Updated at 5:48 p.m. ET
Writing on June 16, 1966, just one day after the film The Endless Summer finally got a wide release, The New York Times remarked on its creator’s “courage — some might say foolhardiness.” For years, he struggled to convince film distributors that even people who had never seen a beach before would want to see his surfing film.
And Bruce Brown was right.
On Sunday, more than half a century since The Endless Summer hit big screens across America, Brown died at the age of 80 in Santa Barbara, Calif. He leaves behind a film that defined surfing for a worldwide audience and, after a slew of earlier big-screen misrepresentations, finally did so on the sport’s own terms.
There had already been a surfing boom in Hollywood by the mid-1960s, to be sure, but the surfers they featured rarely failed to be flimsy depictions of no-goodniks or ninnies — and rarely failed to frustrate actual surfers. Then, Brown’s film came along.
“What Bruce did, and what nobody has done since, was to square the circle,” Matt Warshaw, author of The History of Surfing, told The New York Times. “He was able to present surfing as it really is, to non-surfers.”
“Endless Summer is 50-something years old now,” Warshaw explained to Surfer magazine earlier this year, “and every year that goes by, it’s harder to remember the degree to which Bruce broke the laws of entertainment physics by managing to please and impress both his core audience and the general public.”
The documentary, which featured two of Brown’s friends on a round-the-globe quest to find the perfect wave, was — as Ian Buckwalter wrote for NPR — “part surfing film, part travelogue, occasionally even anthropological study and wildlife film, but ultimately it visually taps into the wanderlust that sends us to far-flung beaches in search of an escape from life that we can’t find at home.”
It was shot on a shoestring budget of $50,000 and destined to earn more than $30 million. But it was by no means his first film.
“I started off when I was 14, with an 8-mm camera taking pictures of surfing to show my mom,” he told the skateboard company Dusters California in a 2014 interview.
He enlisted in the Navy after high school in the 1950s, drew a dream assignment aboard a submarine in Hawaiian and used his 8-mm camera to film home surfing movies in his down time. After his discharge, he would show the movies at small venues in Southern California for the price of a quarter, until a local surfboard manufacturer put up a few thousand dollars for him to produce a whole feature in Hawaii, Slippery When Wet.
What followed was a series of movies (one every year, in fact) that would get a limited release and were attended mostly by other surfers. But even these small-scale pictures made an impact. In fact, his 1961 film Surfing Hollow Days lays claim to its own corner of surfing history. It includes the first footage ever shot of surfers riding arguably the world’s most famous break, and even coined its name: the Banzai Pipeline off Oahu, Hawaii.
But it was The Endless Summer that caught the world’s attention, at least eventually.
Prospective distributors were deeply skeptical about a beach film’s ability to draw audiences far from the beach. So Brown and his associates pursued a crazy idea to show the film about as far from the beach as they could get: Wichita, Kansas. The Inertia, an outdoors sports news site, sums up how the stunt “has become part of the movie’s lore”:
“Wichita was slammed with a huge snowstorm that winter and icicles dangled from the marquee of the Sunset Theater that bore the name of the film in February 1966. [Promoter R. Paul] Allen feared a flop, but beneath the frosty sign that first night stretched a long line of Kansans, hopping up and down to stay warm while waiting to watch the adventures of Robert August and Mike Hynson on the big screen. The movie sold out two straight weeks. Distributors in New York still weren’t impressed, but the movie’s success in the middle of winter, in the middle of America, convinced Brown and Allen to keep fighting, and they rented out a theater in Manhattan and finally got the buzz they needed to turn the film into a $30 million behemoth.”
“I put everything I had on the line,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “If it wouldn’t have worked, it would have been the ball game.”
But it did work. Shortly after the film hit the big screen on a wide scale, it became a cultural icon, one so recognizable that even its movie poster is now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brown was eventually enshrined in surfing’s Hall of Fame, and his film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, which selects works for their cultural and historic importance to the U.S.
Brown would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for his documentary on motorcycle riders, On a Sunday. And after a long retirement he even returned in the early ’90s to release a sequel to his seminal surfing film. That sequel was co-written with his son Dana, who went on to craft documentaries in his own right, such as 2003’s Step into Liquid.
Still, it is The Endless Summer that defines the elder Brown’s legacy as a filmmaker and an ambassador for the sport he loved. And as soon as news of his death surfaced publicly, emotional tributes flowed in from some of the surfing world’s living legends — all-time greats such as Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore, neither of whom had even been alive when the movie hit theaters.
“Thank you for showing us the world as you saw it,” Slater said on Instagram. “We need more like you. On to the other side. I hope to bump into you again in some other place and time.”
Ultimately, Brown says it was less his work as a filmmaker than his love of surfing that defined him.
“I had no formal training,” he told Dusters. Before heading to Hawaii to film his first full-length feature, “I got in the plane with a book on how to make movies. It was a real thin book, too.
“I had no interest in cameras other than surfing,” he added. “I just wanted to take pictures of me and my buddies surfing — you know, just to show people.”