The Short History Of Hollywood Surf Movies

From a time when surfing only took place at Malibu, just as extra-terrestrials only visited Roswell

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The origins of the relationship between surfing and cinema go back to Thomas “Lightbulb” Edison, who filmed surfing in 1906 at Waikiki. Regular readers of this column will recall that this is just a year before Jack London wrote about surfing at the same location: a century ago, this was considered multimedia saturation. Surfing had hit the zeitgeist.

Not a lot happened for over half a century: Hollywood executives were busy exploiting other aspects of popular culture like vampires and starlets. They did stuff like that in 2014… sorry, 1930. Then came Gidget (1959) – based on the teenage years of Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman. Her father wrote the novel after pilfering Kathy’s diary for ideas. God knows what he found – she’d been hanging out with Miki Dora. Real Kathy still surfs, is super-cool and takes no credit for the Gidget myth: “All I know is there’s millions of little Gidgets out there and I think it’s fantastic.”

Gidget was followed by Beach Party (1963), filmed at Malibu. According to the prevailing corporate Seppocentrism of the time, surfing only took place at Malibu, just as extra-terrestrials only visited Roswell. The premise of the film was plain weird: Beach Party was surfing as an anthropological case study. Inexplicably, it spawned a franchise.

The worlds of Hollywood movie magic and actual surfing culture looked like intersecting in a meaningful way with John Milius’s Big Wednesday (1978) – an ambitious social statement, a commercial failure, and later a cult classic. Authentic or otherwise, it employed half the Bustin’ Down the Door generation as stunt doubles. In between the waves (some of them filmed in El Salvador by Greenough), there was a lot of moralising. Some of it was gold: “That’s when you need friends, when you’re wrong,” says the Bear. “When you’re right, you don’t need nothin’.”

If Big Wednesday was the point of convergence, then Point Break (1991) was the breaking point – Bells Beach with pine trees, for crying out loud. If they spent that much money, couldn’t they have done just a little research? Johnny Utah vs Bodhi – a cage fight for the bottom of the acting barrel. Its only redeeming feature was the cameo by Phelpsy, who on any reasonable view should be running this country. A sequel is in the works: the Ex-Presidents will now have to include George H Dubya, Bill Clinton and George Dubya.

After Keanu and Swayze, Hollywood gave in to its own craving for cliché. Among other lamentable dross: Surf Ninjas (1993) then Surfer, Dude – do you need to look beyond the title to know this will be an abomination? These were portrayals of surfers as risk-addicted morons.

Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979) may have laid the groundwork for this stereotype. Why wouldn’t you go surfing behind enemy lines with machine gun fire spraying the line-up? Listen to Colonel Kilgore, son. “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach (gunfire interrupts him briefly) it’s safe to surf this beach!” The scene was actually shot in a fishing town in the Philippines called Baler. The actors left their boards behind: that shoot has been credited with sparking the Philippines’ surf culture.

North Shore (1987) had awful gags, which are actually funny in retrospect. And it’s got Occy, so it qualifies as a cheesy classic. In God’s Hands (1998) was a reasonable effort at verity, with a Matt George script, and Dorian playing himself. Likewise Blue Crush (2002), a strong depiction of girls surfing on their own terms. But it filled cinemas with creepy middle aged men, in there for the “role modelling”.

Surf’s Up (2007) was a surprise hit: animated surfing penguins – it shouldn’t work, but it does. Chicken Joe has the first recorded case of pareidolia in animation history: “Whoa! That cloud looks just like a chicken!”

Recent efforts suggest we might be outgrowing the tropes: Chasing Mavericks (2012) and Hollywood Don’t Surf (2011) at least have substance. Sam George wrote the latter, and Greg McGillivray, who directed it, was once the second unit director on Big Wednesday. And so the wheel comes full circle.

Bollywood will one day discover surf. That’s when things will get really interesting…

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Jock Serong