The Enduring Appeal of ‘The Endless Summer’

Speaker's Corner: The classic surf film celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Its popularity lives on, Jim Benning writes, because it's one of the greatest wanderlust-inducing documentaries ever made -- and a potent antidote to winter.

12.11.06 | 1:52 PM ET

endless summer posterI was a surf-obsessed teenager living in a Southern California beach town in the early 1980s when The Endless Summer aired on my local PBS station. Surfing was my escape, and a movie about a search for the perfect wave promised to be the ultimate escape. I set my parents’ VCR to record it and was transfixed by what I saw.

I didn’t care that the movie was already nearly two decades old. I watched it again and again—after school when the onshore breeze came up and it was too windy to surf, on winter days when I refused to tug on my head-to-toe wetsuit—until I’d seen the film so many times I’d memorized every line.

Each time I watched the opening images of shimmering orange sunsets and silhouetted surfers gazing at the waves, all of it set to the Sandals’ warm, hypnotic soundtrack, I figured I was watching a simple surf documentary.

That, after all, is how filmmaker Bruce Brown, who narrates the film, explains the ‘round-the-world journey undertaken by the two protagonist surfers at the outset:

Many surfers ride summer and winter, but the ultimate thing for most of us would be to have an endless summer of warm water and waves without the summer crowds of California. The only way to do this is by traveling around the world, following the summer season as it moves around the world.

It sounds straightforward enough. And yet, looking back at the film now, surfing isn’t its sole focus. It’s only the means to a much bigger end.

The film celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and its power hasn’t begun to subside. It’s one of the few films I still enjoy watching as much as an adult as I did when I was a kid. I think I understand why. “The Endless Summer” is not just the best surfing movie of all time. It’s also one of the greatest wanderlust-inducing documentaries ever made. It’s a celebration of travel, wonder and discovery—an unlikely and seductive cross between National Geographic and Surfer magazine, writ large on the big screen.

Its appeal has always transcended geography. When it debuted, movie-goers in Wichita, Kansas lined up in the snow to see it, selling out multiple screenings in the dead of winter. In fact, it’s perhaps most powerful when viewed on a gray winter day.

The movie is beloved by so many because Brown is a master storyteller who revels in the journey.

Early on in the film, when many other surf-filmmakers might be obsessing over waves, Brown shows surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson preparing for their ‘round-the-world trip in front of a fire on a winter night, reading up on malaria cures and shark attacks. Subtle humor runs through the scene—the book covers’ titles are clearly hand-drawn—but viewers gets the point: The surfers are experiencing the kind of pre-travel jitters we can all relate to.

Moments later, our heroes are wearing suits and ties like good gentlemen travelers of the 1960s, aboard a flight to Dakar, Senegal. It’s a place I’m sure I’d never heard of the first time I saw the film, and just hearing the words ignited my imagination. Brown stoked the embers further.

“Would they find surf?” he wonders. “Would they catch malaria? Would they be speared by a native? They didn’t have any idea.”

Of course, they would not be speared. They score countless tasty waves. But between surf scenes, Brown celebrate the kind of curious, culture-clash moments that make travel so compelling. He shows the two surfers arriving in Accra, Ghana, for example, struggling to explain to a taxi driver that they want to tie their surfboards to the roof of the car. The taxi driver, who Brown suspects has never before seen a surfboard, isn’t hearing any of it.

Cracks Brown, “The driver kept muttering something that must have meant airplane wings go in the trunk.”

Then we see the taxi motoring through town with the surfboards sticking straight out of the trunk, extending at least six feet into the road.

“Can you imagine driving down a highway in the U.S. like that?” Brown asks gleefully. “They’d put you in prison.”

We watch as the two stars teach surfing to locals in Ghana—Brown clearly loves every minute of it—and explore empty New Zealand highways and beaches.

The film’s famous high point comes when the surfers happen upon the small waves curling perfectly down the beach at Cape St. Francis, South Africa. Here again, where another surf-filmmaker might have simply cut to the tubing waves, Brown revels in the surfers’ quest.

With triumphant horns playing, the star surfers are first shown hiking over sand dunes under a hot African sun, searching for waves with no ocean in sight.

“Half way around the world and halfway across the dunes, it seemed like a bad idea,” Brown intones. “It started to get pretty hot. The odds were against us finding surf. We didn’t even know if we’d find the water.”

It’s the most compelling moment in surf movie history.

In The Endless Summer Revisited, a retrospective made by Brown’s filmmaker son, Dana Brown, we learn that the surfers didn’t really need to hike over dunes to get to the beach that day, and that Brown, in fact, inspired by “Lawrence of Arabia,” ordered them to hike the nearby dunes repeatedly for dramatic effect.

Learning that was not unlike hearing that Santa Claus isn’t real. But when you’re a 14-year-old surfer without a driver’s license, much less a passport, watching those surfers hiking over the dunes and discovering those waves is enough to sustain you and fuel your dreams for years. And what sticks with you isn’t just the surf (though if you surf can’t help but salivate at the sight of those perfectly peeling right-handers). It’s the very idea of the quest.

In recent years, some critics have justifiably complained about the film, noting a neo-colonial attitude reflected in some scenes, beginning with the use of “natives” to describe Africans. It’s a movie of its era.

The world has changed much in the last four decades, for better and worse. As the march of globalization has shrunk the planet, surfing’s popularity has soared. Surf ghettoes have sprung up around the world in places like Kuta Beach on Bali. The notion of traveling the globe in search of the perfect wave will never again hold the kind of magic it once did. Perhaps that’s in part why “The Endless Summer II” didn’t live up to its predecessor.

So be it. The adventurous spirit of the original film endures.