Hawaii’s role in the transformation of surfing from what many considered to be a pastime for drug-crazed counter-culture rebels to a multi-billion dollar sport is examined in debut director Jeremy Gosch’s documentary about the group of Australian and South African surfers that “broke down the door” for pro surfing to take hold. At the same time, the film reveals a clash of cultures and values that goes beyond the Hawaiian sport of kings and its various Western incarnations and speaks to issues dating back to the early days of foreign occupation in Hawaii.
Actor Ed Norton narrates the storyline, which traces competitive surfing from the 1965 inception of the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Classic that invited a crew of audacious surfers who, in the winter of 1975, would showcase a previously unseen approach to surfing. Their daredevil efforts would be the harbinger that announced surfing as an athletic event befitting several industries worth of monetary support.
Shaun and Michael Tomson came to Oahu’s North Shore from Durban, South Africa, at the same time that Australian Gold Coast natives Mark Richards, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, Peter Townend, and Ian Carins arrived at Sunset Beach to hone their skills in the months leading up to the 1975 Kahanamoku Invitational. Born in the ‘50s, the crew shared idealist and reactive personality types set on throwing their lives on the sword of Pipeline in a do-or-die stab at fame and fortune. Unknown to the established surf world, Rabbit and Shaun especially carried the weight of troubled family backgrounds that contributed to their risk-taking approach in developing techniques that amazed anyone who saw them.
Although local Maui surfing icon and instructor Buzzy Kerbox refutes the film’s claims that his former competitors created any new moves at Sunset, Off the Wall or Pipeline there is a distinctly expressive way that Rabbit, Mark Richards and the Tomsons surfed that is mesmerizing to this day. When I spoke to Buzz by telephone, thanks to an assist from Maui Time friend Barry Rivers, he was quick to uphold the lasting effect that his Australian surfing friends and rivals had on the surfing industry as it contributes to Maui’s economy. The former 6th placed world championship surfer, Buzz said he enjoys windsurfing these days, but a visit to YouTube will give an idea of his tremendous affection and respect for surfing Peah’i.
Bustin’ Down the Door uses a number of exciting surfing sequences from famous ‘70s surf films Free Ride and Tubular Swells that feature the Aussie crew in action, to contextualize the energy and brilliant techniques the young men were showing off at the time. There are priceless examples that serve as a veritable instructional clinic.
In the same way that Skateboarder magazine would later help elevate skateboarding to the status of an accepted sport, Surfing and Surfer magazines helped push their sport of choice ahead with exciting photos and profile pieces that captured the imagination of millions of fans and would-be surfers.
The magazines presented a readymade media vehicle that the self-titled “Bronzed Aussies” immediately identified and mastered in the same way that rock stars of the day promoted themselves with an outlaw swagger. Giving print, television and press conference interviews became a chance for the athletes to put forth a philosophy and vision that was at once fresh and ambitious. Marketing became the means that the young underpaid surf masters predicted would pay off in big dividends sooner rather than later. Dubbed the Three Marketeers, Ian Cairns, Peter Townend and Mark Warren pushed their advertising savvy to get international press. Dressed in matching jumpsuits or sweat jackets the trio represented surfing’s first commercial ambassadors, and de facto surf team. It was a ploy that was looked down on by surfing purists, but also a stroke of genius that would help usher in an industry-endorsed appeal previously lacking in the sport.
Although the movie doesn’t mention it, Rabbit was deemed inappropriate to be in the Bronzed Aussie club, and his exclusion may have contributed to his writing of a balls-out article that nearly ended his surfing career, as well as that of his mates, but not without some help.
The Bronzed Aussies’ marketing strategy could have passed as self-satire were it not at odds with the brutal candidness of Ian Cairns in a magazine interview where he boasted about his group’s success against Hawaiian surfers as coming, “because we seem to be able to push ourselves harder than the Hawaiians do. Our surfing, as a group, has improved outrageously; whereas theirs, as a group, has stagnated.” Cairns’ opinion might have held a grain of truth, but it was also indicative of the grandstanding that was pressing surfing to a critical mass of cultural influence, for better and for worse.CA
At the height of surfing’s newfound popularity Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew (AKA “Bugs”) was given the moniker “Muhammad Bugs” by a certain magazine that photographed him wearing an Everlast boxing robe. Inspired perhaps too much from Muhammad Ali’s pervasive influence at the time, Rabbit took the identification to heart when he was asked by Surfer magazine to write an article on what it was like to break through in surfing. Rabbit took advantage of the editorial opportunity to shoot from the hip and compare himself to Ali in the same way that he and his peers had boasted about being “number one.”Irony would come later when Rabbit would win the title of surfing’s World Champ in 1978. But before then, Rabbit’s cover feature article for Surfer, titled “Bustin’ Down the Door!”, allowed the articulate young surfer to wax philosophical about the “material world” and expound the Zen aspects of his vigorous art. The article’s lead line explained that, “When you are a young emerging rookie from Australia or Africa, you not only have to come through the backdoor to get invitations to the pro meets, but you have to bust down the door, before they hear ya knockin’.” From a rock ‘n’ roll marketing perspective, it was an honest piece full of bravado and repeatable quotes. But it also served to reopen the wounds of occupation and colonization that Hawaii had suffered at the hands of the U.S military less than a hundred years before.CACA
In 1893 the United States military arrested Queen Liliuokalani and jailed her inside her palace under her fierce yet restrained protest, which she eloquently expressed in a note to the Hawaiian people that ended with “Aloha, aloha, aloha.” In effect, the Queen tramped down the effect of the malicious takeover with an elegant message of hope that rose above the atrocity being committed against her and her people. It was a history lesson the brash young Aussie surf crew would have done well to learn, one that might have spared them the steady stream of violent attacks and threats that would force them into an uncomfortable exile in Kuilima. It wasn’t until lifeguard and surfer Eddie Aikau came forward to act as a peacemaker, calling a ho’oponopono, that tensions would be relieved at more than a cost of bruised egos.
The story of the cultural zeitgeist that enabled surfing to break open the floodgates of commercial viability came at a huge personal cost to the men who dared to think outside the box and act on a stage whose size was unfathomable to most. It also marks a bittersweet transition that cannot be reduced to world title trophies or corporate revenue streams. When I asked him, Buzzy Kerbox wouldn’t comment on the rift between the Aussies and their rivals that was settled in a conference room at the Kuilima Hotel under the guidance and goodwill of Eddie Aikau. I understood why. I also understand that it marks a significant moment in surfing and in modern Hawaiian history that is worth discussing. Surfing is important. It’s also important how we relate to one another and how we act when we’re not surfing, or performing whatever act of routine passion we commit as a vocation or pastime.
In the end, as a film and a cultural metaphor, is Bustin’ Down The Door as entertaining as recent surf docs like Riding Giants or Step Into Liquid? Yes, and I’d say it’s a little bit more than that. MTW