He single-handedly turned America into an Olympic swimming powerhouse, competing in four Olympiads. And while touring with that Olympic fame, he brought Hawaiian surfing to the world.
There are statues to Duke Kahanamoku in countries where he first dipped a board in the waters of this or that section of coast, and surfers to this day speak in awed reverence about “the father” of “our sport” and lifestyle.
Beach lifeguarding? He pretty much invented that too, on one fateful day in 1925, swimming out into ferocious, trawler-sinking surf in the most publicized beach rescue ever, pulling survivors out of the water onto his board and ferrying them ashore, a “superhuman” feat in 25 foot waves that wasn’t the first of his many rescues, nor the last.
To Hawaiians, he was “the living embodiment of ‘aloha,'” and the island chain’s global ambassador to the world for half a century.
A brown man in the Golden Age of White Supremacy, Duke Kahanamoku integrated sports and cultures, Hollywood and even the racist institutions of his home islands with an all-embracing grace that become another piece of his legacy.
“Waterman” is a grand feel-good remembrance of an epic life, a documentary that could make even non-surfers and “haoles” (non-Hawaiians) swell with tearful pride that the human race ever produced this “bronze god” who walked among us and changed the world.
Isaac Halasima’s film has interviews with descendants, historians and researchers, as well as surfers and surfing historians recalling the Duke’s exploits and influence on everything from Hawaiian tourism to the invention of “extreme sports.” There are recreations of several of these events as well.
The film is framed within a 1950s episode of the famous “This is Your Life” TV biography series, and has radio and TV interviews with Duke dating back to the early 1950s. We see newsreel footage and still shots from Olympics, from his landmark visits to Australia and New Zealand. There’s a generous sampling of his Hollywood film work, where they never let him become a leading man, only to turn his friend, the swimming champion who finally surpassed him in the Olympics, Johnny Weissmuller, into Tarzan, a screen icon of the 1930s and ’40s.
The film begins with a montage of Hawaiian history set to animation, and ends a funeral that brought all of the islands to a halt in mourning. All along the way, we see a new surfboard “shaped,” the old, traditional hand-carved way, from raw lumber to work of art.
And it has Aquaman himself, Hawaiian hunk Jason Momoa, narrating the story of this extraordinary yet humbly-lived life.
A contemporary of Native American Olympian Jim Thorpe, Kahanamoku inspired a “Chariots of Fire” moment of Olympic sportsmanship, and provided more red letter dates for his respective sports than anyone you can name.
Although the film is quite sloppy with dates in its intertitles, it makes a fine introduction to a larger than life figure’s extraordinary public career and is the best argument yet for giving the “the “Big Kahuna” and icon a big screen biography.
Rating: unrated, PG
Cast: Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller, Kelly Slater, Kelia Moniz, Carissa Moore, Laird Hamilton and Ha’a Keaulana, narrated by Jason Momoa.
Credits: Directed by Isaac Halasima, based on the book “Water: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku,” by David Davis.
Running time: 1:32