The Inertia

Yeah, we all know they never get it right. Or don’t they? Culled from the scripts of virtually every Hollywood surf-themed movie, or significant surfing scene, alongside the excruciatingly overwrought, stilted, pretentious, ridiculous-sounding, no-surfer-would-ever-talk-that-way dialog, are a few examples that, when presented in the proper context, pretty much hit the mark. My top 10 list includes both varieties, ranked in order of absurdity and significance. 

10. “Watch Batman trimming…the Joker’s shuffling, now he’s cutting back to meet the curl!” Robin, from Surf’s up! Joker’s Under!, 1967 

The industry logline of an episode of the “Batman” TV series titled Surfs Up! Joker’s Under! goes something like this: “Joker plans to become the king of surfing, hoping the fame will give him control over the hearts and minds of Gotham City. He captures top surfer Skip Parker, then uses his “Surfing Experience and Ability Transferometer to transfer the needed skills and stamina from Skip to himself. ” And if you can’t believe you just read that, imagine how I felt writing it.

9. “You still haven’t figured out what riding waves is all about, have you? It’s a state of mind. It’s that place where you lose yourself and find yourself.”

Bodhi, Pointbreak, 1991

Have you ever heard a surfer speak like this? Have you ever spoken like this, as did actor Patrick Swayze, playing groovy surfer-turned-bank robber Bodhi, while strolling along the beach with a beginner surfer he’d just met (played by Keanu Reeves)? Where screenwriters get these ideas I’ll never know, but in contrast with this sort of bombast, consider how the great Gerry Lopez responded, when recently asked to describe the remarkable experience of riding in the tube at Pipeline. “I don’t know,” he said. “It just felt good.” Give the man an Oscar.

8. “It will be a swell so big and strong it will wipe clean everything that went before it. And that’s when Matt and Jack and LeRoy, they can distinguish themselves.”

Bear, from Big Wednesday, 1978

If any single line of dialog characterizes why legendary writer/director John Milius’ Big Wednesday bombed at the box office, this is the one. Turned out attempting to equate in tone an aging Matt Johnson surfing a big south swell at Malibu with T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) storming the desert stronghold of Aqaba on camelback wasn’t the best idea. And it’s not like Milius didn’t know better. Consider the scene where the two old friends meet in the lineup after years apart. “Been surfing much?” asks Jack. “Only when I need to,” says Matt. Pitch perfect.

7. “What would you say if I told you that there’s a wave out there, that by the time it hits this little island off Mexico, will be massive. And all I can think about is riding it.”

Shane, In God’s Hands, 1998

Written by renowned surf journalist Matt George, the script of In God’s Hands, a buddy movie loosely structured around the tow-versus-paddle rift, featured some pretty stiff lines, especially when uttered by its leading cast of actual surfers, including Darrick Doerner, Shaun Tomson, Brian Keaulana and Matty Liu. But when the Shane character, played by the redoubtable Shane Dorian, spoke the words above, he did so with a method actor’s aplomb, channeling, no doubt, ambitions related to the next phase of his illustrious career, waiting to take shape at a massive wave called Peahi.

6. “Are you kidding? My sister could look good at Haleiwa.” 

Charlie, Ride the Wild Surf, 1964

In this American International Pictures classic, the best Hollywood movie about surfing ever made, the cringe-worthy green screen action sequences can be forgiven in light of the fantastic surfing footage incorporated into the film – most notably the surfing of Mickey Dora, a North Shore neophyte who, doubling for lead actor Fabian, made a fine account for himself. But even better was the spot-on, decidedly macho (and now outdated) North Shore aesthetic that dialog like this exemplified, this being decades before surfers like Ēwelei’ula Wong hit the Hale’iwa lineup.

5. “Nobody listens to Turtle.” And “You’ve got a single fin mentality, Chandler. I need a big board with a lot more rocker.”

Turtle and Lance Burkhart, North Shore, 1987

I’ve included two quotes from the same film on the list because of how each so demonstrably contrasts the other. When surfer/actor John Philbin, playing the oft-dismissed character “Turtle,” offered his line of dialog as a lament, he did so with perfect conviction and believability. When surfer/surfer Laird Hamilton, playing surf bully Lance Burkhart, spoke his line, he came across about as stiff as the single fins his character was lamenting about. Still, you got to hand it to Mr. Hamilton, who inhabited his role well enough to be mistaken for Burkhart for years after the film’s release.

4. “A beach bum. And all this time you lied to me. I’m not going to let you make the same mistake I did, work your fingers to the bone while he goes off joy riding on the waves. Then in the end, he’ll leave you and break your heart.”

Mrs. Kilua, Ride the Wild Surf, 1964

If anyone tells you Hollywood always gets surf wrong, direct them to this scene, in which single North Shore mom Mrs. Kilua, upon learning that her hapa-haole daughter is secretly going out with a mainland surfer, lays out the pitfalls of a relationship like this with a scornful vehemence that should bring chills to any salty, barefoot cad who’s ever had to face an angry, potential mother-in-law. The next three quotes on the list are epic; none are more realistic 

3. “All I need is some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.”

Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982

Without question, the finest impression of a surfer, ever. That a young Sean Penn actually surfed added a level of authenticity to the role of archetypal surf/stoner Jeff Spicoli, yet it was his tone-perfect delivery that had many tuned-in viewers convinced that Penn wasn’t an actor, but had simply been picked up at random from underneath the Huntington Beach Pier. Later going on to become one of his generation’s most brilliant, and equally difficult actors, Penn’s performance as Spicoli was certainly the most effortless of his career. 

2. “That’s right. I’m a beach bum. You know, ride the waves, eat, sleep, not a care in the world.”

Kahoona, Gidget, 1959

Some might wonder why this fairly innocuous statement is the penultimate quote on the list, topping some of the more iconic entries. It’s because when in this 1959 box office smash actor Cliff Robertson’s “Kahoona” gave this flippant answer to Gidget’s incredulous, “You mean, you don’t work, or anything?” it was the broader world’s very first introduction to surfing’s counter-culture aesthetic, establishing a stereotype that has not only endured throughout the decades, but has been almost religiously cultivated ever since Gidget was released. It’s history’s most influential Hollywood surf movie quote.

1.“Charlie Don’t Surf!”

Col. Kilgore, Apocalypse Now, 1979

I could tell you that this quote stands above the rest in the manner in which it so succinctly, and effectively, articulates the obsessive nature of die-hard surfers, in that an Army colonel serving during the Vietnam War would actually risk his life and that of his outfit just to surf a prime peak located in enemy territory, while at the same time graphically serving as a metaphor for the absurdity of said conflict. But I should probably defer to Steven Spielberg, who in the documentary Hollywood Don’t Surf flatly stated, “‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ – I thought that was one of the most classic lines John [Milius] had ever written.” That clear enough for you?


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