Inspired by director John Milius’ own experiences surfing in Malibu during the 1960’s, Big Wednesday is a coming-of-age story for the Vietnam War era. Co-written with fellow surfer and journalist Dennis Aaberg, Big Wednesday spans from 1962 to 1974, following three friends as they grow from carefree teens into adulthood. Jean-Michael Vincent stars as Matt Johnson, a troubled, but legendary surfer, William Katt (Justice League: Season One) as Jack Barlow, a real straight arrow, and Gary Busey (The Player) as Leroy Smith, a crazy loud mouth.
The film’s title comes from the historically proven fact that the biggest waves arrive on Wednesdays. Further, the movie is broken down into chapters (“The South Swell Summer 1962” – “The West Swell Fall 1965” – “The North Swell Winter 1968” – “The Great Swell Spring 1974”), with each wave serving as a kind of guide to the significant moments in the lives of these young men. Given all of that, some might be surprised that only about 20 minutes of the 2-hour runtime involves actual surfing. Regardless, the surf cinematography by Greg MacGillvray is excellent, and frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator Bruce Surtees Panavision cinematography captures all the action.
Out of the water, one of the more effective yet funny scenes occur when Matt and Leroy go all out to outsmart officials at the Selective Service Office. The “surfer knot” below Matt’s knee makes his gimp act totally believable, and Gary Busey’s largely improvised act as as a sufferer of mental illness expresses Leroy vehement opposition to the war, and sadly for shadows issues that would plague the actor years later.
The fun of their youth is ending. Change is in the air. Jack gets drafted. Matt’s on/off girlfriend (Lee Purcell) announces she’s pregnant. As for Matt himself, clearly, he’s developed a pretty serious drinking problem. Reality has crashed the party–disillusionment over Vietnam has changed the outlook of all of them. The disappointment is palpable, but it also saps the movie of its earlier energy.
Props to Milius for his casting choices. Jean-Michael Vincent, William Katt (pre The Greatest American Hero) and Gary Busey work very well together. Katt has a laid-back charisma, that noticeably disappears as his character returns from Vietnam, apathetic. While Milius probably launches into sentimentality once too often in Big Wednesday, but he says in the included commentary that this was a very personal film for him. It’s far from perfect, but this is a journey worth taking.
Presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Warner Archive’s 1080p transfer looks great. Close-ups offer fine detail throughout. Colors are vivid, the ocean is nice and blue/green. Skin tones look appropriate. There are no image defects to mention.
The DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo audio track is fine. Dialogue is clear, though it’s occasionally a bit muffled by waves, or one of the many pop songs on the soundtrack. The rousing score by Basil Poledouris’ score is given full bodied presentation.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary with Director and Co-writer John Milius: Ported over from a 2002 DVD, Milius shares some of his memories of the production and inspiration for the story.
- Capturing the Swell (15:12) This 2002 interview with John Milius has him cover much of the same material found in the commentary.
Big Wednesday (1978)
Movie title: Big Wednesday
Director(s): John Milius
Actor(s): Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt , Gary Busey , Todd Lookinland , Lynn Theel, , Joe Spinell
Genre: Coming-of-Age, Drama, Sport