Big Wednesday (1978): John Milius Grim, Mythical Portrait of California Youth

John Milius’ grim, mythical, slightly pretentious “Big Wednesday,” the first major portrait of California youth since George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” in 1973, received a lot of attention when it was released in 1978.

Sharply dividing critics, the movie then failed to find audiences, perhaps because of its lack of consistent tone and too ambitious goal and scope. Some critics saw “Big Wednesday” as a “sermon” delivered over an empty grave. Others detected too strong an influence from the big masters, such as John Ford and his notion of social community, and Howard Hawks and his recurrent theme of male professionalism. Milius’s homage would have been more acceptable if his movie was more adequate, but, ultimately, his chronicle of male camaraderie was perceived as awkward and overreaching than genuinely touching.

At once nostalgic and elegiac, the film strains for the proper tone to tell the story how the threat of military draft and the temptation to settle down affect one small clique of friends, well played by Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and best of all Gary Busey, who in the same year also excelled in the biopic, “The Buddy Holly Story,” for which he was Oscar-nominated.

“Big Wednesday” is also marred by a pseudo-Hemingway voice-over: “In the old days….,” which only emphasizes the forced effort to place the characters within a particular surfing saga. Unfolding as a journal of friends as they morph into adulthood, the movie follows their lives over a decade or so, while dwelling on surfing as lifestyle and social ritual.

Structurally, the yarn is divided into four parts, each beginning with voice-over narration and the visual image of ocean, which changes according to the seasons. The first part, “The South Swell,” set in the summer of 1962, (about 40 minute long), is followed by “The West Swell,” in the fall of 1965 (about 30 minutes) and “The North Swell,” set in the winter of 1968 (about 13 minutes). The movie concludes with a segment titled “The Great Swell,” which takes place in the spring 1974, at the end of the Vietnam War era.

Who are the members of the trio? Leroy (Gary Busey) is the court jester; Jack (William Katt) is the laid-back and establishment-prone; and Matt (Jean-Michael Vincent) is the Adonis of the group and its keeper of the flame. The movie suggests that while these guys may be “beach bums,” they have personal dignity and subscribe to their own set of moralistic values.

“Big Wednesday” sees its anti-heroes as the new Knights of Malibu, engaged in a mythic quest to find the “perfect wave.” The three legendary surfers are described by the narrator as “the kings, our own royalty.” The boys ride the waves, throw beach parties, and get into scrapes.

The movie conveys vividly the mystique and allure of surfing, and how it confers moral exaltation on the three buddies, who singly and collectively lament the passage of their youth. Being young means acquiring oral history of the ocean and waves from a senior surfer, “Bear” (Sam Melville).

Other than that, youth bears different meanings for the lads. For Leroy, it may the joy of painting the torso. For Jack, it’s going to Vietnam for three years and then coming home expecting his old girlfriend to be waiting for him, unaware that she’s now married. For Matt, it means minimal talk and expressing it through physical gestures with his body.

The movie distinguishes between growing up and growing old. “It’s really different here,” says a girl from Chicago who’s initiated into beach life. “Back home, being young was just something you’d do until you grew up. Here…it’s everything!”

As time goes by, however, the trio must cope with the escalating Vietnam War and embark on the tough road to maturity and responsibility. Reportedly, director-writer Milius based the film’s macho world and contemplative meditation on the waning of dreams on his own youth.