At first glance Big Wednesday seems to align itself with this rose-tinted viewpoint. Crowding the screen with lazy surfing, ramshackle parties of discovery and trips in the company of friends, the film makes you think; was your childhood this wonderful? If not, wouldn't it be great to somehow go back in time with the benefit of all that you presently know? Perhaps. Tight surfing buddies Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack (William Katt) and Leroy (Gary Busey) seem to be having a wild time. Right now they're not being pulled under by the dead weight of war, failure or self-pity. Luckily we can never know for sure, only being able to take such a trip through the vicarious escapism of fiction.
Given the melancholy tone that sweeps across Big Wednesday in its closing stages, this limitation may be a blessing in disguise. Firmly ensconced in their family-orientated years, the trio have drifted apart, each pursuing their personal destiny. Meetings are infrequent, more inclined to mourn a fallen soldier like Waxer (Darrell Fetty) than to celebrate the dawning of a new beach-morning. In certain aspects this is a salutary message, that you shouldn't fruitlessly chase after the past, but that's a weak interpretation. No, Big Wednesday is really about remembering what's gone before, appreciating your friends, taking the time to keep these fundamental connections without allowing them to hold you back.
In executing this vision director John Milius captures the subtle essence of those events playing out, while neglecting situational complexity. The film works from a palette of lightly connected scenes and acts, piccking up points in time as if part of someone's recollected thoughts. Big Wednesday isn't into driving deeply into the characters, exposing their emotions and inner motivations. Neither is it concerned with tracing a coherent storyline, manipulating us through dramatic peaks and troughs until a structurally satisfying conclusion is presented. Big Wednesday is (no belittlement intended) merely a reflection of how growing-up hits some folk weaved into a bunch of superbly orchestrated surfing sequences.
The result is akin to The Deer Hunter on a diet. Common threads include the central issue of Vietnam, some evocative '60s tunes and wonderful natural photography, all welded together to recreate the period. The downside is that Big Wednesday suffers from a distinct lack of early focus; the major roles are just faces in the surf, distant and easily misplaced. Later on (when the story builds to an impressively macho climax) they're the only people left standing but it's too little, too late. The film just doesn't care about the characters (especially the female ones), it's more concerned with mythic echoes; the concept of one man battling an epic force equipped with nothing more than a past master's weapon.
What this lightweight approach produces is no more than a genial viewing experience, a sentimental journey with the emotional potholes filled in. While superficially concerned with boys coming of age during an era of social upheaval, Big Wednesday hardly sparks with rebellion. Look on it as a paean to surfing, the sport's healing qualities and ability to bond friends as one. Photographed by Bruce Surtees with such care that you feel the need for a towel, rarely has a single activity looked so attractive. The film isn't a classic but neither does it grate, so enjoy without prejudice.