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“Charlie Don’t Surf!”: ‘Apocalypse Now’ and What Surfing Means to America

How Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius used the Vietnam War and surf culture to showcase dying American exceptionalism

Getty Images/United Artists/Ringer illustration

There isn’t a more harrowing film about filmmaking than Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. All of the legends about the production of Apocalypse Now center on Francis Ford Coppola, who during the course of a year-long shoot in the Philippines mutated from the most promising young director of the New Hollywood to a cautionary tale before his time—from Willard to Kurtz. Of all the ways to read Coppola’s film, a painful allegory about the perils of operating outside of studio marching orders isn’t the worst way to go. Hearts of Darkness is an unbearably intimate behind-the-scenes account of the various catastrophes—natural and man-made, and most beyond even Coppola’s maestro-like control—that beset the crew from the moment they touched down in Manila. That the movie was ever completed, much less wrestled into something like a masterpiece by a team of four editors, is a testament to true disaster artistry. Wild, ambitious, uncompromised, and ultimately as imperfect as the Godfather films were scrupulously controlled, Apocalypse Now is, for better and for worse, its director’s defining work: How do you live up to something like that? Or live it down?

That said, Coppola is only one of the authors of Apocalypse Now. Another voice cuts through its cacophony of gunfire, Creedence, and Wagner with equal strength—the snarling machismo of screenwriter John Milius, the militant mascot of the California chapter of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls gang (and, among other quirks, supposedly the inspiration for John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski). He was an uncredited writer on Dirty Harry and Jaws, and his scripts for Jeremiah Johnson and The Wind and the Lion traded in mythic masculinity and violence—all of which was just a warm-up for his “the Commies are coming” magnum opus Red Dawn in 1984. Milius was Coppola’s first choice to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the screen. He knew what he was getting into: Supposedly, Coppola told his friend to put “every scene you’ve ever wanted to go in a movie” in his script.

This advice might account for why Apocalypse Now has so many distinctive, stand-alone set pieces: it’s more like a series of episodes than a sustained narrative, and at least one of its stars—Marlon Brando—seems to be acting in his own short film. More specifically, Milius’s green light explains why, in the midst of an intense, grotesque Vietnam War picture rooted in paranoid geopolitics and Joseph Campbell–style monomythology, there is an extended, weirdly comic segment featuring a troupe of surfing Marines. No matter how many times you watch Apocalypse Now, it’s a supremely weird turn, as if Beach Blanket Bingo had broken out in the middle of The Green Berets.

“My religion is surfing,” Milius said in 1976. He put his money—or at least Warner Bros.’ money—where his faith was two years later in Big Wednesday, an autobiographical coming-of age drama set in the 1960s about a trio of friends whose bonds are strengthened and tested out on the waves. Taken together, Big Wednesday and Apocalypse Now make for an uneven but matched set. In the former, the Vietnam War looms in the background as the greatest threat to the characters’ laid-back stateside lifestyle (we see the heroes trying to dodge the draft, and the plot turns on one of them dying overseas).

In Apocalypse Now, Milius transported the style and syntax of surf culture —its insistence on pleasure and brotherhood—to the front lines, resulting in a 15-minute passage more quotable, mysterious, and visually indelible than many entire movies (including Big Wednesday). The offscreen legacy of the surfing sequence is fascinating: In a 2013 piece for the BBC, Kate McGeown explains how the Northern Philippines fishing village of Baler became a surfing mecca after the locals observed Apocalypse Now’s cast and crew at work. The bay nicknamed “Charlie’s Point” in the film has been transformed into a tourist hotspot of the same name.

“Charlie don’t surf!” scoffs Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore, a hardass whose surname is both a nod to Kurt Vonnegut and a Kubrickian joke out of Dr. Strangelove: The threat of brutal violence is coded into the two syllables of “Kilgore.” Which is why it’s so discombobulating (and hilarious) that this staunch alpha-male type’s true love is surfing, a laid-back pursuit more associated with a free-loving hippie ethos than the military-industrial complex that the Summer-of-Lovers styled themselves against. That same confusion—or is it simply an expression of duality?— haunts the movie as a whole, filled as is it is with self-divided characters who can’t quite reconcile duty and identity. If anything, Kilgore seems to know himself better than Martin Sheen’s off-kilter Willard or Marlon Brando’s incoherently philosophizing Kurtz.

The line “Charlie don’t surf” was conceived by Milius in response to a quote made by Ariel Sharon during the Six-Day War, when, while skin diving in enemy territory, he told the Israeli soldiers in his deployment “we’re eating their fish.” Sharon’s boast was a declaration of violent appropriation: what’s theirs is now ours. But as so brilliantly delivered by Duvall, who was never more in the zone than when acting for Coppola, “Charlie Don’t Surf” becomes a kind of Zen koan while simultaneously reinforcing the concept of “us versus them,” recasting American exceptionalism as a form of adolescent joy riding. The implication is that “Charlie” doesn’t know what he’s missing.

The hang-ten mysticism belongs to Milius, while the ingenious juxtaposition of helicopters, napalm, and “The Ride of the Valkyries” soon thereafter is pure Coppola, instantly yoking the visual and musical language of fascism to Kilgore’s insistence on “fun fun fun.” (A shot of surfboards being loaded onto the side of a chopper before it takes off is an insert worth a thousand words). “I’m not afraid to surf this place,” Kilgore adds, a boast that speaks to his hardened warrior’s spirit without accounting for whether or not he has any right to be there in the first place.

Crucially, Apocalypse Now doesn’t undermine Kilgore by having him or any of his men come to harm in the middle of their surfing excursion. Instead, the wave-riding Marines are permitted their moment of glory. It’s the last glimpse of all-American cockiness and confidence before the wheels fall off both the protagonist’s mission and the accompanying mindset that Vietnam is simply there for the taking. As Apocalypse Now goes on, the “Surfin’ U.S.A.” mentality is kept alive primarily by Lance (Sam Bottoms), the most avowedly countercultural member of the crew, as well as its only professional surfer (which is why Kilgore embraces him on sight) and most enthusiastic recreational substance abuser. It may be telling that this beach bum is one of the only two survivors of Willard’s mission, hinting that Kilgore was on to something after all.