Big Wednesday (1978)

A resounding bellyflop on its 1978 release, John Milius's existential surfing drama is as important a picture as George Lucas's American Graffiti - which actually deals with the same generation but shifts the locale from surf to dragstrip, with Milius reincarnated as drag-raced 'John Milner' - and Barry Levinson's Diner, in that it is a personal coming-af-age drama, with universal relevance but set in a very specific time and place. On the California beaches of the '60s, three friends - Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey - achieve legendary status, but the times change, Vietnam comes along, surfing goes in and out of fashion, and finally they are left alone in the early '70s, still waiting for the near-mythic Big Wednesday when the ultimate wave will hit and their right stuff will be tested.

Prefiguring Point Break in its mystic aspects, Big Wednesday is a lot more complex and self-aware in its intellectual underpinnings, confirming Milus's description of himself as the only bum on the beach who would ride the waves then rush home to pore in secret over his Herman Melville. There is a secondary character, the Bear (Sam Melville), whose rise and fall between the four segments of the film stands in for the influence of Francis Ford Coppola over Milius's generation of movie-makers, and Milius's by-no-means uncomplicated but sure-as-hell controversial politics get a work out - he was the man who wanted to make Apocalypse Now on location during the Tet Offensive - in the characters' ambiguous relationship to Vietnam, with draft-dodging seeming as heroic and legendary as marching off and coming back with a chestload of medals.

John Milius, Conan the Barbarian apart, remains the freakiest of the movie brat generation, never quite finding the commercial way in for his peculiar vision - his filmography includes such universally-reviled items as Red Dawn and Flight of the Intruder - and this is his most personal, most lasting work. It took a half-insane behemoth to make this movie, and one can only admire the similar courage of the people who made the decision to re-release it. Never likely to click with a mass audience, even if surfing catches on in the UK, this is a major '70s film from a major film-maker, and you're ordered to see it.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: The Good Times


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