My occasional travels to Oahu’s North Shore over the past 30 years led to an unexpected view of myself. I could have been, maybe should have been, a surfer-boy.
I clearly remember a few days after I was released from the Army, stopping at a road junction in northern Nevada. I stewed there for many long minutes pondering what next to do with my life. Turn east to Kansas and home. Or turn west and head for adventure, possibly on the beaches of California.
In many ways I pine for a do-over, for I did go to Kansas, get married, have children and enter the rat-race.
In my heart now, I believe I should have turned west and become a surf rider, a juvenile who matures slowly if at all while living a carefree life at the seashore surrounded by other like-minded mates. Hacking my way through an alien “adult world” all these decades proved dispiriting. Grubbing for dollars and owning stuff has never been a big part of my makeup.
So, having done no more than body-surf modest waves on Sandy Beach outside of Honolulu, I resort these days to watching surfer movies in hopes of catching a glimpse of what might have been. That’s why last night I switched on the DVD player to peer into director John Milius’s 1978 drama, “Big Wednesday,” a nostalgic look-back at his own life as a surfer and coming of age on the waves.
Milius divided his maudlin tale into four ocean swells covering 12 years in the lives of three friends as they surfed a favored Los Angeles beach, sometimes together, sometimes alone: South Swell (1962), about being young. The West Swell (Fall 1965), focusing on life changes and differences in personality. Winter Swell (1968), a time of separation. The Great Swell (spring of 1974), a chance for reunion.
These unlikely friends are united only by their love of surfing.
Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a world-class big-wave surfer who suffers bouts of depression and alcoholism. Jack (William Katt) is the solid-citizen, reflective and often remote who volunteers for the war in Vietnam amid protesting peers. Leroy (Gary Busey) is a fun-loving character with an addiction for fist-fights. The glue that keeps these buddies from drifting apart is an older surfboard maker, Bear (Sam Melville). Friendships are essential to life, Bear preaches, although he ends up divorced, a drunk living a lonely existence near the beach.
The climactic last scenes arrive on a “big Wednesday” with a big storm and some of the highest, meanest waves ever seen on the beach. Matt, with the urging of Bear, comes forth to surf these most dangerous of waves. He has tried in vain to invite Jack and Leroy to surf with him, all now in middle age. Will they show up on their own for this once-in-a-lifetime event of Mother Nature, drawn by their deep connection to surfing and friendship? Is there no lasting bond for these three? Are their younger days of camaraderie, surfing and partying together, only memories and nothing more?
Milius, the director, described his film this way:
“The idea was to show the spirit of old-time surfing,” he says in a post-film commentary. “This was a time that was past, you know. Black and white. It was a time that had gone by and would never be the same again.”
While the idea was good, the execution was not. Wooden, overly sentimental and bogged down in a queasy plot, the film is saved primarily by the surfing photography and watching doubles, the so-called master surfers (Ian Cairns, Peter Townend, Bill Hamilton, Gerry Lopez, J. Riddle and Jackie Dunn) do their marvelous maneuvers on large breakers.
Sometimes, in a search for a meaningful and well-done surfing film, you have to wade a few hours in shallow water. And that’s what I did here.