Charlie Don't Surf: The story of the movie quote in "Apocalypse Now"
- 08 March 2018 | Surfing
"Charlie Don't Surf" is one of the greatest and most popular movie lines of all time. But that does it really mean?
The iconic movie quote can be heard in "Apocalypse Now," an intense and literally explosive 1979 war film written by John Milius and directed by Francis Coppola.
"Apocalypse Now" features an impressive cast which includes Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Larry Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper.
The movie depicts the journey of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) across Vietnam. He is on a mission to find and kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who went mad during the Vietnam War.
American soldiers often referred to their Viet Cong enemies as "VC," the initials for the NATO phonetic code words "Victor Charlie."
When the troops wanted to talk about both the Viet Cong and Vietnamese communists in general, they would simply refer to them "Charlie."
At a certain point in the movie, Captain Willard meets gunner's mate Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), a blonde, former pro surfer from Southern California who loves taking acid.
They rendezvous with Lieutenant Colonel William "Bill" Kilgore (Robert Duvall), another enthusiastic surfer, and a group of wave riding fanatics begins to take shape.
As they prepare for a decisive ambush, Kilgore instructs a subordinate to get his 8'6 Yater Spoon surfboard. A major objects: "it's pretty hairy in there. It's Charlie's Point!"
But Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore replies promptly and confidently: "Charlie don't surf!"
In one of the most striking and Homeric moments of "Apocalypse Now," the helicopter attack destroys a VC village. When the troops land, Kilgore orders Lance and his men to surf the local waves.
For obvious reasons, the wave riding scenes in "Apocalypse Now" were not filmed in Vietnam.
The famous and memorable surfing moments in the movie were shot at Baler Beach, in the Philippines. At the time, the film production left behind a few surfboards which local kids used to learn how to surf.
A few years after "Apocalypse Now" became a cult movie, the real Charlie's Point became a tourist attraction, and the break became the capital of surfing in the Philippines.
The Inspiration for a Memorable Movie Quote
John Milius later revealed that the expression "Charlie Don't Surf" was inspired by a comment made by former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon during the Six-Day War of 1967.
Apparently, after winning a battle in Aqaba, Sharon went spear diving, shot some fish, ate them with his crew, and said: "we're eating their fish," as if saying "we got here, destroyed everything, and now we're also taking your fish."
With "Charlie Don't Surf," the screenplay writer wanted to get the same message to the audience - we've killed them, and now we're taking their waves.
John Milius stated that he wanted to underline Vietnam War's West Coast touch, mainly because "our culture was centered at this time in California, with the hippies and everything."
He even took Robert Duvall to Malibu so that the actor could see what a cutback was, and listen to the classic surfer's talk.
A Surf-Inspired War Film That Influenced Future Generations
With a budget of $31.5 million, "Apocalypse Now" ended up becoming a highly profitable and unique war film with multiple references to surfing and surf culture, including the following gems from Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore:
"You either surf or fight. That clear?"
"What the hell do you know about surfing? You're from goddamned New Jersey!"
"We do a lot of surfing around here, Lance. I like to finish operations early, fly down to Yung Tau for the evening glass. Been riding since you got here?"
"If I say it's safe to surf this beach Captain, it's safe to surf this beach! I mean, I'm not afraid to surf this place! I'll surf this fucking place!"
The truth is that the unforgettable quote "Charlie Don't Surf" went on to inspire people and activities. The line is also the name of:
1. A song in "Sandinista!," a 1980 album by The Clash;
2. Several American and European bands;
3. A 1997 art installation by Italian sculpturer Maurizio Cattelan;
4. A restaurant in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada;
5. A fictional London restaurant in William Gibson's 2003 novel "Pattern Recognition";
6. An episode name of "Numb3rs" and "The Commish";
7. A song in "Memory and Humanity," a 2008 album by Funeral For a Friend;
8. A level in the console video game "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare";