“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” shouts a shirtless Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. Bombs are going off everywhere; enemy artillery whizzes by; it’s a scene of sheer chaos. Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) and his men are checking a surf break while in the midst of a ferocious Vietcong onslaught. And while his charges are acting as one typically would in such a situation – ducking for cover, cowering in their boots – all Duvall’s character can think about is surfing the A-frame wave breaking just offshore.
The inclusion of a surf scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now seems like a strange choice since the rest of the film is filled with blood, war, and the madness that accompanies seeing those atrocities. It’s a movie about a military commander gone AWOL and a crew who is sent to find him on an assassination mission. Yet here’s a bare-chested Robert Duvall stoking like a grom on a fun little peak.
Fun fact: Coppola’s chance addition of surfing in Apocalypse Now was the region’s introduction to the sport. Filmed in the small fishing town of Baler, Philippines, the surfing scene was the locals’ first introduction to surfing. Now, 25 years later, the area has a rich surfing community and the surf spot still retains the name from the movie, Charlie’s Point (Charlie is military jargon for enemy). Once the crew wrapped up filming in the area, they reportedly left a few boards behind for the curious locals. Since then, surfing has spread across the island nation, making Francis Ford Coppola the de facto father of Philippine surfing. Through the joy of riding waves, two disparate cultures were able to find commonality.
But the surf scene was bizarre as they come. The battlefield backdrop paired with the Lieutenant Kilgore’s blasé surf check creates a sense of delusion – Duvall’s character acts like he’s casually scoping the waves at his local spot when actually, at any moment, he could be blown to bits. Despite the unlikelihood of such a demeanor while under fire, the scene does show hints of actual surfer behavior. When the chance to surf exceptional waves comes along, we often become blinded by everything else. We call in sick. We piss off our significant others. We hop on a plane, leaving our day-to-day world behind us, and head to the exotic ends of the earth.
Apocalypse Now takes us to those strange and wonderful places though not to surf perfect waves. The mission of the film – which is based of off Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness – is to submerge the viewer into the dark horrors (“The horror!”) of war. But bits and pieces of the five-hour-long triumphant of celluloid bear resemblance to the life of a surfer. Relentless devotion to a cause – check. Blindness to the world in pursuit of said cause – check. Getting skunked along the way – check. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and his crew are like a posse of tube-hungry travelers, roaming a foreign land with hopes of stocking up on stoke before returning to their families and the daily grind. Only instead of the post surf trip blues, Willard returns with life-crippling PTSD.
Whereas Willard’s dedication to killing Colonel Kurtz can be related to surfer’s undying thirst for waves, the main takeaway (for surfers at least) from Apocalypse Now lies in the after effects of the film. When Hollywood arrived in a remote part of the Philippines, they were aliens. But when they packed up and went home to their mansions, they left behind a cultural bridge. The surfboards they gave the locals transcended skin color, dialect, and culture. To this day, the locals in the small fishing town of Baler, Philippines have upheld the foreign tradition of surfing. Now if we can just get the world’s leaders to share a love for surfing – drop the debate for a second, hit the beach for a surf, and then enjoy a burrito and a beer afterwards – we’d undoubtedly have far fewer wars. Drop soft-tops, not bombs!