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Cinema Obscura - a weekly trek through the darker and frequently more random and forgotten regions of Cult, Foreign and Obscure cinema and pretty much everything in between. Each week highlighting a film worth hunting down, for those who like to wander away from the more-traveled-roads of Mainstream cinema.
When it comes to “Big Wednesday” I feel Quentin Tarantino put it best when he said
I don’t like surfers. I grew up in a surfing community and I thought surfers were jerks. I love Big Wednesday so much. Surfers don’t deserve this movie.
Like Tarantino I too grew up in a surfing community, to be more precise the coastal town of Newquay in Cornwall, which you only have to ask any surfer and they will tell you it is one of the best places in England for surfing. Needless to say, such information meant as a keen windsurfer, having to deal with all the egotistical surfers, who seemed to think that the sea belonged solely to them, an opinion which also seemed to stretched to the rest of the town. Now I’m not saying that all surfers are jerks, something especially shown when you had long boarders and short borders fighting for the same waves, which generally started a whole new set of arguments. Alas, I digress as like Tarantino I am firmly in the mind that surfers do not deserve a movie this good, as this is a stone-cold classic!
Over the years there have been plenty of surfing movies, from the classic Bruce Brown surf documentary “The Endless Summer" (1966) and it’s equally fun follow up the imaginatively titled “Endless Summer 2" (1994) to more bizarre Drive-in fare like “Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965), but “Big Wednesday" is by far one of the best and certainly most accessible to non-surfer types like myself.
Following three friends Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack (William Katt) and Leroy (Gary Busey) over twelve years, starting with the South swell in the summer of 1962 and ending on the mythical Big Wednesday in the spring of 1974, a day prophesized by their adopted father figure and board maker Bear (Sam Melville), were the biggest and cleanest waves of all time will come. Meanwhile the boys have to deal with real life pressures as they find themselves slowly growing apart.
The three friends are all wildly different from each other from the group joker and self-confessed masochist Leroy, to the eternally laid back Jack, whose establishment-prone ways also prove to be frequently responsible for the group being divided, especially when he honorably signs up for military service rather than trying to get out. Finally we have Matt who despite being the most talented surfer in the group, to the point he has become a local surfing hero, suffers from a self-destructive nature with surfing seemingly being the thing which provides his only salvation from his personal demons, while the love of surfing also seems to be the one thing which keeps the group together, especially with their wildly different personalities and individual moralistic values, which would seemingly put them in different social circles to each other if they were to not share this bond, something which also seems to apply to the roller derby community, which frequently see’s friendships being formed between skaters from radically different social circles to each other, all through a shared love of the sport.
While essentially this is a movie about a group of surfers, this film is also so much more than that, as it’s also a story about growing up and having to face the frequently harsh realities of real life, in this case The Vietnam war which serves as the backdrop for the film, as well as providing an amusing scene were the boys and their friends plot to get out of being drafted, with one members attempt at portraying himself as a homosexual, only lands him directly on a recruitment bus for the marines. What is most interesting to see is how they change as the years pass by, especially as the boys change in terms of their lifestyles as they get married and gain real life responsibilities, while society continues to change with aging surfer and surf board maker Bear being reduced from a boardwalk legends to a drunk garbage man by the films finale, making this a highly unpredictable ride at best, especially as Director John Milius resists the urge to give everyone a happy ending, for all though the boys reunite for the finale, there is still a sense that this reunion will only be temporary at best, until the next time the waves call them back together.
“Big Wednesday" was a real change in direction from the usual gung-ho action movies, such as “Conan the Barbarian" (1982) and “Red Dawn" (1984) that Milius is usually associated with and to which he would return to following the weak reception the film received on its release. Still with Milius being a keen surfer, this almost feels like his love letter to his sport, while also recruiting surf legends from the era such as Gerry Lopez, Peter Townend, Ian Cairns and Billy Hamilton, who might not mean much to the surf brats of today, but still provide a nice nostalgic touch to the film here, while also providing some amazing surf footage, which still holds up today especially during the finale were we are taken into a tube and can actually see the sand being churned up by the water, shots which are yet to be beaten by any film which followed. Meanwhile the cast are all fantastic with the majority of them still unknown actors at the time like horror icon Robert Englund, whose appearance here is more of a cameo while he also fills a dual role as the films narrator. Gary Busey here was coming in hot after his Oscar nominated performance in “The Buddy Holly Story" (1978) and truly embodies his character, much like Vincent and Katt who are equally believable in their roles.
There are some critics who would grumble that the film is uneven throughout, while comparing it’s use of the Vietnam war and its effect on society to that seen in “The Deer Hunter" (1978), which seems like a bit of a stretch when Milius seems to only want to use it as an a noteworthy event which affects the group rather than society on a whole and seems to have more of a focus on the boy’s own world changing, such as a local burger joint taking on a distinctly more hippyish theme, rather than anything resembling dramatic changes in society.
Personally, I would love to see the main idea of “Big Wednesday" applied to Roller Derby, especially as the only real movie we have to represent the sport, outside of the handful of films which attempted to portray the sport such as “The Fireball" (1950) and “Kansas City Bomber" (1972), meaning that currently all we have is “Whip It" (2009) to represent us as a community and while it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t in turn vastly increased the number of girls strapping on a pair of quads and hunting down their local league, after seeing the film, I still believe that we deserve our own version of this film, but for now at least the wait continues.