By Krista Hammond
All photos courtesy of The International Surfing Museum.
Photo: Bud Browne
The magic of a good surf film is such that it can turn a landlocked youth into a surf dreamer without ever having ridden a wave. Whether lured by the fluid purity of a rider slicing ahead of the curl, the easy going appeal of life in board shorts and flip-flops, or the mahalo appeal of the surf lifestyle, surfing offers a wealth of possibilities that appeal to viewers and filmmakers alike.
The success of recent big screen surf films like Step Into Liquid, Blue Crush and Riding Giants have shown that the genre still holds tremendous appeal to a general audience which statistically must include many more landlubbers than surfers. The predecessors of these modern films, classics like Endless Summer, Gidget, The Big Surf, Hawaiian Holiday and Slippery When Wet, not only filled seats, but also spawned a surf industry and cultural phenomenon that extended far beyond the reach of the salt air. Particularly in California, the evolution of surfing appears inextricably linked to the evolution of the surf film.
Surfing was an ancient Hawaiian sport that was nearly unknown in America until George Freeth first introduced it co California in 1907. In 1912 legendary Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku brought surfing to the masses with demonstrations in California.
Freeth and Kahanamoku were both already working to keep surfing alive in Hawaii, where it nearly died out, during the 1880s and 1890s. Coincidentally, in 1898, just three years after the first motion-picture camera was devised by French inventors Auguste and Louis Lumiere, the first motion pictures were made of surfers at Waikiki. From the beginning, the fascination with surfing clearly coincided with the birth of film.
However, not much more film stock was devoted to surfers during the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the ‘30s, when surfing began to take hold in California, that surf photography truly found a place. Surfer and surf writer Gary Lynch sums up the appeal of surfing at that time: “Life was grand around the California beaches even though the Great Depression had drained the savings and expectations of many. For as little as $15-$25 one could build a hollow board or plank style surf board, sew a pair of swim trunks out of canvas and feel like a king at the beach.”
A young surfer by the name of Doc Ball inspired by his experiences meeting Duke and his own attempts at making a surfboard, went on to document the grassroots surfing movement in California at the time with his camera. In 1929, “there were probably 15 or 20 [surfers] around the whole [California] coast. But, they were mostly all in Southern California where the water was warm,” he is quoted on the website Legendary Surfers, www.legendarysurfers.com.
Bruce Brown and Robert August
Many of those surfers were Doc’s friends, like legendary surfboard shaper Tom Blake. Doc wanted to be in the water with his buddies and not just shoot them from the shore. According to Legendary Surfers,“By 1937, Doc’s reputation as a surf photographer was well established. That year, he built his first waterproof camera housing. The watertight ‘shoots box’ housed Doc’s replacement for the Kodak folding Autographic, a stripped down Series D Graflex. Not only could he get closer to his wave sliding buddies, but the images were clearer.”
While Doc Ball is credited with creating some of the earliest shots of surf culture, the person who takes credit for pioneering the moving surf film is Bud Browne, also known as the “father of surf movies.”
Bud took Doc’s idea for a waterproof camera housing and applied it to a moving picture camera so that he could film action footage from the surfer’s vantage point. For audiences, the effect was mesmerizing.
Browne showed the first known commercial surf film, Hawaiian Surfing Movie, in 1953. He then proceeded to release a movie every year between 1953 and 1964; each film became a postcard of a particular moment in the history of the sport. He filmed all up and down the California coast from San Diego to San Francisco. Other filmmakers, like ski guru Warren Miller, were also showing their documentary sports films around the country at this time.
Surf pioneers like Jack O’Neill, who opened his original Surf Shop in San Francisco, would even rent venues like high school gymnasiums where Browne’s films could be shown. Predominantly surfers came to see these early surf movies. The events were generally rowdy, albeit bonding for the fledgling surfing community.
True documentary-style surfing movies remained mostly underground through the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Meanwhile, fictionalized Hollywood productions like Gidget in 1959 captured the public’s perception of surfing as the epitome of California lifestyle. It wasn’t until 1964, when Bruce Brown released The Endless Summer that a true surf film, made by and for surfers, generated mass box office appeal. It also created the notion of the year-round surfing lifestyle and the global surf safari with its use of international locations. The movie featured two of the biggest names in surfing at the time, Mike Hynson and Robert August, and filmed them surfing in California, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Africa.
“Originally, we were just going to South Africa and then back. But it turned out that it was 50 bucks cheaper to go all the way around the world via South Africa. So that really started the around the world trip,” Brown recounts in an interview on www.surfhistory.com.
The popularity of The Endless Summer encouraged droves of people around the globe to belly up to a surfboard for the first time. The movie’s alluring surf footage and entrancing story line set it apart from its contemporaries. Brown captured the unique thrill and camaraderie of surfing, particularly in the scenes shot in Africa. He filmed young Africans seeing a surfboard and a surfer riding waves for the first time. In the film, Hynson
and August are transformed from surfers to surf instructors and infect the locals with the thrill of catching waves. Even though they can’t understand each other’s language, through surfing they share a moment in common. The Endless Summer changed the face of surfing forever and remained so popular throughout the years that The Endless Summer II was released in 1994 as a follow up.
Original Endless Summer movie poster
The surf movie remains a hot item and has gained an even wider audience in recent years. The release of Blue Crush a few years ago brought female surfers into the mainstream as surf athletes, rather than just ornamental
bikini-clad surfer chicks. Riding Giants captured the evolution and awe-inspiring power of big-wave surfing. Yet perhaps the best indication that the pulse of surf films still beats strong today is evidenced by the 2003 film Step Into Liquid, produced by Bruce Browne and directed by his son Dana. In it, they pay homage to both the pioneers of surfing and the visionaries of today. Most importantly, the film makes surfing look like one of the most magical experiences a human can have. Just ask those guys riding the wake of oil tankers in the Houston shipping channel. The International Surfing Museum located in Huntington Beach is home to a collection of some of the most significant artifacts in the history of surfing. Established over a decade ago and built on the dream of creating an institution that salutes surfing, its pioneers, its culture and its evolution, the Museum is considered one of the best in the world. www.surfingmuseum.org