Review: Ride the Wild Surf (1964)

The sixties were filled with a glut of surf and beach movies, a trend that started during the late 1950's and eventually fizzled by the end of 1967. The formula was simple: throw some buff young guys and perky young girls in swimwear and film them to some exotic location that would hold appeal for a hungry and rebellious teenage audience, thus ensuring box office profits. The key was always to be a little provocative, but never so much that there was actually any controversy. There would be no nudity, very little innuendo, and absolutely no sex. It seemed to work, as there are a few dozen movies from this era that exist, and almost all of them share a sense of goofy fun and a Vaudevillian sense of slapstick. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello became wholesome icons, attractive but safe.

1964's Ride the Wild Surf somehow manages to stand apart from the Frankie/Annette cookie-cutter pattern. It's still a breezy, fun movie, but the stakes feel much higher and the characters feel more realistic than their American International Pictures Beach Party counterparts. It probably has something to do with the fact that this is a studio film from Columbia Pictures, and the standards were a little higher. Ride the Wild Surf finds three young men arriving at Hawaii's Weimea Bay with the intention of conquering the biggest waves in the ocean; while there, they meet some girls who keep the nights interesting. Refreshingly, the plot was based in reality: during 1963 and into 1964, the waves of Hawaii's Waimea were exceptionally large and strong, and people from all over the world were traveling to O'ahu to ride them. The director (Don Taylor, Escape from the Planet of the Apes) and the writers/producers (Art and Jo Napoleon, Too Much, Too Soon) jumped at the opportunity to capitalize on this rare phenomenon and began production as soon as possible while Waimea was still the surfing place to be.  Rather than film on the SoCal beach, this movie actually shot in Hawaii and features the actual, real Weimea waves, giving this movie instant credibility. It's also hard not to watch this and not think about another movie, Point Break, which actually references Waimea by name, perhaps indirectly acknowledging Ride the Wild Surf as an influence.

The cast is where the movie really shines. Our three surf hunters are played by established stars. Teen heartthrob Fabian, a fifties pop sensation, had previously appeared with John Wayne in North to Alaska and perhaps the highest-profile war movie up to that point, The Longest Day. Peter Brown, who had been a regular in the television western Lawman, would go on to co-star with Pam Grier in Jack Hill's exploitation classic, Foxy Brown. He'd also make guest appearances on every awesome television show of the 1970's and 1980s, including Wonder Woman, Charlie's Angels, The Dukes of Hazzard, Fantasy Island, and Magnum, PI. Tab Hunter rounds out the main trio; Hunter, like Fabian,was a product of theHollywood machine, designed and groomed to be a heartthrob on the stage and the radio. His resume, while less recognizable, is still every bit as full as his costars. Robert Mitchum's son James Mitchum, the spitting image of his dad, plays a smaller role as a character named Eskimo.

On the fairer side of things, we get Shelley Fabares (pronounced Fah-bray), who had spent the better part of a decade as Donna Reed's daughter, Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show and also had a pop music hit with "Johnny Angel." Interestingly, after Ride the Wild Surf, Fabares ended up dating Elvis Presley and co-starred in not one, not two, but THREE of his movies during the mid-sixties (Girl Happy, Spinout, and Clambake). Elvis even said that, of all the women he acted alongside in movies, she was his favorite co-star. We also get Barbara Eden, one year before achieving international stardom on I Dream of Jeannie, and with dark hair. She's the only member of the main cast who was in their thirties when the movie was filmed, and she comes across as a real care-free spitfire who knows what she's looking for. Did I mention that she's a martial arts expert in the movie? Her role is a far cry from the traditional teenage roles in other similar movies, and I mean that in a good way. Lastly, we get Susan Hart and her hypnotic hips, basically playing the same kind of role that she did in the AIP Beach Party series. Of the women cast in Ride the Wild Surf, she has perhaps the least to do, yet makes the biggest impression. Her resume ends near the end of the 1960's (she had one uncredited part in Chrome and Hot Leather from 1971), but she might be better remembered today as the widow of AIP-president James H. Nicholson and the owner of ten "lost" cult classics from the American International catalog that will probably never see the light of day while she is still alive. Almost everyone in this movie is SOMEONE and has a film resume worth pursuing.

Ride the Wild Surf ventures into goofy territory from time to time, but not in an offensive way; it's fun without being stupid, light without being cornball. Most of the movie is actually pretty engaging and exciting, probably because things aren't played broadly. I give surf and beach movies a ton of credit for being important escapist entertainment, but this one actually has a real sense of danger. The movie puts several of its characters in real harm's way, and each time it's unclear if they are going to escape unscathed. The Waimea climax, while maybe running a bit long, has a real feeling of competition and importance. There is more at stake than romance.

Pop superstars Jan and Dean were supposed to have been in the movie in the roles that Peter Brown and Tab Hunter occupied, but were removed when their friend Barry Keenan became involved in a plot to kidnap Frank Sinatra, Jr (you read that right), but that's a story for another time. They did contribute the theme song to the film, which plays over the end credits and was written by Jan Berry, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and frequent surf-music collaborator Roger Christian. A 12-inch single of the song was released, mocked up to appear like a full soundtrack album.

The DVD of Ride the Wild Surf appears to have currently gone out of print, but it is still obtainable from Amazon via this link. Thankfully, the movie is also available to stream from Amazon as well.
I've never met a beach movie that I didn't like, but I happen to like Ride the Wild Surf even more than most. It really is a different kind of surf movie.


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