A Brief History of the Surf Movie

All you need to know about waves on film.

Surfing is a spectator sport. Whether or not you’ve ever stepped foot in the sea, it’s hard to look away when a human is gliding down the face of a massive wave. And as water filming technology has improved and mainstream movies showcase surfing’s best athletes squaring off against Mother Nature, none of us are strangers to action sports porn.

The evolution of the surf film is a lot like the evolution of surfing itself; for decades, the sport was viewed as only a hobby, but the serious athleticism driving surfers to conquer waves has turned their endeavor into an official sport that is vying for a spot in the Olympics.

Their time in the ocean exudes an otherworldly cool that looks like enlightenment and can surely lead to jealousy.

Today, as a culture we tend to embrace an unfathomable quantity of surf flicks—ranging from a few minutes to a few hours, strict documentaries to semi-fictional box office hits. It’s the only sport where the athletes seem to talk spiritually about participating in it. Their time in the ocean, performing some of the most daring physical requirements on earth, exudes an otherworldly cool that looks like enlightenment and can surely lead to jealousy.

Through all the sport’s evolution, the foundation of the surf movie remains unchanged: A couple of friends trying to capture what feels like magic.

The explosion of surfing in Hawaii in the early 1900s (let’s be clear, these guys and gals were riding wooden planks in ancient Polynesia and Hawaii long before cameras waded out into the break), led to the first well-known surf flick, Surf Board Riders, Waikiki (1906). The short film featured groggy footage of guys riding endless peeling waves in Waikiki, Oahu. That surfing explosion, or exploitation if you want to get technical, led to tourists dying to walk on water themselves.

Along came Gidget, a lady hero who learns to surf with the boys in Malibu. Based on a true story, Gidget (originally Sandra Dee, and the sequels featuring Sally Field) started a series of colorful, peppy beach party movies that were Hollywood hits, all starring famous actors who obviously couldn’t surf. These movies were silly, included jazzy dance numbers, and featured some of the most fun soundtracks of any movies. The first half of the ‘60s produced some of the most memorable and iconic surf-themed movies of all time: Beach Party (1963), Ride the Wild Surf (1964), and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965).

But the most iconic actual surf film of all time, and the first real surf movie by some standards, is The Endless Summer (1966).

The Bruce Brown-directed film follows two surfing buddies, Mike Hynson and Robert August, who travel to obscure places around the globe to find waves, and in the process explains surfing to well, everyone. The film showed the adventure, athleticism, and seriousness that lives within a surfer, bringing the thrill and interest of surfing to everyone, including people that had never set foot on beach before.

Suddenly, surfers weren’t content to just be surfers; they became movie makers too.

The Endless Summer raked in $20 million worldwide when it debuted, which is about 6 trillion in today’s dollars, and surfing exploded around the world.

Suddenly, surfers weren’t content to just be surfers; they became movie makers too.

Still, mainstream movies love(d) to poke fun at surfers, including them as a cultural (funny, but not always accurate) stereotype in many films. Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is unforgettable in part because he presented a somewhat accurate representation of a surfer to people who had never heard or dreamed of surfing.

For more of the Hollywood treatment, think of North Shore (1987), a cult classic because it’s so incredibly inept that it’s beyond good and bad. It even features real surfers (eek!). Ehem, and—of course—Point Break (1991).

In 1983, after a decade of failed organizing efforts, surfing’s official governing body was born. Today, the World Surfing League remains the official rule maker for professional surfing, and hosts an official worldwide, year round, competition for professional athletes.

The surfers on the professional tour gain sponsorships and are rewarded monetarily for their competition and Tour wins. When the tour was in its formative years, filmmakers associated with brands showcased sponsored athletes with action video shoots, much like skateboarding, and quickly found that kids everywhere couldn’t get enough of their favorite surfers conquering epic barrels all over the world. These movies revealed unknown and off-the-path surf locations and gained cult followings.

In the video wake, there was a lot of money to be made for athletes and brands.

The most famous Tour surfer, Kelly Slater, has won the coveted World Title 11 times, and pocketed more than $3.5 million in winnings. His net worth, with sponsorships, parter projects, and who knows what else, is around $20 million.

Image via Kanaka Menehune

Surfing is a lifestyle sport, and key to making that lifestyle money, is looking cool. Bestowing cool is exactly what surf films do for surfers, even today.

Thomas Campbell made a career as a surf filmmaker, a coveted title that historically was not even a real job. He’s famous for three important surf films: The Seedling (1999), Sprout (2004), and The Present (2009).

Campbell combined The Endless Summer feel with his own take on modern surfing and reignited the vintage surf vibe into movie magic. Subsequent to Campbell’s success, soundtracks became a big part of the modern surf flick, making his movies the gateway for creative freedom for surf filmmakers today.

With the ease of new filming technology and the quickness with which budding filmmakers learn these skills, the early aughts brought a slew of photographically sound surf films that showcased unimaginable surfing all over the globe. The space became so serious and crowded that dozens of surf film festivals now happen worldwide.

This year, the 2015 Surfer Poll Movie of the Year Winner was View from a Blue Moon. The film rolls the exact combination of all the glorious movies that went before it and a taste for what’s ahead. It’s impossible to look away.

Surf films can spark any imagination. They leave you longing for adventure. They make you want to get up and do something. They remind you that you are actually small, and that you should stop worrying so much about bullshit.

Surfers are still categorized as slow-witted bros on the big screen, but they’re laughing all the way to the bank.

Crissy Van Meter is the managing editor at Nouvella Books and the founding editor of Five Quarterly. Her writing has appeared in VICE, Catapult, Guernica, Bustle, ESPN, The Hairpin, Golly, VIDA, and more. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Algonquin Books.
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