Big Wednesday (1978) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This is a film about a nearly forgotten sub-generation, a small but culturally distinct group consisting of the babies born during the war. Forming the last separate cultural group before the baby boomers, they are very different from those of us born a few years earlier or later. They were neither part of the do-wop/rockabilly era nor the age of the Beatles. The children born between 1941 and 1945 were all between 14 and 18 on February 3, 1959, which means that they were all of the kids sitting in high school classes on "the day the music died," the day Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died in the crash of a private plane. Not surprisingly, Don McLean was conceived during the war, was in high school that day, and later raised that memory to the level of a cultural myth. Elvis entered the army in 1958, the the Big Three crashed down in 1959, so do-wop was dead or dying and the Beatles were four years in the future. It was the era of the folk craze, and the surf-'n'-car classics. California, or at least the romance of California, took the cultural lead for the first time in memory.

When those war babies went to college, the world really hadn't changed much since the Eisenhower years. In other words, the war babies missed "the 60s" completely. Oh, some of them graduated as late as 1967, but the period of time which we now remember as "the sixties" - the anti-war movement, the protests, the campus revolts, the hippie days, the cultural revolution - had not yet begun. That era actually started in the summer of 1967 and lasted until Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974. Some people say it ended earlier, that the 1972 McGovern campaign was really the last significant gathering of The Movement. Maybe so. The point is this - if you graduated from college in 1967, as the last of the war babies did, your school years completely missed the entire period we now know as the 60's. Your graduation day may have been seven years into the decade, but the era was still waiting to be defined.

When the baby boomers arrived at the universities, everything changed dramatically. To those of you who were not there, I can't convey how dramatic the shift was at a certain point in time. The change was revolutionary, not evolutionary. I started college in 1966, with the old rules in place, in an Eisenhower world. The last war babies were still there as seniors, and I got to experience their world for a quarter of my college time. We had to sign in and out of our dorms. No women or alcohol were allowed in the rooms. We had a monitor living at the end of the hall. We wore ties to class. We had beer blasts and panty raids. When the last war babies graduated in the summer of 1967, everything changed immediately. The world went crazy in that summer between my freshman and sophomore years. By Thanksgiving of sophomore year, we had essentially no rules at all, campus buildings were in flame, and the administration was terrified. At that point, the administrators would have been happy to let us go back and have those women and kegs in the dorms, because that would have taken our minds off the drugs and the violent riots. The change was really that abrupt: June 1967 in the beer-drinkin' Eisenhower world, November 1967 in the drugged-out anti-war hippie haze.

The story of the baby boom generation is writ bold across the cultural landscape, and sung oft in popular minstrelsy, but there have not been so many voices, nor such loud ones, to tell the tale of the war babies. Big Wednesday is the unofficial sociological summary of the coming of age period for the cultural icons of the small and forgotten sub-generation that came before the resounding baby boom. Writer/director John Milius was born during the war and, in the haziness of hindsight, defined the romance of surfing as the iconographic glue that held together the sub-generation or war babies. Searching for the perfect wave was not just their recreation, but their spiritual quest. Just as the pre-war babies had Elvis, and the boomers had The English Invasion, the war babies had The Beach Boys. Milius was definitely an insider in that culture. He was a friend of many of the famous surfers, and went to USC from 1962-1967, almost exactly concurrent with the era of those beach party movies which seemed like quaint, irrelevant relics just a year or so after Milius graduated. Milius loved surfing so much that he even found an improbable but memorable way to work it into his script for Apocalypse Now.

The first half of Big Wednesday is episodic, and the episodes are based on actual events, or at least the mythological versions of those events,  from the lives of the legendary surfers from that golden era. (See the article below this one for details.) It's light comedic froth which seems amusing but pointless. Three friends surf together, have wild parties, and live their carefree youth in the California Dream. A girl from the Midwest says,  " ... it's so different here. Back home, being young is just something you have to do for a while before you grow up. Here it's everything." That's part of what the war baby generation was all about - avoiding adulthood and adult concerns as long as possible. One of the characteristics that marked the war babies as culturally distinct from their successors is that they were content to live as adolescents in an adult-centered world. Before the combination of the draft and the Vietnam War came along and made geopolitics personal, there were not a lot of young Americans interested in global events, so surfing makes an excellent metaphor for their disassociation from the grave concerns of the adult world.

The second half of Big Wednesday is more dramatic, and concentrates more on the nature of friendship. The Vietnam War comes along and brings a grim reality into the surfers' lives. One of the best episodes is their induction physical, a comedic vignette which demonstrates just about every draft-evading scam used in those days. The dramatic conclusion of the film creates its title. Big Wednesday was an actual day during The Great Swell in 1974 when record 20 foot waves hit Southern California. The three friends, their lives long since gone in separate directions, reunite for that day to test themselves once more against giant waves.  

Surfline.com says that Big Wednesday is the one and only time when Hollywood ever nailed down the culture of surfing and its tiny sub-generation. Probably so. My late friend Dale Davis, a famed surfing filmmaker who was a true insider in that culture, felt the same way. (See below for my interview with him made shortly before his death in 2001.) The movie itself is picaresque, and only a so-so movie, but it is worthwhile, if only to understand the pop culture landscape of the forgotten war baby generation.


TRIVIA: 

William Katt and his mom, Barbara Hale, played son and mother in the movie.

William Katt and Jan-Michael Vincent were actually ardent surfers who did some of their own board work in the movie. (That was not them on the 20 foot waves, however). Gary Busey wasn't a surfer, but he learned enough to lend credibility to the film.

 

The Boys of (Endless) Summer

Big Wednesday is based on real people and their stories. Dale Davis, the legendary surfing cinematographer, was present at many of the events portrayed in the movie, and even filmed some of the original events as they happened. Dale is the producer/director of such surfing classics as Inside Out, in which he filmed the largest wave ever ridden; The Golden Breed, in which he portrayed the everyday life of the surfing crowd, both on and off the waves; and Walk on the Wet Side, an early film which featured the specific group of surfers pictured in Big Wednesday.

Scoop: Dale, how do you know about the events in Big Wednesday?

Dale: I was there, at least for the events in the first half of the movie. There was a house in Santa Barbara called the butterfly house because it was on Butterfly Lane. It was a bunch of surfers. I filmed some parties there and in one case, I even filmed the real version of an event recreated in the movie. If you remember the scene where Jan-Michael Vincent went out with a cape on Highway 101, started bullfighting with the cars, and caused an accident ... that was actually done by a surfer named Lance Carson, and I filmed the original event in 16mm!

Scoop: So the Vincent role was based directly on Lance Carson?  (pictured left)

Dale: No, not exactly. The three guys in the movie were based on real surfers, the first group of surfers ever to become nationally famous, especially Lance Carson, Doug "Bunny" Ridell, Mike Doyle, Mickey Dora, Bob Cooper, and The Masochist. The events in their lives, however, are composites, so that there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between the characters and real people. The Jan-Michael Vincent role is mostly based on Lance, especially the drinking, but it was actually Mike Doyle who got out of the army because of the surf bumps on his knees. The doctor had never seen surf bumps before, and Mike exaggerated his. He made them swell by hitting them with a piece of wood in the Selective Service parking lot.

For the most part, William Katt's role is probably closest to a guy named Bob Cooper, who was a straight-arrow guy. The surfers were a mixed group of guys. Some partied all the time, some didn't drink at all. Cooper was an intellectual who would read James Joyce in between waves. Some of Cooper's personality also appeared in the movie character called The Bear.

Do you remember the guy who pretended to be gay to avoid the draft? That was based on Mickey Dora, who may have been the craziest of them all. The last anybody heard of him, he was imprisoned in Africa for stealing diamonds. Or maybe he just started that rumor himself. He was crazy enough to do the crime, but he was also crazy enough to make up the story, so who knows? One day I ran into him when he had been handcuffed to a fence by some cops during some craziness. He asked me to get him a hairpin, and eventually set himself free before the cops came back to get him! He wrote "Dora Rules" out there everywhere - on piers and steps and pylons and pretty much every place he could think of along the beach. They tell me that some of the "Dora Rules" graffiti is still out there after all these decades. 

The Gary Busey character, "The Masochist", is a combination of Bunny Ridell and a guy who really was called The Masochist. They were both from San Francisco. The real-life Masochist did get in the oven, as pictured in the film. I know that for sure, because I turned it on for him! The director, John Milius, also added a little bit of Lance Carson to that character, because it was actually Lance who used the insanity ploy to avoid the draft.

There were some funny events that didn't make the movie. Lance, especially, was a source of crazy stories. I remember driving along one time, getting pulled over by a cop, and I didn't know why. Turns out it was because Lance pissed on the cop car out of the back of our convertible.

Good memories. We'd meet at 5 in the morning at the restaurant pictured in the early scene. It was called something like the L.A. County Store and Restaurant, run by a stern old Scottish woman. Those guys would surf from sunup to sunset many days. They often surfed in wet suits, because the surf temperature could get pretty low, but I guess that wasn't sexy enough for the film.

There were other events in the movie, in the later years, that I don't know about. The film has a post-Vietnam reunion in the graveyard, for example. I just don't know how closely that part followed reality, because I wasn't hanging with them then.

Scoop: What happened to those guys?

Dale: Lance Carson straightened out and quit drinking, but he stayed close to surfing. I heard he now makes surfboards here in California. Doyle is now a ski instructor in Colorado. Dora I mentioned. Cooper is in Queensland, Australia, and eventually had something like nine kids. Bunny and Masochist, I don't know because they were from Northern California, and I lost track of them.

(Photograph to the right, and the one of Lance Carson above, by Dale Davis)

 

DVD INFO

  • widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1
  • full-length commentary by John Milius

 

NUDITY REPORT

None. Rated PG

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 2.5/4 

 

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.8 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. You'll love it if you love surfing or the lore of surfing. You'll love it if you are part of the California pre-boomer generation. If you are anyone else, I predict you'll find it good in sections, but disjointed and rambling and too long.

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