Program Notes: Big Wednesday (1978)
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There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground when it comes to John Milius’ surfing epic Big Wednesday. Either it leaves you cold or swooning.
Among his screenplays are Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973). As a director he can claim such sensitive entries as the original Red Dawn (1984), Dillinger (1973), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and The Wind and the Lion (1975), the latter probably being his best film.
But Big Wednesday offers a curious antidote to Milius’ usual macho posturing. The film, inspired by his own teen years as a surfer in Southern California, feels not a little like George Lucas’ American Graffiti. It’s actually – gasp! – a sensitive coming-of-age story about three surfer dudes who grow up – or don’t – over a dozen years.
The story is in four parts, beginning in 1962 and ending in 1974. When we meet our three protagonists – Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack (William Katt), and Leroy (Gary Busey) – they are local surfing legends devoted to avoiding commitments and responsibility. They spend their days on the water, their nights partying fiercely.
One thing about John Milius...he’s not one for understatement. The emotions on display here, particularly in Big Wednesday’s opening sequence, are not unlike those of a traditional Western. There’s brawling and kidding around. Drinking. Furniture gets smashed. Rivals from the beach duke it out in somebody’s living room.
It’s like something out of a John Ford comedy like Donovan’s Reef, with lots of over-the-top bonhomie and as much swagger as three dudes with blonde surfer-shag ‘dos can muster.
But over the course of the film’s two hours (each of the four segments lasts exactly 30 minutes) the tone turns ever darker.
Matt, the best surfer of the bunch, finds himself the father of a little girl and spends way too many of his nights sleeping off drunken binges on the beach. He doesn’t surf much any more...his pool maintenance business sees to that.
Jack, the most responsible one, enlists and ends up in Vietnam. After he’s discharged he resumes his “career” as a beach lifeguard.
Leroy remains the wild man, chasing waves and avoiding adulthood at all costs. No telling what he lives on.
Finally, in the closing sequence taking place in 1974, the three old friends reassemble for a day when Southern California witnesses the biggest waves in a century. This is “Big Wednesday” and on a day when the authorities are trying to clear the beach, they hit the water with surfers half their age to challenge the killer surf.
For them it’s a brief moment of transcendence.
There’s plenty to pick apart here. While the three leads and the main supporting players (Patti D’Arbanville, Lee Purcell, Sam Melville, Barbara Hale) do fine, some of the smaller performances are strictly amateur hour.
And Basil Poledouris’ soaring orchestral score is almost maddeningly insistent on telling us what we’re supposed to be feeling.
But at the same time Big Wednesday is an unexpectedly emotional experience. It’s coming from a real place in Milius’ past (surf enthusiasts claim it presents the most accurate screen depiction of beach culture) and Bruce Surtees’ cinematography is often breathtakingly beautiful.
It’s easy enough to sneer at the lifestyle on display here...but at least some of that sneering is born of envy.
Other films in the series “Surf's Up!”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- June 3: Big Wednesday (1978) Rated PG
- June 10: Point Break (1991) Rated R
- June 17: Soul Surfer (2011) Rated PG
- June 24: Muscle Beach Party (1964) NOt Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.