'The Endless Summer': A Perfect Film for These Imperfect Times

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The movie revels in the absence of anything weighty, but its carefree message resonates today

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

I have never surfed—never even dreamed of surfing or had any inclination to pick up a board—and yet in this summer of our discontent I have become mesmerized by Bruce Brown's timeless documentary The Endless Summer. It is a beautifully shot film from pristine locales chronicling the worldly travels of two dashing surfer dudes in the mid 1960s. Brown's masterpiece has been airing over and over again this summer on ESPN Classic, and it seems to me like a perfect antidote to all the bad news coming out of Washington these days.

Wouldn't we all like to leave everything behind and go out in search of the perfect wave right about now? Wouldn't we like to worry about nothing more than finding the right beach with the right surf and the right water temperature? I'd bet the ranch that President Barack Obama, he of the Hawaiian birthplace, would sign on to that deal if he could. If the movie were food it would be your favorite dish at the local diner. If it were a song it would be the sort people pay to listen to in order to fall asleep. If I were a doctor, I would prescribe it to my patients.

Here's how Brown's people subsequently described what he accomplished nearly 50 years ago:

In 1964, filmmaker Bruce Brown decided to follow two surfers around the world in search of a perfect wave. On a budget of only US $50 thousand, with a 16mm camera, he captured the essence, the adventure, and the art of surfing. Hence the renowned The Endless Summer. From the waters of West Africa, through the seas of Australia, to Tahiti, two surfers from California achieved their great dream: to try the wildest waves in the world.
Here's a brief video clip from the film:

 

The genius of the movie is that it seeks to do no more than record an escape from the burdens of the real world. 1964 was a particularly important pivot point in American history. It was the year of the Warren Report; the year of the Gulf of Tonkin episode that led to the disastrous escalation of America's involvement in the Vietnam War; the year of Barry Goldwater and the Civil Rights Act. These momentous events were happening—shaping a generation—and yet these guys were chasing waves from here to (literally) Timbuktu without an apparent care in the world. They were tuning out in the sun and the surf long before their contemporaries began tuning out with drugs.

 
The Sandals performed the music for the film, and the surf rock themes are, you might say, epic. Here's the score:

The documentary was released in 1966 to surprisingly good reviews from mainstream movie critics. The timing was serendipitous. The technology of filmmaking would not have allowed the film to be made five years earlier. And five years later, in 1971, the sun and fun would have seemed far too frivolous following the race riots, Kent State, and the body bags coming home from Southeast Asia. For these reasons, The Endless Summer seems as much of a period piece as Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind. Yes, son, there really was a time when the beaches were clear and no one bugged you to put on sunscreen.
 
The film indeed revels in the absence of anything weighty. There is a single remark by Brown about South Africa's apartheid—he lamely notes that the area's sharks and porpoises segregate themselves in the water. There is a sexist remark about the bathing suits of Australia's female surfers. A few locals here and there are made fun of. And that's about the extent of the film's political message. We don't know what the boys think about anything beyond what they think of the water and the waves and the size of the surf. They aren't characters so much as props.
 
The film's philosophical message, on the other hand, is front and center: There is art and science in most human endeavors, including the ones that ultimately matter the least to the story of our existence on Earth. The "perfect wave" doesn't exist only in the perfect world these men inhabited during their journey. And yet the surfers were as beautiful and as graceful as the beaches and waves upon which they played. They were as carefree as the fish they saw in the water or the animals they saw on land. No wonder the Beach Boys used the title for their 1974 memorable compilation album (Side 1: "Surfin' Safari," "Surfer Girl," "Catch a Wave," "The Warmth of the Sun," and "Surfin USA").
 
The Endless Summer, the movie, became an anthem to the world's surfing community. And it helped inspire an international boon in surfing while continues unabated to this day. "Now it's mainstream," Brown told an interviewer last year, "but in the '50s and '60s you were an outcast, you didn't want to mention it in some circles." I'm no movie buff, and I'm sure y'all will correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot name another movie that led a cultural revolution as much as this one evidently did. The Endless Summer introduced world-class surfing to the world and the world was ready and delighted to make the acquaintance.
 
No doubt there are young men and women in America today who, like me, have seen the old movie on ESPN and become inspired by the grace it portrays. Good for them. I won't ever make it onto a board. But, alas, those who will are likely to search in vain for the empty beaches and mellow pace the boys found, the boys exuded, when they went on their worldwide tour in 1964. Everything has changed since then—everything but the waves of course.
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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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