Big Wednesday Review

The career of John Milius is perhaps the most tantalising of all wasted opportunities in recent Hollywood history. Following the promising Dillinger and the excellent epic The Wind And The Lion, he made Big Wednesday, one of the finest movies to have been made in America during the last fifty years. This flopped big-time but Milius went on to the big commercial successes of Conan The Barbarian and the idiotic guilty pleasure Red Dawn. But he seems to have disappeared from view after the artistic and commercial failure of Farewell To The King, his director-for-hire bullshit-fest Flight of The Intruder and the glorious but barely seen TV movie about Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Riders. It's such a shame because Milius at his best is an awesome sight to behold and Big Wednesday is his masterpiece.

The film charts the progress of three teenagers from their carefree days as surfer-gods of the Point, a Californian surfing beach, in 1964 through their disillusionment during the turn of the decade and, finally, to their last stand as they finally reach the "Big Wednesday" they have always dreamed of, the elusive day when they will face the big wave, the one which can only be conquered by the best of the best. As we watch the rather obnoxious, selfish teenage brats turn into sympathetic men who hae experienced loss and pain and managed to come out the other side, there is a real sense of the recent history of the country coming through in the narrative of the characters. The three men are Matt (Vincent), already a surfing legend but beginning to hide behind a haze of alcohol; Jack, the straight arrow who looks after his buddy until he gets called up and realises that he'd rather go to Vietnam than stick around the Point as a lifeguard; and Leroy "The Masochist" (Busey), a likeable nutter whose jovial insanity is sometimes rather too intense to be convincingly faked. At first they are the familiar Jock stereotypes who booze, fight and pick up 'chicks' with abandon, but Milius's intention is already clear - that this superficially 'experienced' life is actually a state of innocence which must inevitably be shattered if the guys are ever going to grow up. They run from the responsibility which frightens them until Matt's girlfriend, the likeably tough Peggy (Purcell) announces that she is about to have a baby and Matt must choose between running or seeing through what he's begun. There's a deliberate rhyming of scenes too, as a jolly brawl at a surfer party - all macho bullshit and slapstick - is contrasted with a real fight in Mexico where people are seriously hurt and where violence isn't funny any more. Each part of the film - it's divided into four acts - is slightly different, as naivity turns to experience, then to disillusionment and finally into redemption through courage.

It's easy to say that this is a surfing movie which isn't really about surfing - the surfing is part metaphor, part ritual - but that would be to deny the beauty of the surfing scenes which have been caught stunningly in several riveting set-pieces. My own knowledge of the sport is limited to what I've learned in this movie and a couple of others - I did wear a wetsuit once but it wasn't a pretty sight - yet it's just about impossible not to get caught up in the sheer kinetic excitement of the wave-riding we see here. Yet to pigeonhole it as a "surfing" flick is somehow inadequate, like calling Psycho a movie about a motel owner - i.e. it's broadly accurate but totally misses the point. It's a rites-of-passage film which manages to be neither preachy nor dumb (although a couple of the early scenes do go a little too far in the direction of Animal House for comfort), and it's one of the most deeply felt movies I've ever seen. John Milius has several obsessions but there are two key ones which recur through his work. Firstly is the question of what exactly it takes to becoming a man ? In his lesser films, the answer tends to be the dialectic of masochism and brutality, becoming a man through the inevitable force of violence, whether given or taken. But he also understands very clearly the inadequacy and pathetic lack of vision in this approach to manhood and Big Wednesday suggests a more subtle approach to the question. The heroes become men through the experience not of violence (although this is implicit in the case of Jack and his time in Vietnam) but of surviving, understanding and overcoming a more insidious destructive force; the disillusioning sadness of day to day living. Through this comes genuine bravery; it takes courage to face up to living an existence which never quite lives up to the promise that it once offered. This is demonstrated in an almost unbearably poignant moment when Matt sees his youthful self in a surfing movie and understands that his past in passing into myth and that while it can't be recaptured exactly, perhaps it can be revived through accepting the past as a predicate of the present and glorying in it. This is delicate territory, edging towards the sentimental but Milius doesn't overplay it, preferring to leave the broad strokes for the finale when the past is vividly recaptured for one final moment of transcendent greatness. Milius's model is obviously Peckinpah here - the three heroes striding out towards the waves offer an irresistable reminder of Pike and his friends striding towards certain death at the end of The Wild Bunch - and like Peckinpah, he understands that heroism isn't something simple but something that comes along in the same package as failure and corruption. Ultimately, what makes a hero is the ability to rise, maybe just for one single moment, above all of that and grasp the opportunity when it arises to make the moment matter and last.

The second classic Milius theme, as suggested above, is the process of how fact is transmuted into myth. The narration of the film - supplied by Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund - sustains a tone of mythmaking from the beginning as the storyteller tells us "In the old days, I remember a wind..." and proceeds to establish this story as having happened but also being something more than a simple reminiscence. Matt and his friends are constantly referred to as "legendary", and Milius supplies a stream of observers who can testify to the legend. His obsession with the Nietschzian (and by extension, Wagnerian) quest for purity in strength is here too but not as pronounced as it would be in his later work. In particular, the myth is one of a quest for perfection in the shape of the "big swell" during which the awesome power of nature and the awesome strength of the "superman", the greatest surfer, can combine to provide a unique and pure experience. The character of "Bear", played by the impressive Sam Melville, gives this impetus as he constantly talks about the day of the big wave and designs a surfboard to only be used by the very best when that day comes. On the commentary, Milius quite aptly refers to this as 'Excalibur", adding another mythic reference into the mix. If you think that collection of observations sounds a bit garbled, then that reflects the film, which either doesn't have the courage to explore some of its implications or simply offers them as a way of interpreting the story. I wouldn't bring them up at all were it not for the fact that in his work - both as a screenwriter and a director - Milius is constantly returning to this theme, most explicitly in Conan The Barbarian where he gets bogged down in a dodgy Aryan subtext because he has the intellectual honesty and the inclination to pursue Robert E.Howard's ideas to their logical conclusion. It's risky ground for a director, to turn the follies and diversions of his youth into a proto-Wagnerian quest narrative. But, somehow, it works - just as the similar attempt by Milius to turn the kids versus nasty Commies pulp drivel of Red Dawn into a classical struggle between good and evil failed - and if you're anything like me you'll be so engrossed by the movie that it's a bit embarrassing to admit how much you were pulled into Milius's epic vision. On a much more simple level, of course, the film works because it's a poignant study of the bonds between friends and the way the past keeps intruding into the present, posing the question of where you can possibly go after being hailed as a god when you're a teenager. The opening credits, monochrome photographs of sixties surfers (including, in a heart-piercing moment of recognition, a virtually unrecognisable, young, slim and handsome Milius), introduce this theme with the same sense of delicate, nostalgic sadness of the home movies at the beginning of Mean Streets.

It helps a lot that the film looks simply stunning - Bruce Surtees's cinematography is gloriously crisp and clean, playing with clear blues of sky and sea so gorgeously that you want to wade into the screen. Also in league with Milius to play about with our weaker instincts is the composer Basil Poledouris. This, his first full length film work, is a big brash orchestral score which, like the film, shouldn't work anything like as well as it does. But from the first few notes you know that Poledouris is inspired by the emotional scale of the film and that he and Milius are perfectly matched. When he turned on the big orchestral fireworks some of his other scores it didn't work, notably in The Blue Lagoon, but here it seems entirely appropriate. Most worthy of praise is the 'surfing photography unit' who capture some of the most exciting footage in the film. Milius was present for much of this too, either in a boat or on his own board, but its the photography by the likes of Roger C.Browne, George Greenough and Bud Browne that gives this the edge on most other sporting movies. It's a cliche, but you really do feel as if you are there, especially during the terrifying yet exhilarating final sequence.

There are, unsurprisingly, flaws. Not everyone will appreciate having their surfing served up with such a generous helping of philosophy and there's certainly a sense in which Milius is over-egging the pudding. It's possible that some viewers will find the epic manner of the storytelling more comic than impressive. On a more prosaic level, the characters of Jack and Matt are developed with considerably more detail than Leroy - Busey gives a very entertaining performance but he seems to vanish from the film for much of the third act and his personality has been defined by his nickname. The female characters don't fare much better, despite the splendid work of Lee Purcell and Patti D'Arbanville and while they have an unusual strength for a film of the period, they don't have a great deal to do except wander around after the lads. That might simply reflect reality of course, but Purcell in particular is such an engaging presence that you want more of her.

Yet it remains a considerable achievement, a rites-of-passage movie which has an individual vision and a genuine passion, in which juvenile hijinks are kicked aside in favour of a thoughtful reflection on how people can come to terms with the disappointments of everyday life. Actors like William Katt and Jan-Michael Vincent, dead wood in other films, blossom with careful direction and good dialogue and manage to do work that you never thought they would be capable of. Best of all, the film manages to supply all the thrills you could want from a surfing movie without neglecting to supply nourishment for the brain.

The Disc

It's fair to say that Big Wednesday was one of the most eagerly anticipated DVD releases, being the sort of film which became a cult from the moment it flopped in cinemas. Warner Brothers haven't exactly made the DVD a special edition, but it's still a pretty good disc in most respects.

The film has received an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer which generally looks very good indeed. It's sometimes a little soft and there are occasional artifacts to be seen, but the colours are stunning, the contrast is sharp and the level of detail is impressive. There is a pleasing absence of grain but no edge enhancement problems. Overall, this is the best the film has looked since its first release and a vast improvement on the rather muddy VHS release.

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround which is very good across the front channels but hardly uses the surrounds at all. This is fair enough as it replicates the original Dolby Stereo presentation but this is one case where a 5.1 remaster would have been interesting to hear, considering the amount of wave crashing there is, especially in the finale. However, dialogue is clear and the music sounds terrific.

The main special feature is a commentary from John Milius. This starts rather slowly and you might be tempted to give up on it. But once he gets going he becomes very engaging and reveals a lot about the surfer mythology of his youth and the making of the film itself. He's certainly a larger than life character but it might have been good to pair him up with some of the cast or a critic to get him warmed up more quickly.

We also get the lengthy and far too detailed theatrical trailer - no wonder the film flopped at the box office. It gives a totally misleading idea of what the film is like.

There are 30 chapters, filmographies for just Milius (incomplete) and Busey. The static main menu is accompanied by one of the songs from the film.

Big Wednesday is a marvellous if sometimes flawed film, the sort of movie that makes you want to find all the friends in your life who you've lost touch with. This DVD is not the special edition that fans of the film would have liked but it's still pretty impressive and at the low retail price it's excellent value for money.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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