Apocalypse Now: Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore tell his troops that Charlie don't surf

"Charlie Don't Surf" is one of the greatest and most famous movie lines of all time. But what 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, including 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 as "Charlie."

Vietnam War: there's always time for a few waves

Surfing During Wartime

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.

Kilgore instructs a subordinate to get his 8'6 Yater Spoon surfboard as they prepare for a decisive ambush. 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 convey 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 the 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.

Apocalypse Now: surf is where you find it, even in war zones

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 f-----g place!"

The truth is that the memorable 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";

"Apocalypse Now" was shot on several beaches, including Manhattan Beach Pier, Dockweiler State Beach, Hermosa Beach, Cannon Beach, Leo Carrillo (California), Waimea Bay (Hawaii), and Lake Powell (Utah).

Words by Luís MP | Founder of SurferToday.com

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