Charlie don’t surf is one of the most iconic movie quotes of all time.
It comes from the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now (on Amazon), and it’s spoken by Colonel Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall.
But what does the quote mean and what’s the story behind it?
The Meaning of “Charlie Don’t Surf”
US soldiers referred to the Viet Cong using the initials “VC”. In the phonetic alphabet, “VC” is “Victor Charlie”, and so the enemy was often referred to as “Charlie”.
At one point in the movie, Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, meets Lance B. Johnson, played by Sam Bottoms.
Lance is a pro surfer from CA and when the two meet with William “Bill” Kilgore (Robert Duval), we are introduced to many of the film’s classic surfing lines.
The scene in question occurs as the soldiers are sitting around the camp and Kilgore instructs someone to get his surfboard.
One of the other soldiers objects, saying that “it’s pretty hairy in there. It’s Charlie’s Point!”, after which Kilgore shouts the famous line.
The troops are later ordered by Kilgore to surf the waves.
These scenes were actually shot in the Philippines and the location is now popular with tourists from all over the world.
The Origin of “Charlie Don’t Surf”
John Milius, who wrote the script for Apocalypse Now, later said that the quote was inspired by a speech given by a former Israeli Prime Minister, in which he said that he went fishing after winning a battle on enemy soil.
The idea is that they first killed their men and won the battle, and then they enjoyed the bounty of the land.
In this sense, “Charlie don’t surf” is saying, “We’ll kill you, destroy your land, and surf your waves”.
What Made Apocalypse Now so Popular?
Apocalypse Now was loosely based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, a novella written in 1899 about a journey up the Congo River.
It gave viewers a bleak insight into the realities of war and the brutality of the Vietnam conflict in particular, but more importantly, it combined a brilliant script and some of the best minds of a generation.
After all, we’re talking about a film that was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, a multi-Academy-Award-winning director in his prime, and featured a cast of stars such as Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishbourne, Martin Sheen, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, and Frederic Forrest.
If we exclude Apocalypse Now and include all films produced in proceeding years, those actors share 3 Academy Awards and 15 nominations between them.
It also had a fantastic soundtrack backed by The Rolling Stones and had cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, who was given an Oscar for his efforts and won another two in the following decade.
All of these elements came together to produce a fantastic film, and one that has endured for several decades.
Other Classic Movie Quotes from Apocalypse Now
“Charlie don’t surf” might be the quote that surfers remember the most from Ford Coppola’s iconic film, but it’s far from the only memorable quote, as this list shows:
Capt. Willard: “Terminate the Colonel?”. Civilian Intelligence Official: “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”