I have been intending to write about Big Wednesday for months but Jan-Michael Vincent’s 65th birthday seemed like the idea opertunity.
“This movie is too good for surfers.” Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino famously explained how he wanted to hate this film as he didn’t get on with surfers when he was growing up in California but he couldn’t get over what a great film it is. Put simply it is not a surf movie it is an epic existential tale set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Its outlook and impact it has more in common with The Deer Hunter than Endless Summer. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t a heavy, worthy film. It is lots of fun with great surf photography and some real comedy moments such as the classic draft dodging scene, but it goes so much deeper than that. You could write endless essays on possible interpretations of Bear’s (Sam Melville) quote about “a swell so big will wipe everything that came before it”.
Set over a twelve year period starting in 1962 three friends Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack Barlowe (William Katt) and Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey) are having the time of their lives drinking partying and most importantly surfing. Over the years we are treated to the real life inspired antics as they try and dodge the draft in 1965 and ending with the Great Swell of 1974 all the time charting their evolution to adulthood including coming to terms with the loss of a friend in the Vietnam War.
The reason the surfing scenes are so good are down to various things, most notably writer/director John Milius was himself a surfer and they used real life surf legends like Peter Townend, Ian Cairns, and Billy Hamilton to film the surf scenes. There is a telling scene both dramatically and from a surfers point of view when the friends are watching the hero of the shortboard revolution Gerry Lopez, Matt says “Lopez, he’s as good as they always said he was!” and The Masochist replies “So were we”
Panned by many critics who just didn’t get it, it may be one on the most misunderstood and underrated films of all time. As a surfer (not a very good one) I original watched this film as a classic surf film but I got so much more out of it than that. And yes that is Gary Busey who had a none surfing role in Point Break!