Revisiting "Big Wednesday," a Movie About Vietnam, Surfing, and Gary Busey
John Milius wrote "Apocalypse Now," directed "Red Dawn," and was the inspiration for "The Big Lebowski"'s Walter Sobchak. His deeply personal surfing-and-war movie is appropriately weird.
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Memorial Day is America's business-casual tribute to those who have died under arms in the name of our country. We get an extra day or two off, which we use to barbecue and kick off our summers a little early with semi-amazing savings at various large-format retail places, and that very real sacrifice is present and yet also mostly out of view—the flags are half-staff outside the American Legion Hall, and war movies flood the TV channels.
America never quite gets the tone right when it comes to our veterans. We neglect their inconvenient but very real trauma, because it is expensive and a bummer, or else we commodify them as part of The Troops, a haphazardly politicized battalion who Did Not Risk Their Lives so that whatever culture-war meme of the moment could be perpetrated on grumpy Facebook addicts here at home. None of this is about veterans themselves, exactly, or what they go through or the things they carry; it is much more about how the rest of us make use of them.
All of this is fairly gross, and none of it is remotely fair. The men and women in the armed forces are actual human men and women, and are best honored when we respect them as such—as people from different backgrounds and with politics, whose one heroic commonality is that they are willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives so that we can sort of feel righteous about cooking steaks and watching meaningless National League East baseball on a Monday afternoon right around when the weather starts getting nice.
Thirty-eight years ago this week, a film was released that showed the complex relationship between a group of friends, separated by time, distance, and war but connected in their love for each other and, um, for surfing. It is deeply personal movie about catching the big wave and missing out on Vietnam, made by the man who inspired John Goodman's Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski. It's as compelling and as insane as you might imagine.
Big Wednesday,co-written and directed by John Milius, focuses on three surfers and their lives before and after the Vietnam War. It is one of Milius' most personal movies—yes, even more personal than Red Dawn, Conan the Barbarian, or Flight of the Intruder—largely because Milius actually was an avid surfer who wanted to serve in Vietnam but was turned down due to his asthma. There is an epic sweep to the proceedings that reflects his ambition and idealism as well as his distance from the thing he was so ambitious and idealistic about; in the DVD commentary, Milius says he originally conceived of Big Wednesday as a novel.
Either way, "cult classic" seems to be about the ceiling for this one. Big Wednesday had the misfortune of being lost in 1978, a peak year for both pre-Boomer nostalgia and Vietnam melodramas, and as it is neither Grease or Animal House nor The Deer Hunter or Coming Home, it fell all the way through the cracks. But simply by dint of being Big Wednesday, it stands out on its own, and deserves a second look by critics and a first look by the general public.
Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are Matt Johnson, Jack Barlowe, and Leroy "The Masochist" Smith, three Malibu surfers who come of age in the 1960s. Matt is the troubled genius of the three, the best surfer but also an immature drunk who takes his damn time growing up. Jack is the moral center, the straight-laced fella who accepts his call to service but not without the cost of his true love. The Masochist is played by Busey, and is pretty self-explanatory.
Big Wednesday does not have a plot so much as self-contained sections spanning the years 1962, 1965, 1968, and 1974. You get the gang raising hell north and south of the border in the first act, and then figuring out how to evade the draft. Act 2.5 is the weakest, although it finds the trio mourning the loss of a fellow surfer (Darrell Fetty) who earlier tried to pass as gay, but wound up drafted into the Marines. The strongest of all these is the final part, the titular Big Wednesday, where these surfers gather one more time as veterans (of surfing) to both acknowledge and put aside the past, and also to surf the biggest damn waves the coast ever did see. There are moments of peril, such as when Matt briefly goes under, but (spoiler?) they survive, and the viewer finally gets that surfing is a metaphor for the highs and lows of one's life.
Many cast members of Big Wednesday seem to be acting in different movies, but that's not necessarily to the film's detriment. The late Sam Melville, who plays Bear, the father-figure surfboard maker, plays his character as if he's Ward Bond in a John Ford movie. There's literally a scene where Bear goes "THEY'VE CONDEMNED THE PIER, JACK," as if he lost his farm to the Dust Bowl, or his herd to a gang of cattle rustlers. The performance is jarring, but probably not an accident; Milius even got Hank Worden, an aging member of John Ford's stock company, to appear with Bear in a scene.
Barbara Hale, who as the IRL mother to "The Greatest American Hero" William Katt must have done a fine job, is pretty much getting paid to read Catch-22 as her fake house gets ransacked by her real-life son's friends. Frank McRae and Joe Spinell also do fine work trying to induct these surfers into the military, as character actors like Frank McRae and Joe Spinell tend to do.
I've always been a fan of Gary Busey's earlier work, not only his Oscar-nominated performance in The Buddy Holly Story, also in 1978, but in the 1973 high school football TV movie Blood Sport, and in the over-the-top 1986 action movie Eye of the Tiger. This is not to say that Busey's early performances rival those of Marlon Brando, but at the very least we should look beyond what we see of the bug-eyed borderline Busey today and realize that he had a pretty solid body of work, all things considered. This, bear in mind, is a movie where Gary Fucking Busey bastes himself like a turkey and tries to get inside of an oven, but for once we're absolutely certain he's in on the joke.
Frankly, few of the principals of Big Wednesday are in decent shape these days. Jan-Michael Vincent had as many if not more legal and health problems than Busey, which is saying a lot. There's something retroactively sad about seeing Busey trying to convince Spinell at the draft board that he's crazy, and Vincent, whose health issues would eventually cost him a leg, pretend to be crippled. Milius himself suffered a stroke in 2010, from which he has partially recovered. It is not imperative to put Big Wednesday in the modern canon while the principals are still alive, nor is it totally appropriate—it has its moments, but is a solid B+ at most. But it is a movie to be seen at least once in your life, because the surfing scenes look amazing and because it says something, both intentionally and accidentally, about the cultural moment in which it was made.
For a personal movie from the man who brought you Red Dawn, you would expect much more overt politics than what Big Wednesday actually offers. Sure, the hippies are portrayed in a similar manner to that of Dragnet 1967, and the draft dodgers are portrayed as the immature young men they were, but there is no obvious disdain or contempt for anyone. Even when Jack Barlowe is told to leave by his girlfriend's husband in the 1968 sequence, we understand where both sides are coming from. The closest we ever get to Vietnam itself is on the news, which is fitting for this movie. If Milius' screenplay for Apocalypse Now is a first-hand experience of war as literal Hell—"It's not about Vietnam," as Francis Ford Coppola infamously said, "it is Vietnam"—then Big Wednesday focuses on the purgatory that was the home front before and after.
While the specter of Vietnam and the doomed, brutal war there is ever present, the surfing in the foreground is equally important to Big Wednesday. Milius was an avid surfer for much of his life—remember, this is the guy who wrote the line "Charlie don't surf"—and in combining his experiences with those of co-writer Denny Aaberg and their friends, he fleshes out the world of surfing into a story rather than an Endless Summer–style documentary. Lance Carson, for example, served as inspiration for the character of Matt Johnson, played by Vincent. Like Vincent, Carson had a reputation as a surfer and a drinker. Unlike Vincent, he has been sober since the late 1970s, and later became known for his longboards.
The transitions in the climactic surfing scene are not seamless: the crowd is clearly in California, whereas the 20-foot waves are being filmed on Sunset Beach in Hawaii. It's a flub, an obvious one, but also one that shows the delineation between the hobbyist surfer and the legends these characters were supposed to be, and who their stuntmen really were. Gerry Lopez, perhaps the greatest surfer of his day, is paid the high compliment of appearing as himself, setting the bar our protagonists have to reach and surpass. Even Milius is shown surfing in some of these scenes; in the director's commentary, he revels in telling the rest of the surfers to get back to the shore so he can surf.
The result is strange in the ways we should want movies to be strange—too personal to be self-indulgent and too funny to be self-important. In other words, Big Wednesday is a sweeping John Ford epic, if John Ford had directed Lords of Dogtown and made it about surfing. This is a high compliment, although Milius would doubtless take it an insult. There might be better ways of passively honoring the troops this Memorial Day weekend, but it's hard to think of one that's as dedicated to surfing and the Vietnam War without, um, actually involving surfing in the Vietnam War. And for a filmmaker whose florid politics would later swamp his other talents, it's a sort of memorial in its own right, for a time when he still remembered that wars are fought by real people.