Director Bruce Brown follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, on a surfing trip around the world. Despite the balmy climate of their native California, cold ocean currents make local beaches inhospitable during the winter. They travel to the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii in a quest for new surf spots and introduce locals to the sport. Other important surfers of the time, such as Miki Dora, Eugene Harris, Phil Edwards and Butch Van Artsdalen, also appear.
Its title comes from the idea, expressed at both the beginning and end of the film, that if one had enough time and money it would be possible to follow the summer around the world, making it endless.
The narrative presentation eases from the stiff and formal documentary of the 1950s and early 1960s to a more casual and fun-loving personal style filled with sly humor. The surf-rock soundtrack to the film was provided by The Sandals. The "Theme to the Endless Summer" was written by Gaston Georis and John Blakeley of the Sandals. It has become one of the best known film themes in the surf movie genre.
When the movie was first shown, it encouraged many surfers to go abroad, giving birth to the "surf-and-travel" culture, which prizes finding "uncrowded surf", meeting new people and riding the perfect wave. It also introduced the sport, which had become popular outside of Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands in places like California and Australia, to a broader audience.
Brown took the Endless Summer to several Hollywood studio distributors but was rejected because they did not think it would have mainstream appeal. In January, he took The Endless Summer to Wichita, Kansas for two weeks where moviegoers lined up in snowy weather in the middle of winter and sold out multiple screenings. Distributors were still not convinced so Brown rented a theater in New York City where his film ran successfully for a year. After the success of the run, Cinema 5 won the distribution rights.
When The Endless Summer debuted, it grossed over US$20 million.
Roger Ebert said, "The beautiful photography he brought home almost makes you wonder if Hollywood hasn't been trying too hard."
Time Magazine wrote, "Brown leaves analysis of the surf-cult mystique to seagoing sociologists, but demonstrates quite spiritedly that some of the brave souls mistaken for beachniks are, in fact, converts to a difficult, dangerous and dazzling sport."
The New York Times' Robert Alden wrote, "The subject matter itself — the challenge and the joy of a sport that is part swimming, part skiing, part sky-diving and part Russian roulette — is buoyant fun."
In 1994, Brown released a sequel, The Endless Summer II, in which surfers Pat O'Connell and Robert "Wingnut" Weaver retrace the steps of Hynson and August. It shows the growth and evolution of the surfing scene since the first film, which presented only classic longboard surfing. O'Connell rides a shortboard, which was developed in the time between the two movies, and there are scenes of windsurfing and bodyboarding. The film illustrates how far surfing had spread, with footage of surf sessions in France, South Africa, Costa Rica, Bali, Java, and Alaska.
In 2000, Dana Brown, Bruce's son, released The Endless Summer Revisited, which consisted of unused footage from the first two films, as well as original cast interviews.