Bruce Brown, Film documentarian , 1937-2017


Below is a 1960s picture of Bruce Brown.  He was the directory of many films, all documentaries. His two best known works The Endless Summer (1966)  and On Any Sunday (1971), changed our national culture with respect to Surfing and Motorcycling. Although these films were produced on tiny budgets, their impact is difficult to overstate.   Half a century later, they remain the quintessential film in each of these endeavors. They are first order examples of one individual, with something important to share, making a lasting difference in countless lives.




If you have never seen either of these films, you should make a point of reserving the time to really study them. They are unusual documentaries, they have a light hearted narrative, and they capture what drove the people involved to follow their passions. The films are credited with explosive national growth of their respective sports.


It is worth noting, Hollywoods machine had already worked the same topics in large budget commercial films which did nothing positive for surfing nor motorcycling, because they were pure exploitive trash. Conversely, the lasting appeal of Browns films defied their tiny budgets simply because they had a quality that Hollywood knew nothing about; Browns films were authentic , pure depictions of Americans at play and in competition.


12 years ago, I put together a dissertation on how Experimental Aviation really needed an Authentic documentary, exactly like Browns films, to attract new people of high motivation and ideals to our branch of aviation. I made this presentation with some passion to a number of people in influential and leadership positions. Having grown up in Hawaii in the mid 1970s and been a rabid motorcyclist from the late 1970s on, I well understood the power of Browns films to present worthy endeavor which young people would work very hard to find their way into. I’m not speaking of having a hobby or a pastime, in my teenage years, motorcycling was my personal salvation, and be assured, I’m choosing that word intentionally.


My appeals fell on deaf ears. Most of the people I spoke to had seen neither of the films, and were really just looking for more people like the models on the cover of a Sporties pilot catalog. When I spoke of the power of the films, they inevitably brought up Top Gun with Tom Cruise, and said “We have already had that film made”


These people, our branch’s alleged leadership, was the problem. They couldn’t see that Top Gun was only entertainment, and it had no authenticity. It didn’t have anything to do with experimental aviation, (but then again these people really didn’t either) I really doubt any teenager watched it and then decided that he was going to build his own aircraft. The people I spoke with didn’t get they were arguing that because Hollywood made Gidget and Frankie Avalon beach movies that there was no reason why The Endless Summer need ever be made. These were the same people who though the LSA world was really going to take off because a $149,000 Rotax powered euro-trash LSA was “Affordable” compared to a new Mooney. They understood nothing but maintaining their own positions.


Bruce Brown made On Any Sunday by getting Steve McQueen to fund it. If you want a good example of the word authentic, perhaps McQueen’s life will do; Besides being an actor, he was a Marine, a race car driver, a pilot, firearms expert, and one of the world greatest motorcyclists.


If you need to understand what a phony is, go back and watch the scene in Top Gun where Tom Cruise is ‘riding’ the motorcycle next to the runway when the F-14 takes off. Look closely and notice the tie downs holding the Kawasaki’s handlebars down to the trailer it is being towed on. Evidently mr Scientology didn’t even know how to ride a motorcycle. I couldn’t explain this difference to people a dozen years ago, and in retrospect it now seems like a foolish errand.


However, each of us has full control, to bring full authenticity to all of our own personal efforts in experimental aviation. Make time to watch On any Sunday over the holidays, and spend a few hours alone deciding how you will make your hours in aviation in 2018 something that Bruce Brown would have put in one of his films.




8 Replies to “Bruce Brown, Film documentarian , 1937-2017”

  1. By the way, if you happen to have Amazon Prime, both of these documentaries can be streamed for free.

  2. Whenever a secure log in wants me to enter a favorite movie it is always “On any Sunday”

  3. Watched On any Sunday many, many times in the early 80s on VHS. The opening scene alone, in the dunes with real riders, was awesome. Great comparison William, that really is the kind of emotion and desire to do and achieve that the building experience should stir in someone who wants to fly their own machine.

    I can remember, often waiting for the sun to come up so I could kick the starter on my 77 XR75, or pushing it down the gravel road a bit so that I wouldn’t wake my parents too early. I rode that thing everywhere… many places that I wasn’t supposed to, from sunup to sundown, and often times late into the dark as we were typically allowed to be out well after the streetlights came on in my rural community. I haven’t seen On any Sunday in years, but I think I’ll dial it up. Maybe it will give my kid a laugh to hear, “A YaMAha, made in Japan!” I’ll probably be asked for a dirt bike before the credits scroll across the screen.

    1. Mark,
      you can take your story and insert 1976 XR-75 instead and it is a clone of mine. I guessing you understand I used the word ‘Salvation’ to express how those hours in a young boys life matter, when you are first learning independence and that you can make your own place in the world. -ww.

  4. In the late 1950’s and very early 1960’s, Bruce Brown used to come around to assemblies at my high school in Southern California that was at least 20 miles from the ocean, and show his silent surf films, while he narrated them. His commentary made them fun to watch. I don’t remember if he also played a musical sound track as well.

    He probably didn’t have the money to have live sound with the film when he made it. You’ll notice that Endless Summer has no live sound with it, too.

    I know that he wasn’t making much money from showing his films, because the budget for entertainment at assemblies was small. The money probably allowed him to keep making more films.

    I would say that Bruce Brown is probably responsible for much of the growth of the surfing movement in Southern California before the huge wave of expansion brought about by Endless Summer years later because of all the schools he showed his films at.

    Yes, stupid Hollywood films, like Gidget came out at the same time, but that was all Hollywood flash, and not really about surfing. Bruce’s films were about surfing itself, not as background for a teenage romance.

    I remember that at the same time guys were building surf boards in shop class that had wood stringers about 1″ wide in them, probably because they didn’t believe that the foam and fiberglass would be strong enough. They would glass their boards outside, to keep the fumes out of the shop.

    You could tell that Bruce loved surfing, and he did as much as possible to bring us into the experience. That is what is necessary for any film to bring about more interest in flying. The kinesthetic, sensual experience of moving through an ocean of air isn’t conveyed often enough in films about flying and building airplanes.

    We have too many films that fit into the Top Gun/steely-eyed aviator category that have been made ever since Howard Hughes made Hells Angels in 1930. We need more films with the build it and fly it type depicting the joy that more down to earth persons (pun intended) who participate in homebuilding experience.

  5. Wow, talk about bringing back memories….I was already dirt biking every day I could when On Any Sunday came out and it blew me away. I loved it because I was already connected and knew what it was like to have raw horsepower between your legs at your command. Wheelies, jumping through the air, drafting around corners….nothing like it.

    This coming year, I’ll finish up the Cruzer, build the 3.0L Corvair engine, get my sports plane license and have some new experiences – can’t wait – been reading your blog on aviation for the past 2 years – absolutely the best…learned so much and right on…keep up the good work.

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