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Between the Lines

DVD produced by Ty Ponder, Scott Bass and Troy Page, Pure Frustration Productions LLC, narrated by John Milius, 52 minutes, release date April 15, 2009, 29.95. Limited edition companion book from Headline Graphics, $39.95,

I thought I’d heard just about every kind of off-the-wall story about Americans’ experiences in Vietnam, having written about the war and its veterans for more than three decades. Then, last year, I read Craig Venter’s memoir A Life Decoded. That’s when I learned that Venter—the internationally renowned scientist who led a team that unveiled the sequencing of the human genome in 2001—spent his off hours as a Da Nang Navy Hospital corpsman body surfing, board surfing, sailing and swimming at China Beach.

Surfing? Before that, all I’d known about surfing in Vietnam came from the memorable helicopter assault scene in Francis Ford Copolla’s Apocalypse Now. That’s when the insane Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duval) dresses down a young trooper who questions Kilgore’s order to Lance “the Surfer” Johnson and other First Cav soldier/surfers to hit the waves in a Viet Cong–infested area. You know the scene, the one punctuated by Kilgore’s iconic line: “Charlie don’t surf!”

But Apocalypse Now was a made-up Hollywood movie; Venter’s story was true. He had pictures to prove it.

Which brings us to Between the Lines, the surprisingly enlightening and evocative new documentary film that looks at the Vietnam War primarily through the lives of California surfers Pat Farley and Brant Page. Farley, like Venter, was drafted off his surfboard and sent to Vietnam. He did not see a surfboard in Vietnam, but did see combat at its worst from his first day in the field. Farley today still rides the wild surf in California, but is haunted by what he went through in the war.

Page, like hundreds of thousands of others, took measures to avoid serving and—in his case—to keep surfing. He moved to Hawaii and lived a vaga bond life for years until the draft caught up with him. Page, who purposely failed his physical, still surfs in Hawaii, and has no regrets today for his draft dodging.

The film uses Farley and Page’s stories as touchstones to shed light on the wider phenomenon of surfing in the Vietnam War. Filmmakers Ty Ponder, Scott Bass and Troy Page also look at GI lifeguards at the in-country R&R spots (Nha Trang, Vung Tau and China Beach at Cam Ranh Bay) who used their surfboards to save American lives and who encouraged recreating GIs to hit the waves. The film, narrated by John Milius (Apocalypse Now co-writer) makes excellent use of archival footage, including GIs surfing at China Beach and elsewhere in South Vietnam, along with a good deal of present-day interviews.

It may focus on surfing, but Between the Lines tells a broader story of the Vietnam War—how America’s most controversial overseas conflict permanently affected the lives of a generation of men who came of military age from 1965-72. The movie also happens to have a lot of cool shots of guys shooting the curl from California to the South China Sea. And some really boss surfing music.

The film has an accompanying 164-page, full-color coffee table book and an extensive Web site.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here