The Truth About Hawaii Five-O
   The Wave from Jack Lord to Kurtz
   by Timothy Dugdale

How better to begin an essay on surf movies than with the image of a wave without a surfer. Every week, as Steve McGarrett intoned “Aloha”, a big blue curl would freeze on screen. Within the
conventions of television, we knew the suspense was bogus. The next episode would be much like the one before: after forty minutes of driving to and fro in Waikiki, McGarrett would tell Dan-o to “book’em”, a cut to commercial and then the wave.

This wave was not just any wave. It was a metaphor for justice. American justice. Inevitable, powerful and seemingly the very stuff of nature.

It is no accident that Hawaii Five-O appeared on the fault line between the sixties and the seventies. The Summer of Love was over. Nixon was in the White House. Vietnam was a quagmire. The seventies were the theatre for America’s hangover from a binge of self-indulgent dreaming; dreams that seemed possible after the hard work of the Civil Rights movement. But it’s one thing to chaff against conservative stasis. It’s quite another to demand its obliteration.

Hawaii Five-O has a reactionary core. Waikiki, the epicenter of life on the big island, is the epitome of that strange ability America has for making places safe for the world to consume America’s fantasies about itself. Indeed, Honolulu is perhaps the crowning achievement of this project -- built to accommodate both the military and the tourists who rely on that military to keep them safe at the edge of the American world.

Disneyland and Disneyworld were thrown up in godforsaken places in agreeable climates, places where the dispossessed and the desperate had fled to stake a claim on some moldy tidbit of the American Dream. Orlando and Anaheim, in spite of and perhaps because of the presence of Disney, are deeply conflicted locales. There is a hot spot of ruthlessly oppressive family-friendliness evoking a simulation of America at its most childish and innocent ringed by sundry purgatories that speak of America’s current reality -- strip malls, strip clubs, and the joyless sprawl of McMansions, motels and mega-highways.

In contrast, the natural beauty of Hawaii is elemental to the illusion of both leisure and the moral goodness of the leisure project. The park is the theme. Eden preserved. Or rather tamed. The savages who killed Captain Cook now greet visitors with smiles and lais. The Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor tipple mai-tais as Charo capers onto stage at the Waikiki Palace, warming up the crowd for an Osmonds Reunion.

Surfing is very much part of this Eden-esque illusion. Let us return to the empty wave. McGarrett’s mastery of Hawaii is complete. Not only does he understand the need to maintain the façade of tropical calm and comfort for the tourists, he also knows that the façade is just that. McGarrett can’t afford to “not to know.” The show’s villains are the rogue’s gallery of dream apostates and drifters one expects to find at the crossroads of the Pacific as the Summer of Love fades out -- drug addicts, mafia kingpins, cultists, rancid hippies and in the case of McGarrett’s arch-enemy, Wo-Fat, a cunning Asian mastermind with nothing but contempt for America and its childish optimism.

Jack Lord plays McGarrett as a cross between Eliot Ness and Elvis -– charismatic and clever yet vulnerable. He is the surfer of the empty wave.

In the animal kingdom, justice does not exist. We invented it. Why? The threat of justice might be a deterrent to crime. But justice is also an acknowledgement that we come from the world of nature, of primal forces. Our humanity, our humanness, as Saul Bellow notes, must be won as we live. McGarrett is an excellent “surfer” for justice. He is just because he has chosen to live as such. He knows the wave and how it must be ridden.

But there are those who choose otherwise. The film Point Break (1996) concludes with the bankrobber/extreme sport enthusiast Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) disappearing behind a fortress of monumental waves on a remote beach in Australia while on shore, his nemesis, an FBI undercover agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) finally gives up his Jalbert-esque hunt. Utah isn’t beaten. Far from it. Looking out into the pounding surf, he understands at last why Bodhi robbed banks -- to live free of a system that had nothing to offer him and ultimately would break his spirit. The stolen money financed the noble pursuit of liberty. Justice, if it were to be delivered, belonged to the waves. I find this “aha!” moment of phenomenological clarity far more affecting than that of the Matrix, when Neo (Reeves) sees the code streaming behind the illusion. Utah and Bodhi are not creatures of divine intervention realizing heroic destinies elemental to humanity’s survival. They are individuals making hard choices for themselves, no one else. They are together, alone.

The film begins in sunny Southern California and director Kathryn Bigelow piles on the “endless summer” clichés quickly. Utah is a former football star with a bum knee. His partner, Papas (Gary Busey) is an old surfing idol going to pot. The plot is a slight contrivance, lashed together with a tan line and a strand of bleached hair. The real story lies in the impressionistic surfing sequences. Bigelow renders them in slow-motion silhouette. The surfers fuse with the light and the water. Bigelow shoots the get-away from a bank heist through the back alleys of Santa Monica likewise. It is the world as Bodhi and his crew experience it. The zen of the water is the zen of the street, as unwelcoming as it is.

Blue Crush (2002) suggests that it is possible for surfers to survive within the system if you use it to achieve an existence on your own terms. Three young females work as maids in Hawaiian hotels to support their surfing life. The world on the land sucks -- they’re forced to clean up after vulgarians and cementhead celebrity athletes. Their physical beauty is corseted into the precocious yet bland sexuality of Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilerra. Only on the water are they free. When one of the girls is fired, she advises her friends to shut and keep working. They need the money. And without that, the dream dies. But what awaits our heroines in their future? Prince Charming and a brood of kiddies dolled up Ralph Lauren duds? Isn’t that what the American cult of youth tells them is the ideal for a young beach goddess?

That Point Break ends on a gloomy beach in Australia, far from the tropes of Southern Californian “surfer’s paradise” is fitting. Bodhi has not rejected those tropes. He never embraced them to begin with. He is supra-cultural. Nature is his home. The cultural form, the uniform of the surfer, was merely a shell for the spirit. What a contrast to the way extreme sport is peddled in the American mass media. If you look the part, the ads suggest, you can play the part. Is this really true? The “buffness” of Utah and Bodhi are the result of masterful physical activity. Even though they are aging, they are aging in action. The commodification of surfing is successful because it promises easy leisure and status from that leisure. You don’t have to do the work of authenticity. But because you aren’t out there on the water taking risks, you don’t gain any insights either. One is struck by the universal appeal of surfing as spiritual tonic in Step Into Liquid (2003). Even the mad bastards who brave the chill of Lake Michigan to ride a ripple or two know that special rewards are available only out on the water. Fraternity arises from that experience, a shared knowledge that they carry within them back on land.

The third crucial character of Point Break is Papas (Gary Busey), the mentor of Utah. Busey’s iconography is all California surfer -- tanned, blond, toothy, playful. But in Point Break, the surfer is long in the tooth and soft in the gut. He looks like he’d be more comfortable in the crowd at Jimmy Buffett concert than on a surfboard at dawn. He is the totemic figure of what happens to surfers after the last wave. Vitality goes and along with it, vigilance. You end up working for the system and then dying for it.

This is exactly the point of Big Wednesday (1978), a film in which a much younger and trimmer Busey stars. The story focuses on three friends from 1962 to 1974. During those dozen years, they do a lot of surfing while history makes it own moves. They dodge the draft. The Summer of Love comes and goes and in the backwash, the seventies arrive. Again, I think this is the crucial decade for any discussion of surfing films. The sixties gave us revolutionary moments that were unsustainable. The seventies, much maligned as they are, was a special time when those revolutionary impulses unleashed hangovers and aftershocks. The chickens that could came home to mend their broken wings. The conclusion of Big Wednesday, when the mythical wave that the characters have been waiting for finally appears, is one such aftershock. While they were waiting for the wave, life happened. And now that the wave’s here, are any of them willing to give up that life. One is. And from that wave Bodhi of Point Break appears, eighteen years later.

Big Wednesday was written and directed by John Milius who wrote an early draft of Apocalypse Now (1980). The first is an ode to his youth in Southern California. The second film is a strange, quixotic attempt to graft Joseph Conrad’s fictionalized indictment of the 19th century Belgian slave trade onto American military misadventures in Vietnam. It is a film that strains for myth, to speak to eternity about America and the galvanic hubris of its project. The Milius touch is not hard to find in Apocalypse Now. Many critics focus on the relationship between Kurtz (Marlon Brando) and Willard (Martin Sheen). But far more compelling is the brief yet portentous meeting between Lance (Timothy Bottoms) and Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). We first meet Kilgore when Willard’s boat arrives just after Kilgore has laid waste to a small village. Kilgore is no mood for visitors. Or cowardice. He upbraids one of his men for refusing a fallen Vietcong soldier a drink of water. Yet, just as he is about to deliver the water himself, Kilgore is distracted by news that Lance is in Willard’s party. Until that moment, Lance has been an amusing bit player, sunning himself on the fantail of the boat or waterskiing behind it. He is a cartoon, a caricature of the beach bum golden boy drafted into service.

Kilgore can’t believe his luck. A championship surfer is in his midst. After some bragging shoptalk about breaks and the weather, he demands that they hit the waves immediately. Another of his men objects to this. “Soldier, you surf or you fight,” Kilgore bellows. “Charlie don’t surf.” Indeed. It’s not enough for Americans to bomb and burn the land. Justification for the rack and ruin lies out on the waves. Their mission of conquest must be consecrated in a primal American way. Here is America at its most beautiful, invincible, incorruptible. The impromptu last rites ceremony being conducted by a priest near the village seems inadequate and bogus in such a light. The surfers who dodge canon blasts out on the water while riding the break are Kilgore’s true soldiers.

Willard remarks that you only had to look at Kilgore to know he’d never get a scratch. The same can be said for Lance. So pure, so beautiful, so young is the lad that he escapes mortality and the madness that delivers it with such fury and speed. As the other members of Willard’s boat meet increasingly grim exits, Lance thrives. After Willard kills Kurtz, he descends to the bay where he finds Lance surrounded by silent, adoring natives who step aside to form a processional walkway to the boat.

Why does Kurtz spare Lance when he gladly killed Chef, the skittish Cajun? Because Lance must endure. All of them, Kilgore, Willard and Kurtz needed him to justify their actions. They were fighting for him and his kind. Moreover, Lance was a talisman, a good luck charm who personified the apotheosis of the endless summer dream Vietnam killed. Coppola uses the ritualistic brooding music of the Doors in the climax. The Beach Boys have no place here. Nor would they ever after.

-- Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale teaches the University of Detroit Mercy, where he also director of The Writer's Center.

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