Big Wednesday

Warner Brothers' 1978 coming-of-age surfing movie directed by John Milius, starring Gary Busey, Jan-Michael Vincent, and William Katt; initially a critical and box-office dud, but rehabilitated over the years into a cult favorite.

While Hollywood made about two dozen surf-themed movies in the '60s, including the cartoonish Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo (along with Ride the Wild Surf, a fairly straightforward drama), the $11 million PG-rated Big Wednesday was the only movie of its kind in the '70s. Milius and Denny Aaberg, Big Wednesday cowriters, were both Malibu regulars in the early and mid-'60s; "No-Pants Mance," Aaberg's lightly fictionalized account of his salad days at Malibu, published in Surfer magazine in 1974, became a thumbnail sketch for Big Wednesday.

Big Wednesday's storyline takes place over 12 years, from 1961 to 1974, and follows three friends—the straight-shooting Jack Barlow (Katt), the raunchy but amiable Leroy "The Masochist" Smith (Busey), and hot-shot surfer/alcoholic Matt Johnson (Vincent)—as they evolve from party-loving local surf heroes into young adults dealing with friendship, love, marriage, war, and death. After drifting apart during the counterculture years, the three surfers reunite at the film's climax to face an afternoon of huge, dangerous, metaphorically cleansing surf, "a day like no other," as the sagacious boardbuilder known as Bear forecasts early in the film.

Warner Brothers hired a top crew of surf world cameramen, including Greg MacGillivray, George Greenough, Dan Merkel, and Bud Browne, to film the Big Wednesday action sequences. Stunt-double surfers included Peter Townend and Ian Cairns, the 1976 world champion and runner-up, respectively, along with Jackie Dunn, Bill Hamilton, J Riddle, and Bruce Raymond. Pipeline maestro Gerry Lopez plays himself in a cameo.

A few of the surfing sequences in Big Wednesday are well-paced and beautifully photographed. But the movie itself was panned by both the mainstream and the surf press. "The dialogue is embarrassing," Surfer magazine wrote, "the fight scenes are ridiculously overdone, the soap opera scenes are too long, and the surfing scenes are too short." In a 1981 New York Times article about self-indulgent directors, an anonymous movie insider said "John Milius got millions from Warner's to make a 'personal movie' about surfing, and if anyone liked it except him, I'd be surprised."

Big Wednesday was pulled from theaters after taking in a disappointing $4.5 million at the box office (the film cost $11 million to make), then it slowly but steadily found new life as a video rental. By 1998 the turnaround seemed complete. Big Wednesday was shown at the Newport Film Festival, a 20th-anniversary party reunited the cast and creators, and the Los Angeles Times reported that the film was "one of the very few to really capture the surfing life." Surfer magazine also changed its view, saying that "Big Wednesday makes you proud to be a surfer." The Surfer's Journal, however, felt that time had done nothing to improve the film, calling Big Wednesday as "flat and mawkish" as it had been when it debuted, and crediting its newly elevated status as "another triumph in Baby Boomer nostalgia marketing."