Much like an ocean wave, the surfing movie subgenre has seen its share of peaks and valleys.
The innocuous yet charming 1959 teen comedy Gidget is often credited as bringing the surfing subculture into the mainstream. The success of the film, about a spunky teenage girl (played by Sandra Dee) desperate to become a surfer, lead to a wave of teen surf films in the early 1960s, such as 1964’s Ride the Wild Surf and the silly Beach Party movies, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
While these films may have had a fun, infectious energy, what they ultimately lacked was any sense of realism regarding the world of surfing. Typically, these kinds of movies (especially the Beach Party films) featured the actors “surfing” in front of laughably fake looking backdrops. That all changed, though, with the release of the wildly influential 1966 documentary, The Endless Summer, which brought about a new appreciation for the realities and true romance of surfing.
The latest surfing movie to hit the big screen is the Aussie import Drift, about the birth of the surf industry in the 1970s. Set along Australia’s rugged coastline, the film follows two cash-strapped brothers (Myles Pollard and Xavier Samuels), who start selling custom-made wetsuits and new, shorter surfboards out of their garage. The fledgling business soon catches fire with the local surfing community, though tension also arises between the progressive brothers and their conservative small town.
Co-starring Sam Worthington and based on true stories from the era, Drift depicts the seeds being planted for the worldwide, hugely profitable cultural phenomenon we know today. The movie is currently in limited release and available via VOD. (Coincidentally enough, another Australian surf movie, the documentary Storm Surfers 3D—which we recently covered—opened earlier this summer).
To celebrate the release of Drift and surfing season, join MM as we look back at some of the best surfing movies (both narrative and documentary) to hit the big screen.
The Endless Summer (1966)
directed by Bruce Brown
This seminal documentary follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, on a surfing trip around the world—including the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii. During their daring adventure, they discover new surf spots and introduce locals to the sport. The film became one of the first commercially successful documentaries, and introduced the art of surfing to a broader audience. It also encouraged many surfers to go abroad, giving birth to the “surf-and-travel” culture, which prizes finding uncrowded surf areas, meeting new people and finding the perfect wave. Director Bruce Brown returned to the subject with the 1994 sequel, The Endless Summer II, in which two young surfers retrace the steps of Hynson and August. In 2000, a third film was released, The Endless Summer Revisited, which was directed by Dana Brown, Bruce’s son, and consists of unused footage from the first two films, as well as original cast interviews.
Big Wednesday (1978)
directed by John Milius
Though a box-office flop in its initial release, Big Wednesday has become a beloved cult classic. The coming-of-age story stars Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey as three friends in 1960s California who must deal with a variety of life struggles, including the impending Vietnam War, as they try to focus on their one true passion: surfing. With its breathtaking surfing footage (much of which was shot in Hawaii) and heartfelt performances, the sincere Big Wednesday proved that, in comparison to the silly, trivial Beach Party movies from a decade earlier, surfing movies could actually be thought-provoking and surprisingly philosophical
Blue Crush (2002)
directed by John Stockwell
Based on a magazine article by Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), Blue Crush tells the story of three young women (lead by Kate Bosworth) just scraping by in Hawaii, whose ultimate dream is surfing on the state’s famed North Shore. Things take a turn for the better when Anne-Marie (Bosworth) is invited to attend a prestigious surfing competition, which, if she wins, could bring her family and friends out of near-poverty. Though the story itself is far from original, the surfing sequences are raw and stunning (the beautifully filmed underwater scenes are awesome). Though the actresses did learn to surf for the film, the most dangerous stunts were performed by some of the top real-life female surfers in the world (including ones featured in the original magazine article). The actresses’ faces were later digitally superimposed on the surfers’ bodies, creating a surprisingly flawless effect. Although it might veer into cliché from time to time, the exciting, adrenaline-charged surfing scenes make Blue Crush a ride well worth spent.
Step Into Liquid (2003)
directed by Dana Brown
The world of surfing obviously runs deep in Dana Brown’s bones, as his father, Bruce, created the pivotal Endless Summer. The acclaimed documentary Step Into Liquid is considered by some fans to be an extension of the Endless Summer movies, as it tracks the evolution of surfing techniques over a 15-year period, from shortboarding to tow-in surfing. The film also includes jaw-dropping surfing footage from the famous Pipeline surf break in Hawaii, the beaches of Vietnam and California’s Cortes Bank, which features some of the world’s largest waves (the 60-foot Cortes Bank wave ridden in the film by Mike Parsons was believed to be the largest wave ever surfed at the time of the doc’s release).
Riding Giants (2004)
directed by Stacy Peralta
Famed skater/surfer Peralta (who helped define modern skateboarding) helmed this affectionate documentary which traces the origins of surfing, specifically focusing on the art of big wave riding. Featured surfers include Greg Noll, Laird Hamilton and Jeff Clark, as well as surfing pioneers like Mickey Munoz (who, in fact, served as Sandra Dee’s stunt double on 1959’s Gidget, and developed a now commonly-used stance while surfing known as the “quasimoto”). Utilizing stills, archive and re-enacted footage, home movies and interviews, Peralta crafts an enlightening, well-rounded overview of the history of surfing and surf culture. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert perhaps sums it up best: “Before seeing Riding Giants, my ideas about surfing were formed by the Gidget movies, Endless Summer, the Beach Boys, Elvis and lots of TV commercials… Riding Giants is about altogether another reality. The overarching fact about these surfers is the degree of their obsession. They live to ride, and grow depressed when there are no waves…They seek the rush of those moments when they balance on top of a wave’s fury and feel themselves in precarious harmony with the ungovernable force of the ocean.”
Soul Surfer (2011)
directed by Sean McNamara
This tearjerker is based on the harrowing true story of young surfer Bethany Hamilton (portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb), who, at the age of 13, lost her left arm in a shark attack. Though the chances of survival were slim, Bethany miraculously survived, and, after a painstaking recuperation process, got back in the water and learned to surf with one arm, eventually competing in a major surfing competition. Though unabashedly sentimental, the heartwarming Soul Surfer (the title comes from a phrase coined in the 1960s referring to a person who surfs purely for pleasure) exemplifies the unbreakable, courageous surfer spirit.
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