Oct 18, 2018

On Blu-ray: Underseen Surfing Classic Big Wednesday (1978)

The bittersweet nostalgia of Big Wednesday (1978) feels authentic, because it was made by men who lived it. A story of friendship and loss of innocence set against the backdrop of the 1960s California surfing scene, the film flopped upon its release, though it has developed a cult following over the years. Now it is making its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Director John Milius wrote Big Wednesday with journalist and fellow surfer Denny Aarburg. They based the story on their own teenage experiences indulging in the new 1960s surfing scene. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are Matt Johnson, Jack Barlow, and Leroy “Masochist” Smith respectively, a trio of friends who grow up alongside the ocean, obsessed with waves, girls, and having a good time. The Vietnam War bursts into their idyllic bubble, bringing uncertainty and fear into their lives. Turbulent times and the added responsibilities of adulthood change their lifestyles, but the lure of the surf remains ever present.

Milius creates an innocent world, where despite the drinking, sex, and fist fights, kids are essentially decent and driven by an inborn code of honor. They may not always do what they should, but they understand the difference between right and wrong. Milius films these good-natured teens in golden light, which exposes the wholesome white gleam of their teeth and their perpetually sunburned skin. They live on cheeseburgers, Cokes, and sun.

In a reassuringly maternal performance in what would be her final film role Barbara Hale (Perry Mason) plays Jack’s mother (she was also Katt’s real mother). In her elegant way, she shows an understanding of what these kids are about. In the midst of her son’s party, which rages out of control downstairs, she sits calmly in her room, reading a book. When an apologetic Jack comes to speak to her, she asks that they mind the coffee table, but in staying away from the action, she demonstrates a sort of weariness with all that youthful destruction, but also an essential trust that they won’t go too far.

And Mrs. Barlow is correct. While they ride to the edge of destruction during a wild night in Tijuana and fake injuries and homosexuality to avoid service in Vietnam, the boys also support each other with unwavering devotion, and when it is time to grow up, they each in their own way embrace maturity.

While these relationships, and particularly the friendship between Matt, Jack, and Leroy form the essentially sound emotional core of Big Wednesday, its most impressive moments are in the surf. The camera swoops close to its surfers, going deep into the waves, then shooting back to show the daunting majesty of those walls of water. Peaceful moments of paddling are punctured with the roar of the waves as the water presses in on the surfers. Perhaps there is a war being waged across the world, but nothing beats the power of nature, and in boldly facing that force, these kids bolster their own sense of self.

The lead actors learned to surf for the film, but were doubled by Australian surfing champions Peter Townsend and Ian Cairns, and Bill Hamilton (who is the father of surfing champion Laird Hamilton). Their stunt work, and that of other supporting surfers is jaw dropping. If there is anything that makes this film a classic, it is the tension and wonder of these scenes.

When it comes to surfing, Matt is the most talented of the three, finding a small measure of fame for his laidback control of the board. It hurts him to see new surfing stars emerge as he moves into family life. Though his legend endures and he remains adored by the locals, he never seems to feel satisfied by his legacy. He hasn’t performed the important work of learning to like himself first. Vincent captures Matt’s shame and self-inflicted hurt in one of his most sensitive performances.

Katt is a a more clear-eyed, but also more conventional counterpart to the more rebellious Matt. He feels comfortable working within the system, but also a bit stunned when he does everything right, but still falls short of satisfaction. In a wild performance that is nevertheless more controlled than much of his future work, Busey throws himself into his comic relief role, offering a taste of what was yet to come.

Upon its release, Big Wednesday met with box office failure and mixed critical reception. Some appreciated Milius’ earnest statement, others found it heavy-handed and poorly acted. In the years since, its nostalgia and the stunning impact of the surfing scenes have attracted more positive acclaim.

Special features on the disc include audio commentary by Milius, a theatrical trailer and the short retrospective documentary, Capturing the Swell (2003).

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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