Even for an "inlander," Big Wednesday presents the beauty and excitement of surfing like no other movie has or probably ever will.
Director: John Milius
Producers: Buzz Feitshans, Greg MacGillivray, Alexandra Rose
Executive Producer: Tamara Asseyev
Screenplay: John Milius, Dennis Aaberg
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Art Direction: Dean Edward Mitzner
Music: Basil Poledouris
Editing: Carroll Timothy O'Meara, Robert L. Wolfe
Cast: Jan-Michael Vincent (Matt), William Katt (Jack), Gary Busey (The Masochist), Patti D'Arbanville (Sally), Lee Purcell (Peggy Gordon), Sam Melville (Bear).
C-126 min. Letterboxed.
by Brian Cady