Bruce Brown, director of the iconic 1966 surf film The Endless Summer and the 1971 motorcycle adventure doc On Any Sunday, among many other classic adventure films, has passed away at the age of 80. It would be difficult to overstate the importance Brown had in romanticizing and cementing the life of a footloose surf wanderer; The Endless Summer inspired more dirtbag surf travel escapades than any other bit of surf culture and firmly established the idea that adventuring in pursuit of surf was a rite of passage for any serious waverider.
Brown was born in San Francisco in 1937 and started his love affair with surfing when he moved to Southern California with his family ten years later. He started making surf films as a teenager while stationed in Hawaii after enlisting in the Navy. In 1957, back in California after he was discharged, surfboard maker Dale Velzy approached Brown and asked if he’d make a movie featuring the Velzy surf team. Brown agreed, spent time filming the team in California and Hawaii, and a year later he released Slippery When Wet, a classic that established Brown as one of the best of surfing’s early crop of filmmakers.
In 1963, Brown, inspired by the charmingly simple idea that it’s always summer somewhere, set off on an around the world trip chasing warm water and good waves with California surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August. The resulting film, The Endless Summer, released on a small run in 1964, then a much larger release a year later, was a massive and instant hit, and not only with beachside surf-friendly audiences. Brown toured the film cross-country in unlikely landlocked towns like Wichita, Kansas, where it drew curious and enthusiastic crowds, and pushed thousands of adventure-seeking people to the coasts in pursuit of the golden-tinged dream of living for surf.
After the success of The Endless Summer, Brown made On Any Sunday, a rollicking love letter to offroad motorcycles and desert riding, featuring Steve McQueen. The film was nominated for the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
For the next couple decades, Brown lived a semi-retired life, spending his time fishing and dabbling in motor sports. He returned to surf filmmaking in 1992 to direct The Endless Summer 2, a reprisal of the original formula—two happy-go-lucky California surfers search the world for the best waves, with Brown again providing the narration. The film made stars of Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Pat O’Connell, similar to what The Endless Summer did for Hynson and August three decades earlier.
While The Endless Summer 2 was a popular release, it wasn’t close to the groundbreaking cultural force of the original. Nothing in surf cinema ever was. The easy fun of the film, the incredible waves they find, the charming narration by Brown himself, all made The Endless Summer a must-watch for surfers for decades. You’d be hard-pressed to meet a lifelong surfer today who doesn’t get a little glassy-eyed at hearing the slinky electric guitar riffs that open The Endless Summer. Brown’s movie hammered home the idea that just out of sight, no matter where you live, a perfect wave might be waiting. Surfers everywhere clamored to load boards into vans and hit the road, a wanderlust seemingly baked into the DNA of the modern surfer.
It’s still the finest surf film ever made.
“If you couldn’t actually travel with Bruce Brown, you wanted to travel like him,” Matt Warshaw, editor of the Encyclopedia of Surfing says. “You wanted to have as much fun as he did in The Endless Summer, to roll with events, make the best of every situation—and of course to eventually score perfect uncrowded waves. He created a template for surf travel that we’re all still following to this day.”
Photo: The Endless Summer promo shoot