Back in 1962, there were three friends who had found their perfect pasttime: surfing on Californian beaches. Whatever happened to them from that point on, the surfing would be the one constant in their lives, even when their relationships were tested. Take that day back in '62 when Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) was still wasted on booze after the night before, something that was not an isolated incident, and Jack (William Katt) and Leroy (Gary Busey) practically dragged him to the shore that morning and found a surfboard for him to use. The sensation of getting him into the sea was enough to wake Matt up and make him feel all was right again...
When you're discussing surfer movies, it's often the documentaries which come up as being the best, simply because they tend to fit in as much footage of the sport into their running times as possible, and dispense with such things as plotlines which might get in the way. Therefore Endless Summer and Riding Giants equal good, Gidget and Blue Crush not quite as satisfying to the adherents. However, if there was one fictional movie which seemed to take surfing with just the right level of seriousness, then it was Big Wednesday, which appealed to the activity's followers while seeming significant to the non-practioners.
But when you actually watch it now, you might be disappointed to see that the surfing mainly takes up the last twenty minutes of a two hour film, and for most of the rest of it there is a lot of emotional weight to wade through before you get your reward. It is thought of by some as the crowning achievement of writer and director John Milus' career, but that's as much to say the production brought out his weakenesses as much as his strengths, as for every neatly observed character item, there was a heavy and portentous stretch of drama that was too ponderous for the film's good. Milius was a surfer himself, so if nothing else the tone is never less than convincing, it's just those characters he chose to populate it with never take off and fly.
Everybody looks the part, with the three leads all very tanned and toned, even if Katt is forced to don a terrible blond wig when his hair is meant to have been cut, and that 'tache in the latter stages doesn't do him any favours either. We follow Matt, Jack and Leroy (known as Masochist for his crazy behaviour) from their innocent days in the early sixties to their inevitable loss of that innocence as the years roll by, all set out in the form of four seasons, linked to the four "swells" that the tides are connected to. From early on you might not be too sure if you're warming to these young men or not, as they get up to supposedly endearing rambunctiousness which veers threateningly close to obnoxiousness.
But all that brawling and macho high spirits are there to contrast with the scenes where they're brought down to earth, such as when Matt's girlfriend Peggy (Lee Purcell) announces she's pregnant, or when they get their draft notices in the mid-sixties and either think up ways to dodge their tour of duty in Vietnam or as Jack does, go through with it and emerge from the other side a changed man. Except he's not that much changed, he's still a bit of a prig. Matt in the meantime struggles with alcoholism and the passage of time makes them all yesterday's men, but what we're meant to perceive is that they will always have the sea, no matter how far from each other they drift. This leads up to the climax of the film, but as there has been too much of a tangential link to the surfing up to that point, in spite of us being led to believe it's the focus, that splendid, exultant surfing footage does come out of the blue to an extent. Yet you cannot fault Milius's mastery of his storytelling, even if he allowed the likeability of the main trio to fall away too often. Music by Basil Poledouris.