“It was the naive 15 year-old girl from California, and her desire to join the Malibu surf set, that launched surfing in mainstream America.”
“I got on the plane with a book about how to make movies. I never had formal training in filmmaking, and that probably worked to my advantage.”
Director Bruce Brown
On making the film The Endless Summer
Surfing is…beauty, grace, freedom, simplicity, complexity, natural, multicultural, multigenerational, global, spiritual, philosphical—just to toss out a few words. So it’s no surprise that there are so many movies about surfing. And while I haven’t come close to seeing every surf movie out there, I know enough to give a sweeping overview. This isn’t even a list of my top five or six surf films, just a few bench marks to look at the genre.
Step 1: Gidget (1959)
If Stacey Peralta got his surf movie history right in his documentary Riding Giants, then the first wave of surf movies exploded on the screen (and the youth culture scene) in the 1959 film Gidget. Based on the 1957 novel Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas written by Frederick Kohner and a screenplay by Gabriele Upton. The movie stars Sandra Dee during the summer before her senior year of high school where she, according to IMDB, “discovers surfing and love (in that order).”
The inspiration for the movie is said to have been novelist Kohner’s own daughter. The name Gidget being a mix of “girl” and ‘midget”—and is said to be an honor among female surfers who even today— more than 50 years after the original movie’s release—are called Gidget in the still largely male dominated sport. I think the movie Gidget is another great example of a movie reflecting the culture that it helped produce. Gidget reflected a small surf culture in Southern California and the baby boomers in America jumped in the water and Hollywood was glad to follow with many surf exploitation films. Soon surfing was a booming business.
Step 2: The Endless Summer (1966)
While the sport of surfing had been around (depending on who you talk to) a couple hundred or a couple thousand years, according to one of the interviews in Riding Giants there were less than 5,000 surfers before Gidget was released to between than 2 & 3 million within just 4 or 5 years. And while there were many Gidget sequels, the first groundbreaking surf film—and still consider the greatest by some—came with the 1966 release The Endless Summer. Produced, directed and written by Bruce Brown the 16mm film essentially followed surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson as they traveled to Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand, Africa and Tahiti as they surfed great wave after great wave.
“Brown [The Endless Summer] was rejected by several studio distributors because executives didn’t believe the film would attract an audience ‘five miles from the ocean.’ So the filmmaker gave Endless Summer the ultimate test. ’We went to Wichita, Kan., in January,” he said. “It showed for two weeks and sold out its entire run, breaking the record of My Fair Lady.”
Big Waves, Big Screen article by Tim Ryan
One of the reasons surf culture/clothing is such a big business today is because of places like Wichita, Kansas and other towns and cities far from the ocean. Because young people in places like West Des Moines, Iowa— who may or may not have even seen the ocean — like to shop in places like Hollister Co. in the Jordan Creek Mall in the middle of winter (when it’s twelve degrees and snowing) and stare at a live video cam feed from Huntington Beach and buy a tee-shirt that reads “Hollister California Surf Team.” Jimmy Buffett long ago learned that secret.
Step 3: Big Wednesday (1978)
Though screenwriting teacher Robert McKee once said of Big Wednesday something like, ”The unexamined life is not only not worth living, it’s not worth filming,” the film is still a surfing classic and will pop up on many top 10 lists of the best surf movies. While perhaps the biggest surfer stereotype today is Sean Penn’s character Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times in Ridgemont High, Big Wednesday director/co-writer John Milius says that Southern California surfers in his day (60s) were more intellectuals than stoners.
Step 4: Point Break (1991)
“We stand for something. To those dead souls inching along the freeways in their metal coffins, we show them the human spirit is still alive.”
Bodhi (Patrick Swayze)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (who later won two Oscars for directing and co-producing winning The Hurt Locker) and writers Rick King and W. Peter Iliff used surfing a part of the story about the FBI trying to catch bank robbers in Los Angeles. While Keanu Reeves does a fine job of channeling Penn/Spicoli and selling the surfing, Patrick Swayze looks and acts more like the embodiment of the adrenaline junkie/philosophical/soul surfer than perhaps any character in any feature…or dare I say even the real surfers in any documentary. It’s worth seeing the film just to see two Hollywood stars (in a pre-digital enhancement era) actually surfing. Sure there we lots of stunt doubles used, but they sold themselves as surfers when they were in the water which is not easy to do given they both had little or no surfing experience.
Ditto that for actress Lori Petty. She actually graduated from North High School in Sioux City, Iowa and worked as a graphic designer in Omaha, Nebraska before setting off to Los Angeles.
Point Break is not a great film, but it has its share of wonderful moments. I like that it has a different vibe (perhaps due to being one of the few surf films directed by a woman?), and I like how it didn’t just try wrap a story around some great footage of surfing. If movies are going to evolve beyond the niche market of documentaries of great surfers on great waves (there will always be an audience for those), or screenplays about the older/wiser/ guru board shaper who schools the grom on surfing and life—then we need screenwriters to rise up telling compelling, fresh stories from small town places like Half Moon Bay (population 11,464), New Smyrna Beach (pop. 22,481), Seal Beach (pop. 24, 168) and Lahaina (Pop. 11,704)—cities and towns all smaller that even Cedar Falls, Iowa, but all with better surf—and the equivalents in North Carolina, South Africa, India and Australia. (Remember: Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places.)
Step 5: Step into Liquid/Riding Giants
Speaking of great surfers on great waves….these solid documentaries were released in 2003 & 2004 and took up a notch production values and creativity. Since I showed the trailer to Riding Giants in yesterday’s post, here’s trailer for Step Into Liquid written and directed by Dana Brown.
For a giant list of surf movies check out list found at Surfertoday.com. Here’s their list of their top ten surf movies:
1) Endless Summer
2) Endless Summer II
3) Big Wednesday
4) Castles in The Clouds
5) Bra Boys
6) Occy: The Occumentary
7) Point Break
8) A Deeper Shade of Blue
9) Step into Liquid
10) Thicker Than Water
And for a separate list here is one from Surfing Magazine:
1) Endless Summer
2) Morning of the Earth
4) Thicker Than Water
5) Innermost Limits of Pure Fun
6) Free Ride
7) Searching for Tom Curren
8) Green Iguana
9) Five Summer Stories
10) First Chapter
P.S. An interesting side note in light of writing a recent post (The Indians Fight Back) where I touched on the movie Billy Jack—one of the surfer gang characters in Gidget was Billy Jack himself Tom Laughlin.