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Big Wednesday

One of the most overlooked films of the 70's and a box office bomb at the time, John Milius' BIG WEDNESDAY has gained a cult following since it's original release in 1978.

I remember seeing it opening weekend with high school friends and loving it. We thought it was going to be huge.

Warner Bros. marketed the film as a surfer movie, with lots of partying, bar brawls and a giant wave or two.

But Milius has a lot more in mind with what, looking back, is probably his best film of the era.

In '78, he had written "Jeremiah Johnson" and "Magnum Force" and had written and directed "The Wind and the Lion". He was still a year away from writing "Apocalypse Now" and a few from writing/directing his biggest hit "Conan the Barbarian" in 1982.

He brings that same ferocious, unapologetic macho attitude to this tale of three surfing buddies in a story that follows them from the summer of 1962 through the end of the Vietnam War era in 1974.

The film is staged in four chapters, each beginning with sweeping music by Basil Polodouris (Robocop, Conan the Barbarian), photography of massive California waves and voice-over narration that echoes a great coming-of-age novel.

The first chapter is "The South Swell" set in the summer of 1962. We are introduced to Matt Johnson (Jan Michael Vincent), Jack Barlow (William Katt), and Leroy Smith (Gary Busey). The three are living idyllic surfer lives. Girls, sand, surf, beer and their buds.

I've never been a big fan of Vincent, to call his acting one-dimensional is an insult to flat surfaces, but this was arguably his best role. His Matt is the surfing legend that doesn't see anything beyond the now, living for daily thrills with no concern for the years ahead. The decades will challenge him as he deals with walking in the shadow of who he used to be.

Katt (First Love, The Great American Hero) is very good as Jack, the most responsible of the trio. When the draft hits, he quietly observes his duty to his country while his entire network of friends devise wild schemes to avoid the war.

Busey is excellent as Leroy, the wild man. Landing this role the same year that he broke out with "The Buddy Holly Story", Busey gives us a fully rounded, crazy surfer with more depth than he lets on.

The second chapter, "The West Swell" takes place in 1965, the third chapter, "The North Swell" is a brief peak into the winter of 1968 and the film culminates with the final chapter, "The Great Swell" which takes place in the spring of 1974.

What Milius gets right, obviously inspired by the real events of his own California youth, is the encroachment of adulthood and responsibility. The characters feel like real people and those that stand still, struggle.

Sam Melville (best known for the 70's TV cop show, "The Rookies" is a standout as Bear, the legendary surfer and board maker that the boys all look up to. Talk about life leaving you behind...

Milius does stumble in his storytelling, almost throwing too much at the wall. A wild night in Tijuana feels tacked on to add more weight to the front half of the story. But every time the film feels ready to veer too hard off the track, Milius gets his characters feet back in the sand and earns back our good will.

The legendary giant California waves that reunite our trio for the film's ending feel just right, as does Milius's blend of drama, sadness and triumph that pour over our three not so young surfers in the final stanza. The photography and epic scale of the finale is awe inspiring.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg went to film school with Milius and the trio remained close, with them both ensuring Milius that this would be a hit. Sadly, audiences ignored the movie and it faded away for all except the few of us that saw it opening weekend.

It's gained a solid following in the decades since, with Quentin Tarantino dubbing it "a movie too good for surfers."

BIG WEDNESDAY is a worth a ride and hangs ten with style all the way to a solid B.

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