September 13, 2004 -- “Riding Giants” is a documentary film about the surfing lifestyle and about the daring surfers who seek out the world's largest, most dangerous waves to ride. Some of the surfing scenes are spectacular in their beauty and in their depiction of the death-defying deeds of extreme surfers.
About half of the film is made up of photos and home movies depicting the origins of modern surfing and some of the pioneers of the sport. The film focuses on three pioneering surfers, starting with Greg Noll, who was among the first to challenge the biggest waves along Hawaii's famed North Shore, including Waimea Bay. Also featured is Jeff Clark, who was first to surf Mavericks, a region of mountainous waves at Half Moon Bay, 25 miles south of San Francisco. The last surfer featured in the film is Laird John Hamilton, considered the best surfer ever. He pioneered surfing deep ocean waves over 50 feet high using jet skis to tow him and his surf board into position to catch the huge waves. Hamilton and Noll both developed new types of surf boards to tackle big waves.
Noll started his own board-building company, capitalizing on his fame as the world's foremost big wave rider in the 1950s and 1960s. He designed special boards to catch the big, fast waves at Waimea Bay. Later, Hamilton came up with a completely new board design made for “tow-in surfing,” first using boats, then jet skis to allow surfers to catch the biggest, fastest waves. While the film does have a lot of information about the technical innovations these surfers made, it is more about the people themselves.
There's a very heartwarming story about how Laird Hamilton met the man who would become his father while playing on the beach in Hawaii. Laird's father, Bill Hamilton, tells the story of how he met Laird and his mother after a chance meeting. It was a case of Laird wanting Bill to become his father, and how it miraculously worked out that way. Bill Hamilton tells the story so honestly, with such an open heart, it creates a wonderful scene. Other surfers talk openly of their love of the surfing lifestyle and how they gave up everything to live off the land and surf in Hawaii in the 1950, rejecting the consumerism and conformity of that era. Just in case you might start thinking this movie lionizes only beach bums, a couple of surfers who also happen to be professional people are interviewed. Each talks about the risks of riding the largest waves. The death of Mark Foo, one of the best surfers in the world, at Mavericks is examined at length.
The psychology of the big wave surfer is perhaps best summed up by the handsome Jeff Clark, who first tackled Mavericks in 1975. He tried to persuade his best friend to go out with him. His friend, seeing giant waves crashing against jagged rocks, refused. His friend said, “I'll call the coast guard and tell them where I last saw you.” It was 15 years before Clark persuaded anyone to try Mavericks. During those 15 years Clark surfed Mavericks alone. There were no crowds of onlookers, no camera crews, no helicopters, no rescuers if he got into trouble. Risking his life every time he paddled out to ride those giant waves, up to 40 feet high, he overcame his fear and relentlessly kept pursuing addictive adrenaline rushes. Clark and others tell of harrowing experiences where monstrous waves pushed them under water for extended periods of time.
Other surfers talk about how depressed they get when the sea is flat and there are no waves to surf. At times, they talk as if they are only truly alive when they are surfing. The climax of the movie comes when we see modern surfers riding giant waves 50 feet high and more at a Maui break called “Jaws” and over razor-sharp coral at Teahupoo, Tahiti and other exotic places. These tow-in surfers, like Laird Hamilton (also one of the film's executive producers) ride giant curling waves, disappearing inside the foam for what seems like forever before suddenly emerging, still standing, and grinning.
The cinematography in these scenes is spectacular, featuring work by director of photography Peter Pilafian, with Don King and Sonny Miller shooting the Hawaii scenes and Grant Washburn shooting Mavericks. There were also a large number of other contributing cinematographers and still photographers. It is a big plus that the film's director, Stacy Peralta (“Dogtown and Z-Boys”) and several of the cinematographers are experienced surfers. The film reflects their passion for the sport. This film rates a B.
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