Quentin Tarantino once said that surfers don’t deserve Big Wednesday. Perhaps this was a hangover from his days working in a California video shop where the local beach crowd preferred Chevy Chase to Sonny Chiba and derided the geek behind the counter with cries of “Cherry Boy!”.
Whatever the reason, he’s partly right: this rites-of-passage story is not just for surfers.
Director John Milius had previously written such right-wing cop efforts as Magnum Force and – un-credited – Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis monologue from Jaws.
Milius would go on to write and direct the knuckle-headed Conan The Barbarian (1982) and anti-communist paranoia teen flick Red Dawn (1984) but Big Wednesday is – despite the surfing theme – far from a grab-bag of macho clichés.
The action starts in 1962 when life is a series of wave-riding, hot girls and cold beers for three California buddies: Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), Leroy (Gary Busey) and Jack (William Katt). A chaotic house party caps a perfect summer, though a disastrous road trip to Mexico hints that the bubble of innocent fun can be violently burst at any time.
Inevitably the good times are threatened as Vietnam kicks into gear – the scene where they try and avoid the draft by pretending to be gay, insane, crippled or a raving Nazi is fantastic – but Jack plays it straight and enlists, enjoying a final expression session on his board before leaving to do his duty.
Matt, the local hero, struggles with fatherhood and sinks into alcoholism while Leroy travels to Hawaii and makes a name for himself as a serious surfer.
The passing of time sees one of their friends killed in Vietnam and local board shop owner, beach guru Bear (Sam Melville) ruined and drunk.
Finally, 12 years on from when they were the wide-eyed rulers of the break, Leroy, Jack and Matt reunite to ride a jaw-droppingly massive swell – the once-in-a-lifetime ‘Big Wednesday’ of the title – proving that whatever they’ve done onshore, in the water they remain the masters and, ultimately, friends.
The surfing is beautifully shot, without the disorienting jump cuts that Hollywood now uses to make things look even more exciting than they already are!
Gary Busey would go onto a career of playing steely-eyed psychos before a troubled personal life saw him join Jan-Michael Vincent – better known as Airwolf‘‘s Stringfellow Hawk – as a regular fixture in the National Enquirer.
Katt, meanwhile, disappeared to make the sort of late-night films Channel 5 puts on when they’ve run out of soft porn and baseball. But whatever depths their careers plumb, at least they’ll always have a genuine classic on their CV.