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Free Ride


Era-defining surf movie, first released in 1977, produced by California filmmaker Bill Delaney; a showcase for pro surfers Shaun Tomson, Mark Richards, and Wayne Bartholomew, as well as water photographer Dan Merkel; often referred to as the "last great surf movie." Free Ride has long served as the marker for a generational change that saw a young, aggressive group of Australians and South Africans push the sport's performance level ahead of  that set by surfers from California and Hawaii.

Delaney, a 27-year-old Brooks Institute of Photography dropout, began making Free Ride in early 1975, filming in Australia, Indonesia, and California. It was his first movie. Delaney wisely hired Dan Merkel, Surfing magazine's top photographer, to film slow-motion action footage from the water during the Hawaiian winter of 1975–76. Merkel had never before shot movie film, but was known as an obsessively hard worker and had great rapport with the surfers. Manhandling a huge 21-pound high-speed camera, capable of shooting at 200 frames per second, Merkel put himself deep inside the tube as surfers rode past, and the footage he produced was crystalline, well-framed, and tighter on the action than anything yet seen in a surf movie.

Delaney, meanwhile, shot from land, and focused on the right surfers: Tomson, Richards, and Bartholomew all went on to win world titles before the decade ended. Special attention was given to Bartholomew, as Delaney showed the frenetic but likable Australian on the soccer field, playing pinball, skateboarding, and relaxing in the squalor of his Hawaiian rental unit between surf sessions. Tomson and Richards, however, are Free Ride's standout surfers: Tomson with his newly developed pump-and-go style of tuberiding, and Richards with his tight-radius turns. The often-fickle Hawaiian surf was big, smooth, and sunny for days at a time during the Free Ride shoot.

In postproduction throughout 1976, Delaney put together a versatile soundtrack that included Pablo Cruise and Joan Armatrading, then hired Hollywood actor Jan-Michael Vincent to do the voice-over—which unfortunately came out terse and humorless and is the film's weakest point. Free Ride cost $70,000; expensive for a surf film of the period. It debuted in Honolulu in early 1977. Surfing magazine called it "a finely cut and polished diamond," and for the next few months it played to full houses in surf cities worldwide. Revised and updated versions of the film came out in 1978 (Free Ride: Take Two) and 1983 (Free Ride: The Final Edition).

Free Ride has never been released on video or DVD (although bootleg copies have long been in circulation), partly because Delaney believes the film should be seen in a theater and not on a small screen. The movie title itself has long been part of the surfing lexicon, as in "the Free Ride era," or "the Free Ride generation."

In 1999, Surfer named Free Ride the third most influential surf movie ever made (behind The Endless Summer and Evolution); in 2007, Surfing had Free Ride at #6 on it's "Greatest 25 Surf Movies of All Time" list.