Riding Giants (10/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

Although I body surfed when I was a teenager, I never rode a board. Despite that, I love surfing movies. This one is the best. Iíve always criticized surfing movies because they donít explain the arcane sport of competitive surfing. This film is not about competitive surfing, but it explains everything you need to know about surfing. This movie is about the brave Los Angeles men who pioneered riding big waves.

The film starts with a quick overview of the history of surfing, starting 1,000 years ago and carrying us into the 1940s and Ď50s.Then we meet Greg Noll, the Ď50s legend who really invented the ride of the big wave. Apparently all these people were interested in posterity because the film is rife with color home movies of Noll and his friends surfing in the 1950s. After Noll started surfing in Southern California, he heard about the Hawaii North Shore and in 1957 he and his buddies flew over. When they saw the huge waves, they were captivated. They werenít sure the waves could be ridden, so Noll encouraged them to paddle out into the surf at Waimea Bay and tackle it. Successful, they stayed in Hawaii to surf. They had no money and didnít make any, so they lived as cheaply as possible, just so they could continue surfing the giant waves. Noll continued going to Hawaii every year until 1969 when he was the only one who had the courage to take on the biggest swell ever to hit Hawaii, closing out the entire North Shore. At Makaha Point Surf, Noll took his board and went out alone. He tells how he felt when he was floating in the middle of the broiling surf, trying to decide whether or not to actually try it. Noll eventually returned to Southern California where he converted his love of surfing into a business of making surfboards. 

Jeff Clark discovered Maverick, at Half Moon Bay, 25 miles south of San Francisco. Although Maverickís waves rivaled those on the North Shore, nobody even thought about surfing them because, rather than a surferís paradise, it was thought of only as a navigational hazard due to the big rocks and rough seas. But in 1975, 17-year-old Clark paddled out into the unknown. For years Clark was the only person who would surf it. After fifteen years of riding the waves there alone, he convinced two other big wave riders from nearby Santa Cruz to try it and finally the word spread. On December 23, 1994 all the renowned big wave surfers showed up, and, on a beautiful day, tragedy struck.

The final person we meet is Laird Hamilton. When he was four years old he met Bill Hamilton and they bonded immediately. Laird took him to meet his widowed mother and they fell in love. This is a story that is so compelling it brings tears to your eyes. Bill was an accomplished surfer and his adopted son grew up to be the best of all time. Laird revolutionized surfing by developing tow-in surfing where, instead of paddling and catching a wave, the surfer is towed in by a jet ski and put into the prime part of the wave. The filmís final story is the story of Laird riding the most storied wave of all time, with pictures of the ride.

The Gidget movie series popularized surfing and turned it into a recreation for the masses. Some of the big wave surfers tell of their disdain for what the Hollywood surfers shown on film.

One of the things I liked about this picture is the many detailed personal descriptions on how it feels to be wiped out on a big wave. When you hear how it feels to be thrown head over heel by the raging surf after being thrown off the board, you begin to appreciate the courage it takes to try to ride them. But in the end they all tell of the total enjoyment of the surfing experience, which makes the risk well worth it to them.

All these stories, and many more are told through personal interviews and stunning cinematography (Peter Pilifian). Directed by Stacy Peralta, the film is replete with color home films of surfing in California and Hawaii in the 1940s and 1950s in addition to the footage shot for the film. Whether or not youíre a surfer, and Iím not, this is a donít miss film.

July 10, 2004

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