PCA Retro Review – Summer Fun Edition: Big Wednesday (1978)

All summer long PCA reviews pop culture’s greatest summer films…reminding you that the world’s best films are not in the “New Release” section at your local Blockbuster.

Big Wednesday (1978) – When film audiences think about surf films, the first thing that comes to mind are the ridiculous, yet wonderful, beach films starring Frankie and Annette.  However, the Beach Party films capture the reality of surfing about as much as an Elvis movie captured the reality of rock n’ roll.  In an attempt to bring the reality of the 1960’s California surf scene to the mass audience, director John Milius and writer Danny Aaberg created their powerful film Big Wednesday.  Both surfers from the era, Milius and Aaberg drew upon their own experiences to create the ultimate tribute to surfing.

Big Wednesday follows the lives of three young men; calm and responsible Jack Barlowe (William Katt), self destructive Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) and dense and dangerous Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey) from 1963 to 1974.  When first introduced to the audience, the trio are the kings of the beach as the three of the best surfers in Malibu, making them somewhat of local celebrities.  The first part of the film develops who these young men are and the relationships between themselves, and the surfing community,  as they party, meet girls, fight, drink, and do a lot of surfing.  Overlooking the beach and the boys is local surf guru “The Bear” (Sam Mellville) who makes surf boards on the pier and gives out pieces of surfer wisdom.  However, just as the tide changes, so does life.  When the film picks up years later, the boys find themselves splintered via family, careers, self destruction and Viet Nam.  The boys come together and drift apart throughout the film as their separate dramas continue to intertwine, until The Big Swell of ’74 brings them back together again.  No longer the kings of the beach, and long forgotten by the public that adored them, the three boys, now men, band together one last time to try to conquer waves so massive that they are only seen once in every generation.  This is Big Wednesday, the day that can make or break a surfer’s dream.

The guys and girls of "Big Wednesday": (left to right) Gary Busey, Patti D'Arbenville, William Katt, Lee Purcell and Jan-Michael Vincent

While categorized as a coming of age film, Big Wednesday is a lot more then that.  Sure, it is a look at three boys that become men, but it is also a film about male relationships, and how they break apart, come together, and fade away, just like the changing tides, which are used throughout the film as a constant metaphor.  Throughout the film the way that relationships change becomes a constant theme, and film cliques are often broken via the constant change of the status quo.  As a result, Big Wednesday becomes a realistic look at the way that friendships and relationships constantly change, and while comradery may link people together forever, personal relationships are often more fragile and complicated.

"Big Wednesday" is more then a surfing movie but is a film that realistic depicts the changing bond between men

Although William Katt, Jan-Michael Vincent and Gary Busey all went on to have successful careers in Hollywood, while watching their performances in Big Wednesday you wonder why they never became even bigger stars then they did.  William Katt gives possibly the best performance of his career as Jack Barlowe.  The clear headed leader of the trio, Katt becomes the stable shoulders that carries the film through each vignette, adding a solid touch of emotional depth to the film.  His chemistry with Jan-Michael Vincent is a powerful play between two men that are close enough to be brothers, but still a world apart due to male ego and self destructive tendencies.  Vincent, whose character Matt Johnston is quickly developed as the best surfer of the three, shows the rise and fall of the surfing king as he goes from “Big Kahuna” to one of the old guys from the past.  He beautifully the combination of arrogance, defeatism, disappointment and victory as the film travels from ’63 to ’74.  Gary Busey is the crazy third wheel.  The guy that everybody had in their life who was your best friend, but you never got to know.  Together they bring to life a sensitive and realistic portrayal of male relationships.

Possibly the most moving sub-plot in "Big Wednesday" is the rise and fall of "The Bear," played by Sam Mellville

Possibly the most interesting, and sadly tragic, character in the film is Sam Melville’s portrayal of “The Bear.”  Easily the coolest character in the beginning of the film, the audience watches The Bear slip into a state of madness and witnesses the fate of an old surfer who dreams of the glory days of the past, but can not deal with the way that his life has changed in a ten year period as he rose from the top of the world before crashing to the bottom.  The Bear is a man who fails in the present due to his lust for past glories, and serves as a warning to all men who make a mark in their sport or subculture, only to lose it to a younger generation.

But beyond the human drama, the themes of family, friendship, war and death, Big Wednesday remains to be a film about surfing.  It is a remarkable film that shows a definitive look at surf culture, both past and present.  Some of the surf world’s best surfers were hired for the film to shoot the surf scenes, and the film is still considered today by surfers young and old to be the best film about the sport for both it’s treatment of the subject, as well as for the breathtaking surf sequences filmed by cinematographer Greg McGillverly.  The film takes a realistic look at the lives of three generations of surfers, and how their legacies grow and fade, and how they influence each other.

One of the forgotten gems of the 1970’s, Big Wednesday has a timeless feel as if it could have been filmed only a summer ago.  The theme of brotherhood and friendships haven’t changed throughout the generation, making Big Wednesday just as relevant today as it was in 1978, and continues to be the best surfing movie ever filmed.


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