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'The Endless Summer' Was The First Real Surfing Movie

Culture | October 2, 2019

Left: A still shot from the production of The Endless Summer. Right: The treatment of the picture that was made famous on the poster. Source: IMDB

Before The Endless Summer, Bruce Brown's 1966 documentary, surfing films weren’t really films about surfing. They were beach party films that were less about catching waves and more about presenting a sanitized version of life in Southern California. Movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and Gidget could be fun to watch, thanks to so many frolicking scantily-clad young people. But they misrepresented surfing culture, ignoring the spiritual nature of grabbing a board and hitting the waves. Out of nowhere came Bruce Brown, a filmmaker who spent $50,000 on a riveting documentary that followed two surfers across the world as they tried to live the endless summer.

With only two surfers in tow, Mike Hynson and Robert August, Brown traveled to Australia, Ghana, Hawaii, New Zealand, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Southern California, and Tahiti. Brown documented everything on one camera and a couple of lenses. He just wanted to show the world a mythological representation of what he and his friends lived every day.

Before 'The Endless Summer' The Only Surfing In Theaters Was Straight Cheese

source: cinema V

There really weren’t any real surfing movies before The Endless Summer. Movies like Beach Party and Ride the Wild Surf didn’t show the real community of surfers who hit the beaches up and down Southern California. Genuine surfers felt that beach party movies minimized their love of the waves, communion with nature, and the way they inherently understood their favorite spots.

Bruce Brown had directed four other surfing documentaries before taking off in search of the endless summer but none of them connected the same way. With this film Brown tapped into something chemical and emotional within its viewers, and if it didn’t inspire them to pick up a board it gave them an appreciation of the sport. 

The Film Offers An Uncomplicated View Of Surfing

source: Cinema V

The Endless Summer doesn’t offer up a million moving parts, or a series of twists. It simply follows two surfers as they travel from country to country riding the waves. Brown didn’t bring any audio equipment with them so the main characters never speak to one another, instead the audience only hears Brown’s narration and a series of surf songs. The documentary never does everything but follow the surfers, there’s never any worry about whether or not Hynson or August are going to make it into a country, they just hit the waves in country after country on a series of waves and amazing landscapes. 

You Can Hear How Much Brown Loves Surfing

Bruce Brown with his camera. Source: IMDB

When Brown begins narrating the film he doesn’t sound like and who’s been paid to talk about surfing, but someone who’s exuberant about catching waves and watching surfers catch waves. Throw on the movie and listen to the way he adopts a falsetto in the opening moments in the film, or the little asides he makes whenever someone he knows pops up on screen. Brown’s enthusiasm is apparent whenever he makes it to a new country, and even when he’s goofing on the locals his asides fit the tone of the film perfectly, and they help keep things from getting too heavy. 

The Camera Work Takes The Audience Into The Waves

source: Cinema V

The biggest thing that sets The Endless Summer apart from the earlier beach films is Brown’s camera work. Most of the surfing shots are filmed directly from the beach and there are even a few scenes that show the audience what it looks like from the board -- although these aren’t super technical shots, they’re just cool to see. Beach movies like Bikini Beach may be about surfers, but none of their surfing footage is realistic, The Endless Summer takes the viewer into the water and shows them the joy that comes along with getting on a board. Brown only went out with a 16mm Bolex and a couple of lenses, but as small of an operation as he was running the film looks magnificent. 

The Film Was An Immediate Hit But It Took Forever To Get Distribution 

source: Cinema V

Once Brown and the surfers got back to the states they parted ways and he started editing. After putting the film together Brown started setting up small screenings at high schools an auditoriums, but unlike his previous films The Endless Summer was a hit. Brown told the LA Weekly

It was unbelievably popular from the very beginning. Santa Monica Civic [Auditorium], I think it holds like 2,500 people, we sold it out for a week straight. And we went back several months later and did it again. So that inspired us to think we could get this in theaters, and I wouldn’t have to drive to Pasadena every other night to show it in an auditorium.

Previously, Brown screened his films and moved onto film something else, but this time around he doubled down on his efforts to find a distributor. He drove the film around to colleges and continued working on his narration. Finally, he took the film to New York City and it played for a year before he found a distributor that really got the picture, he explained:

I probably showed the film live 100 times, improvising my narration, seeing what worked for the final soundtrack. Some Hollywood people, like , loved the film, but no studio wanted to distribute it. We blew it up to 35mm and rented a theatre in New York. We got a lot of publicity, because surfing films were unheard of in the Big Apple. It ran for a year, so we started getting phone calls from distributors. Most of them wanted to change things, like putting women on the poster. But Don Rugoff, from Cinema 5, said: ‘We like it just the way it is.’

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Surfing | The Endless Summer

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.