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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Big Wednesday: SE
Big Wednesday: SE
Warner Bros. // PG // July 9, 2002
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by D.K. Holm | posted July 3, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

A movie about surfers, their trials, tribulations, conflicts, and love of the deep peak takeoff, presented with all the importance of a film about distinguished soldiers facing momentous events—such a film is going to strike you as either ridiculous or sublime. You either buy into the existential majesty of these men conducing the self-imposed challenge of repeatedly enacting confrontations with the repetitious rhythms of the waves, or you wonder why grown ups don't make better use of their time.

For this viewer, it is sublime. Warner Bros. released John Milius's autobiographical Big Wednesday in 1978 and the studio took a bath. I, on the other hand, who have never surfed, saw it three times in the theater alone, and since the advent of DVD have been eagerly awaiting its arrival. That time has come.

So why did I like this film so much the first time around? Because I really admire its values. Despite the fact that it is initially about a bunch of 18-year-old layabouts, in reality they have a code they live by that gives coherence to their lives. They have a moral standard that they adhere to. And that code comes from some of my favorite movies by Hawks and others. Politically, Milius is distant from my own views. But that is a common situation among film fans. As film scholar V. F. Perkins once put it in a roundtable discussion transcribed in Movie magazine issue number 20 (Spring, 1975), "For ten years the movies have been aiming at a set of dispositions much closer to my own than those accommodated by Pickup on South Street or Meet Me in St Louis, and yet I find the films on the whole enormously less appealing."

The main influence on Big Wednesday comes from John Ford. His restraint. His sense of ritual. This is like a Fordian cavalry picture, but with teens and surfboards instead of men and horses. Milius acknowledges his weird grafting of Fordian imperatives on a ridiculous subject by including Hank Worden (misspelled "Warden" in the credits), a graduate of numerous Ford films including The Searchers, as a beach bum character named Shopping Cart, and then by retooling the most famous line of Ford's film, that Worden's character was "born old," used here to describe the superserious surfer Jack Barlow (William Katt, Carrie's boyfriend). Milius couldn't have borrowed a better line to describe the nature of a man who will end up so much different from the friends he grew up with.

Credited to screenwriters Milius and Dennis Aaberg, the film is divided into four parts. 1) Summer, 1962 (introduction to the characters, a big house party, and a trip to Mexico). 2) Fall, 1963 (marriage and the draft). 3) Winter, 1968 (death, and a feeling that life is passing by fast). And 4) Spring, 1974 (Big Wednesday, and the reunion). The film is narrated by an unnamed source (it's the voice of Robert Englund, according to the IMDB), but possibly it's meant to be the kid Danny whom we see watching the surf board manufacturer Bear (Sam Melville) early in the film. We also meet Jack, Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent, a gay icon thanks to Buster and Billie, according to Bruce Weber in his new documentary Chop Suey), and Leroy the Masochist (Gary Busey, whose later real life accidents affirmed his character's nickname). They have a series of adventures, drift apart, then come together. While the others evade the draft, Jack, always the responsible one, enlists in the Marines. Meanwhile, Matt, the film's main character, struggles with alcoholism, then settles into a later life as a pool cleaner, a has been eventually invited to see Big Wednesday's version of Endless Summer, where he is mocked on the big screen by the audience in favor the new surfer, Gerry Lopez (the footage comes from an actual film, Five Summer Stories). BW ends with a big swell (they always seem to come on Wednesdays), when the three friends, their lives having diverged, reunite spontaneously to tackle some 20 foot waves.

This is the "long" version of the Big Wednesday, not the one Milius re-edited for television. But there are still some things missing. In the version I remember, there was a brief bit of narration that indicated that, though the lads sought to dodge the draft, if they were caught, they still served with honor. That seems to be gone from this version.

Big Wednesday was criticized at the time for its pomposity ("Who knows where the wind comes from?") and for some narrative incoherence. A character is killed in Vietnam, but the reviewers couldn't figure out who it was (it was Waxer, played by Darrell Fetty). And some reviewers called Sam Melville, who had previously been in a cop TV series, the worst actor ever (he's not). Though Matt Johnson is the main character, the real life of the actor who played him, Jan-Michael Vincent, has come to resemble the part he played, as has been profiled on 60 Minutes and as Milius notes on the audio track. Despite all this, I really love this film. It's set in a milieu I would probably hate if I had to lived in it, but on the screen it has its appeal, with its bleached blonde vixens lying about the beach in their tight black swimsuits.

But where the film really touches the heart is in its portrayal of contrasting relationships. The straight arrow Jack who ends up a Marine, forges a romance with Sally (Patti D'Arbanville), a girl fresh from Chicago, while Matt Johnson is dating Peggy Gordon (Lee Purcell), who used to pull trains for the surfers (they called her the Point Grinder) but has settled down with Matt. While Sally eventually can't take Jack's facing death and marries someone else, Peggy sticks with Matt through everything, including drunken binges, a baby out of wedlock, and his brooding over the loss of his youth, until age finally brings him a measure of wisdom. They alliance is one of the great celebrations of marriage in the movies.

Notes Look for Freddy Krueger (actor Robert Englund) as a draft evader named Fly; and look for Joe Spinell (from the two Godfathers as well as several cult horror films) as an army psychiatrist; producer Gray Frederickson plays a doctor testing Vincent's leg; and that's Della Street (Barbara Hale), the real life mom of William Katt, playing his movie mom. Reb Brown plays Enforcer. Frank McRae, a cult figure among directors such as Milius and Robert Zemeckis at the time, also has a small part. Aaberg appears in the film as a surfer who later becomes a drug dealer, and he also wrote the novelization of the script.


VIDEO: Warner Bros. disc of Big Wednesday looks beautiful. The cinematography of Robert Surtees, who did many Eastwood films, is excellent, with rich, deep, blue skies. It feels at times like a Peckinpah film, which Milius acknowledges. The second unit photography, produced by Greg MacGillivray, and shot by him and by George Greenough and Dan Merkel, is beautiful, and they capture the only photographic versions of Hokusai waves I've ever seen. The photography done on this film was revolutionary, and it really puts you in the middle of the tube. Thanks to the photography and the editing, Milius also puts you in a wipe out and it really feels like one (I know). Doubles were used for the stars, but the actors did enough of their own surfing to lend verisimilitude.

SOUND: The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtrack comes in both English and French (the film is very popular in France), with English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. As is customary with Warner Bros., the subtitles leave out a lot of the actual words spoken on the track. But it's a very clean track.

MENUS: The static, musical menu offers 30 chapter scene selection for this 120 minute movie (the box has it 119 minutes).

PACKAGING: The cover of the snap case has a composite photo, not the poster. The inside cover has a detailed chapter list. The disc features an image of a huge wave curling perfectly around the label.

EXTRAS: There are three.

Audio Commentary Track by John Milius Usually I prefer yak tracks that are recorded years, nay decades after the film has been released. There, the directors tend to be more frank about the pluses and minuses of the movie. Milius is one of my favorite directors, but this is a kind of low steam effort. He didn't do any additional research (they never do), just sat down and watched the movie with a tape recorder on. Milius seems a little detached from this film, yet at the same time loves it, as if it were made by someone else. Long gaps occur between moments of chat. Still, he concentrates on story, and doesn't bother too much is explaining the mechanics of the shoot. If you want to know Milius's philosophy, this is the place to get it.

The Theatrical Trailer It's brief, but effective. It really summarizes the film without spoiling it, and conveys its emotional power.

Cast and Crew Bios This is ridiculous. It consists of the previous movies of Gary Busey and Milius, and that's it. This is a fake feature on way too many discs that should be taken seriously or dropped altogether.

What Should Have Been on the Disc There are a lot of cut scenes that could have been resurrected for this DVD. Among them is a brief scene between Gerry Lopez, a real surfer, and the Matt Johnson character, in which they have a bonding out on the ocean just before Matt takes on the biggest wave. In a perfect world, a recent documentary, Dog Town and Z-Boys would make a fine companion piece to this film, as it touches on much the same reality as the one Milius is chronicling, though it's about skateboarders. A "making of doc" might have been nice, but baring that, perhaps some of the print material on the making of the movie could have been included as text, such as the extensive articles and interviews in the June 1978 American Cinematographer, the August 1978 Surfer, and the August 1978 issue of Lopez's own Surfing magazine. Also, the disc would have benefited from an isolated music track with just the contemporaneous pop tunes and Basil Poledouris's moving and inspiring music, his first.

Final Thoughts: Big Wednesday is a great if difficult film not to all tastes, that receives over-due release on DVD, though not as extensive a package as it could be.

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