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‘Big Wednesday’ revisited

Big Wednesday 4

Gary Busey, Patti D’Arbanville, William Katt, Lee Purcell and Jan Michael Vincent

In his introduction to Big Wednesday at the BFI last night, Geoff Andrew warned those new to the film that John Milius’s hymn to Southern Californian surf culture bore little resemblance to George Lucas’s portrait of the world of hot-rodding in American Graffiti. But Milius’s film gave us a similar dose of ’60s pop music in the opening section, set in 1962, which reaches its climax in a chaotic party scene. What amused me was that the records being played — “The Locomotion”, “Mama Said”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Lucille”, “The Twist”, “What’d I Say” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — represented not Californian music but the sounds of New York, Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Only with the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” — recorded in Los Angeles, with Darlene Love singing lead — were we given a hometown sound, albeit under the name of a New York group.

As we waited for Geoff’s introduction, however, the cinema’s sound system was playing the backing tracks from Pet Sounds: a perfect prelude since that album, like Big Wednesday, looks beyond the template of teenage hedonism into a more uncertain world. In fact Milius’s film reminded me of More American Graffiti, a very underrated work (directed by Bill Norton but co-written by Lucas) which followed the protagonists of the original film into the darkness of the Vietnam era. Big Wednesday was made in 1978, More American Graffiti a year later; they shared a similar perspective on the soured dream.

Milius’s film is divided into four time periods: 1962, 1965, 1968 and 1974. In the 1965 “chapter” he shows us a hilarious but poignant scene set in a selection process for the military draft, with many of those called to attend trying to evade the call-up in a variety of bizarre ways. In the next scene, as one of the three main characters prepares to go off to war, the TV news is showing the Watts riots. A dark filter is starting to obscure the California sun.

The film is entirely Milius’s creation, and in its attempts to mythologise a milieu in which he had spent much of his own youth there are certainly times when you’re reminded this this is the man who co-wrote Apocalypse Now (no distinction in my book) and directed Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. But although it’s unmistakably a story about three men — William Katt, Jan Michael Vincent and Gary Busey — doing manly stuff together, it has a sense of humour and a respectable attitude to its principal female characters, played by Patti D’Arbanville (she who was once serenaded by Cat Stevens) and Lee Purcell. It was also amusing to note the presence in minor roles of Barbara Hale — best remembered as Della Street, Perry Mason’s secretary — playing Katt’s mother, as she was in real life, and of Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly, who only a year or so later would be better known as Dallas‘s Lucy Ewing and Ray Krebbs.

The film’s surfing scenes, shot by a specialist second unit, are still sensationally compelling, making me want to go back and read William Finnegan’s brilliant Barbarian Days, a Pulitzer Prize winner last year, all over again. The BFI added to the evening’s authenticity by showing the film on their biggest screen, NFT1, in a rare original 35mm print, featuring the sudden deterioration in quality that used to signal the switch from one reel to the next in pre-digital days. The most effective music came right at the end, in the deafening roar and crash of the surf in the climactic scene, conveying the awesome kinetic energy of the ocean. All told, a terrific rediscovery.

* Big Wednesday is screened again on Friday 11 August at 8.30pm in NFT3.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Tickell #

    Intriguing detail you work in, Richard – plus you make me feel left out not having seen the film on the big screen… Also, I am a member of your heretical sect as I take it that you are no great fan of Apocalypse Now. Me neither!

    August 3, 2017
  2. Richard Harris #

    Interesting about the music. A surfing film from a bit before, Bruce Brown’s “Slippery when wet” (1958) has a very good improvised soundtrack from Bud Shank’s quartet, including a young Gary Peacock. Far more “west coast”! The movie is on YouTube with an spoken intro by Brown.

    Agree also about “Apocalypse Now” , overblown, absurd and deeply insulting to the actual “horror”.

    August 3, 2017
    • Saverio Pechini #

      The point in Apocalypse Now being in fact to depict the horror of Vietnam as overblown , absurd and deeply insulting (and farcical too) . The air cavalry – and napalm – aided surf sequence could be named ” The Dark Side of Surfing”. And the characters in The Big Wednesday ( which I saw when first out) maybe are , years later , those of Point Break by Kathryn Bigelow…

      August 3, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      You’ve obvious missed the entire point of ” Apocalypse Now ” .. cause for those of us that lived thru it … to hit the nail on the head

      August 5, 2017
  3. I wish I’d known you were there – we could have had a chat beforehand. There were a couple of things which I had meant to mention in the intro but (inevitably) forgot to do so, including the sometimes almost Malick-like tone of the occasional voiceover: those questions about whether the wind is the breath of God and where do the swells come from – I’m always reminded at that point of the Irving Berlin song ‘We’re a couple of swells’.
    I have never seen ‘More American Graffiti’, I’m afraid. But I too have big reservations about ‘Apocalypse Now’.

    August 3, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Tow thumbs up for that one … though in truth … myth busting and edifying might be the better choice of words than .. good .

      Ahhh .. Frank … never lacking when it came to sarcasm and telling it like it was

      August 5, 2017
  4. GuitarSlinger #

    If you want to know the real story when it comes to the So Cal etc surfer culture … forget about the over dramatized , homogenized , pasteurized for general consumption Hollywood fluff films and buy the book … ” Barbarian Days ; A Surfing Life ” by William Finnegan complimented by John Severson’s ” Surf “

    August 7, 2017
  5. Haven’t seen Big Wednesday since the 70s and never saw it on the big screen, so I hope this cut travels. Ditto, More American Graffiti, but I recently inherited a DVD of it, so might rewatch it soon.

    August 7, 2017

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