Big Wednesday

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Big Wednesday
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Milius
Produced by Buzz Feitshans
Screenplay by Dennis Aaberg
John Milius
Starring Jan-Michael Vincent
William Katt
Gary Busey
Lee Purcell
Darrell Fetty
Narrated by Robert Englund
Music by Basil Poledouris
Cinematography Bruce Surtees
Edited by C. Timothy O'Meara
Robert L. Wolfe
A-Team Productions
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • May 1978 (1978-05) (United States)
Running time
120 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $11,000,000
Box office $4.5 million[1]

Big Wednesday is a 1978 American coming of age film directed by John Milius. Co-written by Milius and Dennis Aaberg, it is loosely based on their own experiences at Malibu and a short story Aaberg had published in a 1974 Surfer Magazine entitled "No Pants Mance."[2] The picture stars Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey as California surfers facing life and the Vietnam War against the backdrop of their love of surfing.

Although initially a commercial failure, the film has found a cult audience in the years since its release.


The film tells the story of three young friends whose passion in life is surfing. The friends include: Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), a self-destructive type who has a devil-may-care attitude; Jack Barlowe (William Katt), the calm and responsible one of the bunch; and Leroy "The Masochist" Smith (Gary Busey), whose nickname tells a lot about his personality.

Their surfing lives are traced from the summer of 1962 to their attempts of dodging the Vietnam War draft in 1965 (including faking insanity, homosexuality, and all manner of medical ailments), and to the end of their innocence in 1968 when one of their friends is killed in Vietnam. The three make the difficult transition to adulthood with parties, surf trips, marriage, and the war.

The friends reunite years later, after Barlowe has served time in Vietnam, for the "Great Swell of '74." With this reunion, the transition in their lives becomes the end point of what the 1960s meant to so many as they see that the times have changed, and what was once a time of innocence is gone forever.


Raised in Southern California, Milius made Big Wednesday as an homage to the time he spent in Malibu during his youth. Milius and his friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg famously agreed to exchange a percentage point of Big Wednesday, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind prior to the release of the three films throughout 1977-78. Spielberg in particular was certain that Big Wednesday was going to be a box office hit, opining it was like "American Graffiti meets Jaws", two of the decade's most successful films.[3]

Milius and producer Feitshans had met at American International Pictures and formed their own company, The A Team. This was their first production. Milius at one stage intended to play the role of the Bear himself.[4]

Barbara Hale, mother of William Katt, plays a small role in the film. A 1940s film star but best known as Della Street from the long-running Perry Mason television series, this has been Hale's last appearance to date in a feature film.

Milius later recalled:

When I did Big Wednesday my first impressions were that I was going to do this coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones about surfers that nobody took seriously, their troubled lives made larger than life by their experience with the sea. And that’s what the movie is. It never strayed from that. There was a lot of pressure to make it more like Animal House, but the movie has a huge following now because it did have loftier ambitions. It wasn’t just a story about somebody trying to ride the biggest wave or something. That’s not enough.[5]

Filming locations[edit]

The surfing scenes used in the finale to Big Wednesday were not filmed in California, where the film is set, but at Sunset Beach in Pupukea, Hawaii.

Other filming locations included El Paso, Texas; Hollister Ranch near Santa Barbara; Surfrider Beach (in Malibu); Ventura, California; and La Libertad, El Salvador.


The film premiered in wide release in the United States on May 26, 1978.

The picture was screened at various film festivals, including: the Davao City Film Festival, Philippines; the Turin Film Festival, Italy; and others.



Box Office[edit]

Big Wednesday was a box office flop upon its release, and was quickly pulled from theatres after taking only $4.5 million.[1] William Katt explained in a 1979 interview with Roger Ebert a year after the film's release that he believed the movie's failure was due to the marketing focusing only on the fight scenes and surfing angle.[6] Despite this, the film slowly found new life via television and the home video market. By the late 1990s, it was considered a cult classic and a 20th Anniversary screening (which included cast and crewmembers) took place at the Newport Film Festival in 1998.[1]

Critical response[edit]

Janet Maslin, film critic for The New York Times, did not like the performances of the actors and wrote, "The surprise is not that Mr. Milius has made such a resoundingly awful film, but rather that he's made a bland one...the movie often seems even more uneventful than material like this need make it, and Mr. Milius's attention to his actors focuses more closely on their pectorals than on their performances. He encourages such stiffness in his players that Barbara Hale, for instance, is quite unconvincing as Mr. Katt's mother. This is a faux pas of no mean eminence; after all, Miss Hale actually is Mr. Katt's mother."[7]

Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, was not as dismissive of the film, writing, "John Milius's paean to the art and discipline of hot dog surfing is marred by pushy philosophizing and a fair number of overripe lines, but its sincerity is deep and seductive...Milius can be faulted for reviving a number of ostensibly dead macho myths, but in the context of the subculture his film deftly re-creates, they take on the aura of eternal values. The breathtaking surfing footage, rather than the slightly stunted characters, makes his most eloquent argument."[8]

The staff at Variety wrote, "A rubber stamp wouldn't do for John Milius. So he took a sledgehammer and pounded Important all over Big Wednesday. This film about three Malibu surfers in the 1960s has been branded major statement and it's got Big Ideas about adolescence, friendship and the 1960s."[9]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 67% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on nine reviews."[10]




  1. ^ a b c Warshaw, Matt (2005). The Encyclopedia of Surfing. Orlando, Florida, US: Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-603251-3. 
  2. ^ New York Surf Film Festival. Press release, August 6, 2008. Last accessed: December 1, 2009.
  3. ^ (May 12, 2010). Accessed: August 7, 2013.
  4. ^ Milius Waxes Up 'Big Wednesday' Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 Aug 1977: n7.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (June 3, 1979). "Interview with William Katt". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 7, 2013. 
  7. ^ Maslin, Janet. The New York Times, film review, "Big Wednesday Gets Caught in Some Rough Surf: Buddyhood of Surfing", July 28, 1978. Accessed: August 7, 2013.
  8. ^ Kehr, Dave. Chicago Reader, film review, 1996-2007. Aaccessed: August 7, 2013.
  9. ^ Variety. Staff film review, December 31, 1977. Accessed: January 30, 2011.
  10. ^ Big Wednesday at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: January 11, 2015.

External links[edit]