The film that birthed a country’s surfing culture

By Joy Pacis

As the fictional Col. Kilgore rode the waves of Baler during the filming of Apocalypse Now, one of the most powerful and moving films about the Vietnam War, he enjoined his men to do the same. The surf-mad fictional colonel who surfed as bombs fell all around him told his men “Charlie don’t surf” to goad them into picking their surfboards and doing the same. 

“Charlie” was the derogatory name given to the Viet Cong guerrillas in the award-winning film. With that statement, Kilgore implied that the Vietcong, at least the fictional ones, were less daring. (Of course, we know the historical  truth. The war in Vietnam shattered the view on American military power and supposed invincibility.)

The film – with the unforgettable surfing scene shot on a lonely spot, past Baler’s now-famous Sabang Beach – is now considered one of the best war films ever created. It helped cement the reputation of Francis Ford Coppola as one of the 20th century’s best film directors. 

Apocalypse Now, released in 1979 to critical acclaim and success at the box office, won multiple awards for Coppola and the film’s main characters. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of the deranged Col. Kurtz, borrowed from the insanity and the madness of the characters in Joseph Conrad’s “Hearth of Darkness,” is now considered a classic. 

That unforgettable surfing scene, without intending to, however, also birthed the surfing culture in the Philippines.

The kids who came down to the filming site almost everyday to watch the making of Apocalypse Now were witnesses to big, white men riding the waves with their boards. It was a fascinating thing to watch – foreign surfers catching the waves then riding them – something the natives did not know was possible.

As the crew packed to head home and the last fake Vietnamese village was demolished, the young Baler kids awed by the surfing of the departing strangers picked up the left-behind surfboards.

One such kid was Edwin Nomoro, then ten years old, according to an account of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 

“When the filming finished, some of the crew left their surfboards behind, and my friends and I picked up the boards and taught ourselves how to surf. We have been surfing ever since,” Nomoro told BBC.

The young surfers’ starting point was the same spot past Sabang Beach where the fictional Col. Kilgore rode the waves. The place later got a name – Charlie’s Point – from the fictional colonel’s famous line in the war movie.

As the young kids gained confidence with their boards, word spread about surfing in Baler, particularly at Charlie’s Point. That was the birth of surfing in the Philippines, a legacy of Apocalypse Now on the quiet capital town of the then sub-province of Aurora. 

Veteran surfers like Nomoro bristle at the idea that some place else, in La Union or in Surigao, started the country’s surfing culture.

“Baler is the birthplace of surfing,” said Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara, a native of the place and an enthusiastic promoter of Baler tourism. 

Young men and women from the urban areas with nothing but backpacks and a sense of adventure came in trickles to Baler and soon got caught in the surfing culture. Then, foreigners also came for the same purpose.

The beautiful beaches of Baler and the neighboring towns, plus the sense of adventure and history that Baler offers to visitors, complemented the surfing sites. Soon, Baler became one of the country’s tourist attractions.

Last year alone, Senator Angara noted, close to 1.3 million domestic and foreign tourist arrivals were recorded by Aurora tourism officials. For comparison, in 2007, just more than 10,000 tourists visited Aurora. 

Of course, Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando, and Martin Sheen are distant memories here. And a film that depicted war as an act of lunacy, mayhem, and darkness is barely remembered by the surfers at Charlie’s Point.

But still, two facts cannot be disputed. The surfing culture in Baler had its genesis in Apocalypse Now, and that Charlie’s Point is an iconic spot in the sport and adventure chronicles of the country.

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