Happy 65th Anniversary to The D.I.!

“Private Owens! Was the sand flea you killed male or female?”

“Male, sir!”

“Then this ain’t it. Keep looking.”

Technical Sergeant Jim Moore is a drill instructor at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina. Every 12 weeks, he’s handed a new collection of lads (mostly) just out of high school, and he’s given a straightforward task: Mold them over the course of those 12 weeks into basically trained, Mark 1-Mod 0 United States Marines.

Every training platoon usually comes with at least one individual who proves more challenging than his fellow recruits; someone who seems unable to do anything correctly despite what may or may not be their best effort. The D.I.’s job is to push through all of that resistance and help that recruit meet their goal of earning the title, “United States Marine.”

Some days, the job seems impossible. Some days, the recruit seems like a lost cause. Some days, it just seems easier to sign the papers.

D.I.’s don’t take the easy way, even when their latest challenge is Private Owens.

“I see you eye-balling me, boy.”

Released on this date in 1957, The D.I. stars the legendary Jack Webb, who by this point had already secured himself a future place in the pantheon of entertainment and pop culture greats with his portrayal of Detective Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet, the radio drama and follow-on television series he created in 1949.

The film was developed as something of a counterpoint to numerous other attempts at making a film based on the Marine Corps at this point in time. A year earlier, the Corps received a well-earned black eye after a tragic training accident in which six recruits drowned while their platoon conducted a night march through a swamp at Parris Island. Several film producers wanted the Corps’ help in making a movie about the accident, and Marine officials were understandably reluctant to walk into that particular minefield.

Enter Webb, and a story treatment he’d developed based on “The Murder of A Sand Flea,” a teleplay for an episode of Kraft Television Theatre which aired on NBC in October 1956. James Lee Barrett, himself a Marine veteran who’d undergone recruit training at Parris Island, had written the teleplay and expanded his script for the new film. The story did much to showcase Marines and send a positive vibe that was sorely needed at that point in time, so the Marine Corps endorsed and provided technical assistance to the project.

Don Dubbins portrays Private Owens, Moore’s “nemesis” throughout the film. Young and possessing at least some potential while also (we learn later) carrying a lot of personal baggage, the poor dude can’t seem to get it together. Moore’s commanding officer, Captain Anderson, wants to send the kid home, but Moore sees something in Owens worth salvaging. He’s going to make a Marine out of the boy if it’s the last thing he does, and so on and so forth.

The influence of the Marine Corp’s technical assistance is obvious throughout the film. Some of the movie was filmed aboard Camp Pendleton in California, and several active duty Marines – a few of them drill instructors, themselves – portrayed recruits T/Sgt Moore is charged with training. Webb himself certainly looks the part. Marines in general are known for their obsessive attention to detail when it comes to their uniforms (Can I get a witness from the congregation?), and drill instructors take that to a whole other level. Here, Webb sports a Marine uniform with creases that can draw blood and a stack of ribbons hinting at a fairly impressive military career, along with narrow eyes peering out from beneath his iconic drill instructor’s “Smokey Bear” campaign cover.

Outside of Dragnet, The D.I. is perhaps Jack Webb’s most enduring performance, but it also showcases his abilities as a director and producer. Principal photography took place during March 1957, lasting just 23 days. To meet the May 5th release date set by Warner Bros., Webb edited as filming progressed, balancing that with the shooting schedule along with his own acting on camera. Good thing he didn’t have to create CGI monsters or zombies or a horde of Nazis, amirite?

Anyone familiar with Jack Webb won’t be surprised by his straightlaced, near-deadpan performance and rapid-fire delivery of dialogue. Yes, he channels more than a bit of Joe Friday into the mix, but he actually kicks things up a notch here with an added hint of…well, “menace” isn’t really the right word here. “Determination?” Even more so than Friday? Yeah, I think so. He lightens up in scenes not involving recruits or training (and there’s even a quick fist fight!), offering a glimpse into the human side of those who often work longer and harder hours than the recruits they train. There’s even a bit of humor, most notably the scene where Owens commits the cardinal sin of killing a sand flea that’s bitten him, and Moore sending the entire platoon out to find the “murdered” sand flea’s body.

(For those wondering, the sand fleas at Parris Island are indeed a legend all their own.)

However, those hoping Jack Webb might turn in a performance on par with the late, great R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket or even Louis Gossett, Jr. from An Officer and A Gentleman will be disappointed. The D.I. is a film for (mostly) all ages, so there are, for example, no scenes of T/Sgt Moore threatening to “skull-fuck” Private Owens. Further, while the film does a credible job showing the ins and outs of Marine recruit training, it is of course toned down more than a tad from what happens in reality. And of course the ending is more than a little schmaltzy. Because of bits and bobs like this, all of which are totally understandable for a film produced in 1957, The D.I. can come off a bit hokey when viewed through a modern lens. Interestingly, the movie tanked at the box office, despite being one of those movies that’s almost immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the genre of miltary/war films. I have a definite soft spot for it, the way I still love Sands of Iwo Jima and various other military/war (and not military/war) films from the 1940s and 50s.

For one thing, the film is an indelible memory from my own recruit training. The D.I. was the only – and I mean the only – non-training film shown in the barracks the entire time I was aboard Parris Island. I remember at least a half-dozen instances, most of them early on Sunday mornings, when this was on the “instructional TV.” On those days, our training schedule was throttled back for a few hours so that recruits who wished to do so could attend religious services, while the rest of us wrote letters home, cleaned rifles or other gear, or studied without too much flak from the drill instructors. This was in 1985, and I have no idea if it’s still a thing. Someone with more recent experience will have to let me know what’s on the TV docket, these days.

“I have a headache, sir.”

“You don’t have a headache. Only your drill instructor is allowed to have headaches. I have 72 of them.”

Happy 65th, T/Sgt Moore. Semper Fi.

2 thoughts on “Happy 65th Anniversary to The D.I.!

  1. “Just the flak, ma’am.”

    Sorry, that just popped in there when I saw Jack Webb. Jack Webb?! I have no memory of this film, but I haven’t followed military films that much. I never served, and my dad was out of the Navy 20 years before I was born. Anyway, thanks for the review and remembrances!

    Liked by 1 person

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