One of the more popular releases in the Warner Archives Collection, The D.I. (1957) was not a box office smash upon its original release but the cult of Jack Webb has grown considerably since then and The D.I. is undiluted, industrial-strength Webb; the star/director/producer is on the screen almost the entire time during this 106 minute marine training drama.
Here’s the gist of it. Sergeant Jim Moore (Webb) has twelve weeks to transform a bunch of undisciplined recruits into model Marines. One recruit in particular – Private Owens (Don Dubbins) – becomes the D.I.’s cross to bear. Moore senses great potential in this confused young man but Owens’ unmotivated attitude is noted by Moore’s commanding officer and the D.I. is given three days to make the recruit shape up or discharge him. Along the way Moore finds time to romance a dress shop clerk (Jackie Loughery) – a subplot obviously intended to humanize the Moore character. More importantly, the reason behind Owens’ puzzling, recalcitrant behavior is revealed toward the end in a private meeting between Moore, his commanding officer and Owens’ mother (Virginia Gregg), the wife of a war hero.
The storyline may be overly familiar but Webb’s spin on it proves that he may be the most overlooked auteur director of his era. He directed five feature films – Dragnet (1954), Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), The D.I. (1957), -30- (1959) and The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961) plus numerous TV series.
If you read the viewer comments on the IMDB listing for The D.I., you’ll notice the many testimonials from former marines who swear by the film’s accuracy and realism in regards to the depiction of intensive training sequences and the behavior of drill instructors. Webb was a stickler for authenticity, something he had already proved with the Dragnet series and its inside look at the inner workings of an urban precinct on a day to day basis. He was all about the details on The D.I. as well.
He shot the film at Camp Del Mar, part of Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in California and a Corps Reserve Center in Pasadena, all of which served as stand-ins for the movie’s actual setting, the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot on Parris Island, South Carolina. Webb also cast real Marines in most of the roles, hiring only a handful of professional actors for the major parts. In addition, he worked closely with Lt. Col. Wyatt Carneal, the film’s technical advisor, to make sure that everything from the uniforms to the weapons to the drill formations were the real thing.
All of this painstaking detail is fine but it is Webb’s ferocious performance in the title role that dominates the film from first frame till last. He tears through the film like the Tasmarian Devil, yelling, growling, barking and mercilessly taunting his recruits with lines like “You make me want to vomit” or “What was it you just said, you miserable clown?” It’s exhilarating, even hilarious at times. If you enjoyed watching Dragnet’s Joe Friday grind down his suspects with his relentless interrogation methods, wait till you see Webb in action here, exercising absolute power as a boot camp tyrant. He has a rat-a-tat-tat delivery that would make him a world class rapper today but just as impressive are his whip-like emotional transitions from shouting at the top of his lungs to his troops to intimate, one on one, in-your-face sarcasm: “You know, I don’t think I could stand it if you were mad at me.”
Webb has all of the choice lines and it’s a good thing too since most of the cast members are real marines and not actors. Among some of the more quotable quips, delivered with righteous vigor, are:
“There’s a man hidden somewhere under that baby powder.”
“When I get a punk, I get rid of him. When I get a guy like this Owens, I cultivate ‘em.”
“A dead marine is never sorry Owens. A dead marine is just dead.”
“Tell me Castro, did you mother ever have any children that lived?”
“I have told you people time and time again Your rifle is your best friend. You let it down and it will sure let you down.”
When Sgt. Moore gets on a roll, his diatribes become rapid fire, mini-soliloquies like this “interview” with a new recruit: “ Well, just who are you? Little Orphan Annie? What are you doing in a man’s uniform? You’d better start talking like a man. You pull them words up from the gut, boy. Growl like a tiger. No place in this Marine Corps for little boys. I don’t think you’re gonna make it boy. You just don’t pack the gear. GO!” It’s quite possible that Webb’s portrayal in The D.I. served as an inspiration for R. Lee Ermey’s tough as nails gunnery sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Webb’s directorial decisions in The D.I are just as theatrical and exaggerated as his larger than life performance. The opening sequence alone with its tight close-ups of nervous young inductees being interrogated by the gruff title character (we only see glimpses of him from the back) has a claustrophobic intensity and sense of heightened drama that recalls some of the later experimental film techniques used by Shirley Clarke in The Connection (1962) and Jonas Mekas in The Brig (1964). There are also a number of low-angle camera shots in scenes where Moore is haranguing his men and appears to be towering over them like some omniscient god as they scrub the floor in their skivvies or stand erect in terrified silence. In one sequence, Moore walks backwards along the long row of recruits with the camera tracking toward him as cutaway shots are interspersed of the sergeant viewed through formations of the mens’ parted legs in rigid attention. This is strange, disorienting stuff. There is also a gas mask training scene shot in a thick chemical fog that is truly hallucinatory and looks like an outtake from the L.A. sewer sequence in Them! (1954). Probably the most famous sequence in The D.I. – the murder of a sand flea during a training maneuver – has a theater of the absurd quality that mirrors the original source material. Based on real accounts of Marine life at Paris Island, this incident – in which a marine is ordered to find the sand flea he killed and give it a proper burial – was the inspiration of a two-act play entitled The Pine Box by future D.I. screenwriter James Lee Barrett. He later developed it into a one hour drama for Kraft Television Theatre under the title The Murder of a Sand Flea. Eventually Webb purchased the rights to this and had Barrett expand it into a feature length film called The D.I.
For the most part, The D.I. exerts a hypnotic allure due to its oneiric enshirement of boot camp life and Webb’s hyperactive drill instructor but there are some bizarre detours along the way that occasionally break the highly stylized tension. An early scene in an after hours hangout for the enlisted men where Monica Lewis performs “If’n You Don’t (Somebody Else Will),” accompanied by an offscreen chorus of whistling marines, is an entertaining novelty number that seems to belong in another movie. Calling David Lynch or maybe the director of South Pacific (Joshua Logan). While the roadhouse sequence is designed to show Moore relaxing after hours and meeting his future financee (Jackie Loughery), it is Monica Lewis who walks off with the scene. Flamboyant and saucy in her slinky black dress, she transforms her southern belle chanteuse into a campy diva. In addition, her featured musical number became a novelty hit single which Variety called a “sophisticated hillbilly song” – whatever that means.
Unfortunately, the romance between Moore and Annie (Ms. Loughery), though most likely intended to draw in female moviegoers and to downplay the D.I.’s hard-ass nature, isn’t very compelling. It only points out Webb’s obvious discomfort in playing love scenes, even if it is part of his character. The low point of their scenes together, played for light comedy, is when Moore visits Annie at her dress shop and is embarrassed by all of the attention he receives from the other female patrons. This is painfully stilted but mercifully brief with one smitten matron cooing over a guy in a uniform and an annoying little girl asking him, “You’re a man, aren’t you?”
Still, no sparks fly on the screen between Webb and Jackie Loughery, although there were fireworks in real life and Webb married the actress shortly after completing The D.I. (She was wife number 3 after Dorothy Towne (wife no. 2) and singer Julie London (wife no. 1). When The D.I. went into general release, it garnered mostly positive reviews with The New York Times’ reviewer voicing one of the more popular opinions: “Mr. Webb has staged a pounding, graphic tribute to the Marine training method, from sun-up to sundown, from the barracks into the field….with the stage thus set for an interesting off-beat drama, the star takes over and confines it to a rather one-dimensional close-up of a fairly monotonous fellow. As the sergeant, Mr. Webb struts around, squinting blandly, growling and, most of the time, bellowing at the top of his lungs. One viewer, risking the wrath of the actor’s fans, still wishes Mr. Webb had never ventured beyond his strictly secondary excellence as the paraplegic in “The Men” or as Bill Holden’s pal in “Sunset Boulevard.”
Clearly Webb intended The D.I. as a tribute to the marines and as a morale booster/recruitment incentive. That was how it was mostly received at the time but watching it now, one can’t help but see the real motivation behind the rigorous training and desensitizing mental conditioning. Moore is building finely tuned killing machines and who else would you want defending your country in war times? Moore drives the point home again and again with remarks like “You people are too slow. If you were that slow in combat, you’d be dead. DEAD!” Or, “We don’t deal in pity or sympathy. You’ll learn to think in terms of the group. You’ll remember your responsibilities and you’ll carry out orders.”
The film, of course, has a happy ending with Private Owens being successfully assimilated into the Corps but the negative aspects of Moore’s treatment are never questioned or explored here because this is essentially a Pro-Marine picture about character building and a portrait of Moore, not Owens. For an alternative point of view, try Frederick Wiseman’s 1971 documentary Basic Training or Nick Bloomfield and Joan Churchill’s Soldier Girls (1981).
In the gold rush years of Dragnet and its many reincarnations on TV, I never thought much about Webb’s abilities as an actor. He was simply Sgt. Joe Friday, the “Just-the-facts-ma’am” law enforcer of the popular radio and later TV series as well as the feature length film he created in 1949. Webb so completely embodied that character and became so associated with Joe Friday that he existed as some kind of American archetype like John Wayne in Westerns. Only later did I discover a different Jack Webb in films where he played supporting roles. He was especially memorable in a villainous role as a snarky, paranoid gangster flunkie needling Charlton Heston in the 1950 noir Dark City.
More surprising was his moving performance in The Men (1950) as a war veteran paraplegic, struggling to cope with his condition but also supportive and encouraging to his fellow hospital mates; his scenes with Marlon Brando, the angry, hostile new guy in the ward, are especially powerful and show what a great actor Webb could be. Watch his eyes in The Men and you see a steady stream of conflicting emotions; for the era, it’s an amazingly subtle but electric performance that threatens to steal Brando’s spotlight.
Another favorite Webb supporting role is his small part in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) as a best friend of screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden). There he is, laughing, joyous, the life of the party and having a blast – a bright spot in Wilder’s sea of cynicism. This amiable, open-hearted guy couldn’t be the same actor who played Joe Friday, could he?
Clearly Webb was never meant to be a character actor in support of the lead. His drive and determination in his own career (after a poverty-ridden childhood) assured his success as a major player in the entertainment industry. And, as an actor, Webb seemed drawn to and more interested in playing authority figures. There is nothing soft or vulnerable or ambiguous about Webb’s protagonists in Dragnet or The D.I. or Pete Kelly’s Blues or -30- (in which he plays the driven editor of a city newspaper). In all of these, Webb is a bastion of uber-masculinity – tough, cynical, aggressive, uncompromising and avoiding any trace of sentimentality or sensitivity. Maybe this was the way Webb really was in real life or wanted to be but this persona also stereotyped him and made him an easy target for parody.
He was also known for his conservative politics and, like John Wayne, had nothing good to say about draft dodgers, hippies and the counterculture. He probably wasn’t too sympathetic to film industry blacklist victims in the 50s either if you consider the anti-Commie short subject he produced and narrated, Red Nightmare (1962). But unlike Wayne during the turbulent sixties, Webb was always “cool” in pop culture circles. Not just for Dragnet – who didn’t love that show? – but for his love of jazz. Webb was an amateur cornet player and an obsessive record collector (he allegedly had a private collection of over 6,000 jazz albums) and his love of music led him to create what he once referred to as “the damned best picture I ever made” – Pete Kelly’s Blues, the story of a jazz band who tangle with gangsters in Prohibition era Kansas City.
While the movie doesn’t always succeed on a dramatic level, partly due to Webb’s dour, one-note portrayal of the title character, the actor/director’s recreation of the Roaring Twenties period is often stunning and the music is impeccably presented. If nothing else, the movie is a jazz fanatic’s wonderful shrine to the music of W. C. Handy and his contemporaries, Dixieland jazz, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, who proved she could act and won a Best Supporting actress nomination from the Academy. Similar to what he did with Dragnet, Webb turned Pete Kelly’s Blues into a TV series while films like The D.I. created the template that was used again and again for similar military dramas like Tribes (1970), a popular TV movie that pitted D.I. Darren McGavin against hippie recruit Jan-Michael Vincent, and An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) with newbie Richard Gere trying to survive Navy Flight school training under Sgt. Louis Gossett Jr.
By all accounts, Webb was a real stand-up guy, generous and extremely loyal to friends in the industry and his social circle. He wasn’t intimidated by powerful industry moguls either such as Jack Warner, who offered him a contract as a television executive producer which later ended in a bitter legal battle (Webb emerged as a successful independent). He was also a known workaholic, spending more time at the office then home, and his health suffered (he liked his liquor and smoked up to three packs of cigarettes a day at one point), factors that must have had an impact on the failure of three marriages (his fourth wife was Opal Wright). In the end, the public was the beneficiary of his creative energies when you consider the entirety of his work as an actor and movie director and all of the popular television entertainments he produced outside of Dragnet. Among them are Temple Houston, Adam-12, Emergency! (in which he cast his ex-wife Julie London and her husband Bobby Troup in key roles), Sierra, Project UFO, Sam (starring Mark Harmon) and many more.
The D.I. is a great homage to this idiosyncratic and often underrated figure in Hollywood’s history and it is still available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection. It is a stand-alone disc with no extra features and was first released in June 2009. The film deserves a Blu-Ray upgrade and wouldn’t it be great if someone could unearth some great extras like outtakes from The D.I., archival interviews with Webb and other nuggets for fans? Other websites of interest: