The origin of the most quoted line in ‘Good Will Hunting’
(Credit: Netflix)


The origin of the most quoted line in ‘Good Will Hunting’

It’s the kind of moment we all dream of but rarely experience in real life: the scene in Good Will Hunting where the titular hero, played by Matt Damon, flawlessly delivers a zinger to humiliate his obnoxious rival during a night out.

After the rival in question, a Harvard student, patronises Will’s friend Chuckie, Will steps in to put him in his place. In doing so, he grabs the attention of the girl both Mr Harvard and Chuckie were trying to chat up. Later in the evening, Will leaves the bar with her number.

Walking away from the bar, he catches sight of the Harvard student in the window. He knocks on the glass and asks, “Do you like apples?”. The student replies, “Yes,” perplexed. “Well, I got her number,” Will boasts. “How do you like them apples?”

Most people will have come across this expression for the first time here, in this very scene. Good Will Hunting is certainly responsible for embedding the phrase into popular culture. Since the film’s release, it’s been parodied in countless TV shows, from Freaks and Geeks to The Office. It’s been used in stand-up comedy routines and even apple-based recipes.

Apples falling further from the tree

But the expression “How do you like them apples?” has a much longer history, not least in cinema itself. Jack Nicholson utters it in the 1974 neo-noir classic Chinatown. If Nicholson didn’t come up with the line himself off the cuff, screenwriter Robert Towne very likely had a direct inspiration for it from another movie.

Towne, who had previously worked on the script for the western A Time for Killing, would have been familiar with Howard Hawks’ 1959 movie Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne. In the movie, he launches a two-inch medium trench mortar bomb known as a “toffee apple” at the enemy. As he does so, he says the line both Nicholson and Damon would later come to use.

Rio Bravo undoubtedly got the line “How do you like them apples?” from the origin of the “toffee apple” bomb itself. The weapon, also known as a “two-inch howitzer” or “plum pudding”, was invented by British forces during World War I to counter similar German trench mortars. 

The mortar bomb acquired the nickname “toffee apple” because of its small, circular barrel mounted on a stick-like catapult system. It was often painted yellow to give it an even greater resemblance to the candied autumnal treat.

As soldiers launched this pocket-sized bomb into enemy territory, they began shouting, “How do you like them apples?” as a joke reference to its appearance.

How toffee apples became candy apples

It’s possible that since American soldiers joined the Western Front in 1917, they were able to take the joke back across the pond. Alternatively, the American use of the line may have originated directly with Jules Furthman, the screenwriter for Rio Bravo. Before his career in the film industry, Furthman was a magazine and newspaper reporter. During World War I, he wrote under the pen name Stephen Fox to disguise his German heritage.

In any case, “them apples” travelled a long, roundabout way to make it into Damon and Ben Affleck’s script for Good Will Hunting. The line may not be Damon’s favourite from the movie, but it’s certainly a strong candidate for the one that’s had the biggest cultural impact since its release.