Saturday, January 28, 2012

Big Wednesday

This is a film about a nearly forgotten sub-generation, a small but culturally distinct group consisting of the babies born during the war. Forming the last separate cultural group before the baby boomers, they are very different from those of us born a few years earlier or later. They were neither part of the do-wop/rockabilly era nor the age of the Beatles. The children born between 1941 and 1945 were all between 14 and 18 on February 3, 1959, which means that they were all of the kids sitting in high school classes on "the day the music died," the day Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died in the crash of a private plane. Not surprisingly, Don McLean was conceived during the war, was in high school that day, and later raised that memory to the level of a cultural myth. Elvis entered the army in 1958, the the Big Three crashed down in 1959, so do-wop was dead or dying and the Beatles were four years in the future. It was the era of the folk craze, and the surf-'n'-car classics. California, or at least the romance of California, took the cultural lead for the first time in memory.
When those war babies went to college, the world really hadn't changed much since the Eisenhower years. In other words, the war babies missed "the 60s" completely. Oh, some of them graduated as late as 1967, but the period of time which we now remember as "the sixties" - the anti-war movement, the protests, the campus revolts, the hippie days, the cultural revolution - had not yet begun. That era actually started in the summer of 1967 and lasted until Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974. Some people say it ended earlier, that the 1972 McGovern campaign was really the last significant gathering of The Movement. Maybe so. The point is this - if you graduated from college in 1967, as the last of the war babies did, your school years completely missed the entire period we now know as the 60's. Your graduation day may have been seven years into the decade, but the era was still waiting to be defined.
When the baby boomers arrived at the universities, everything changed dramatically. To those of you who were not there, I can't convey how dramatic the shift was at a certain point in time. The change was revolutionary, not evolutionary. I started college in 1966, with the old rules in place, in an Eisenhower world. The last war babies were still there as seniors, and I got to experience their world for a quarter of my college time. We had to sign in and out of our dorms. No women or alcohol were allowed in the rooms. We had a monitor living at the end of the hall. We wore ties to class. We had beer blasts and panty raids. When the last war babies graduated in the summer of 1967, everything changed immediately. The world went crazy in that summer between my freshman and sophomore years. By Thanksgiving of sophomore year, we had essentially no rules at all, campus buildings were in flame, and the administration was terrified. At that point, the administrators would have been happy to let us go back and have those women and kegs in the dorms, because that would have taken our minds off the drugs and the violent riots. The change was really that abrupt: June 1967 in the beer-drinkin' Eisenhower world, November 1967 in the drugged-out anti-war hippie haze.
The story of the baby boom generation is writ bold across the cultural landscape, and sung oft in popular minstrelsy, but there have not been so many voices, nor such loud ones, to tell the tale of the war babies. Big Wednesday is the unofficial sociological summary of the coming of age period for the cultural icons of the small and forgotten sub-generation that came before the resounding baby boom. Writer/director John Milius was born during the war and, in the haziness of hindsight, defined the romance of surfing as the iconographic glue that held together the sub-generation or war babies. Searching for the perfect wave was not just their recreation, but their spiritual quest. Just as the pre-war babies had Elvis, and the boomers had The English Invasion, the war babies had The Beach Boys. Milius was definitely an insider in that culture. He was a friend of many of the famous surfers, and went to USC from 1962-1967, almost exactly concurrent with the era of those beach party movies which seemed like quaint, irrelevant relics just a year or so after Milius graduated. Milius loved surfing so much that he even found an improbable but memorable way to work it into his script for Apocalypse Now.
The first half of Big Wednesday is episodic, and the episodes are based on actual events, or at least the mythological versions of those events,  from the lives of the legendary surfers from that golden era. (See the article below this one for details.) It's light comedic froth which seems amusing but pointless. Three friends surf together, have wild parties, and live their carefree youth in the California Dream. A girl from the Midwest says,  " ... it's so different here. Back home, being young is just something you have to do for a while before you grow up. Here it's everything." That's part of what the war baby generation was all about - avoiding adulthood and adult concerns as long as possible. One of the characteristics that marked the war babies as culturally distinct from their successors is that they were content to live as adolescents in an adult-centered world. Before the combination of the draft and the Vietnam War came along and made geopolitics personal, there were not a lot of young Americans interested in global events, so surfing makes an excellent metaphor for their disassociation from the grave concerns of the adult world.
The second half of Big Wednesday is more dramatic, and concentrates more on the nature of friendship. The Vietnam War comes along and brings a grim reality into the surfers' lives. One of the best episodes is their induction physical, a comedic vignette which demonstrates just about every draft-evading scam used in those days. The dramatic conclusion of the film creates its title. Big Wednesday was an actual day during The Great Swell in 1974 when record 20 foot waves hit Southern California. The three friends, their lives long since gone in separate directions, reunite for that day to test themselves once more against giant waves. says that Big Wednesday is the one and only time when Hollywood ever nailed down the culture of surfing and its tiny sub-generation. Probably so. My late friend Dale Davis, a famed surfing filmmaker who was a true insider in that culture, felt the same way. (See below for my interview with him made shortly before his death in 2001.) The movie itself is picaresque, and only a so-so movie, but it is worthwhile, if only to understand the pop culture landscape of the forgotten war baby generation.

William Katt and his mom, Barbara Hale, played son and mother in the movie.
William Katt and Jan-Michael Vincent were actually ardent surfers who did some of their own board work in the movie. (That was not them on the 20 foot waves, however). Gary Busey wasn't a surfer, but he learned enough to lend credibility to the film.

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