THE D.I. (1957) – Jack Webb at his square-jawest

The following is my entry in the Send in the Marines Blogathon, co-hosted by J-Dub and Gill at, respectively, the blogs Dubsism and Realweegiemidget Reviews. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of movies related to the subject of the U.S. Marine Corps!

It’s 1971, with the Vietnam War still in full force. An impressionable 10-year-old kid, concerned that he might have to face the draft in the future, is watching TV with his older brother, who recently had been honorably discharged from the war after four years of service. Their bill of fare this Sunday afternoon is Jack Webb’s The D.I., and as Webb’s D.I. character barks orders and hurls invective at his wet-behind-the-ears troops, the veteran is all too happy to tell his kid brother, “Oh, yeah, that’s just what military life was like.”

In short, The D.I. scared the s**t out of me.

Since then, of course, we’ve seen Full Metal Jacket and other movies that have been far more explicit about the harshness of military life. (In fact, unlike those other movies, The D.I. [made in a peacetime era] doesn’t even go beyond boot camp.) But thanks to Webb’s spartan direction, the movie still packs quite a wallop.

The movie centers on Gunnery Sergeant Jim Moore (Webb), a Parris Island officer who is tough as nails, but (naturally) only because he has to be. The main thorn in Moore’s side is Pvt. Owens (Don Dubbins), a milquetoast recruit who seems to go out of his way to do everything wrong. Owens proves to be such a pain that Moore’s superior gives him an ultimatum — make Owens tow the line in three days, or he will be dishonorably discharged.

If you’ve seen Webb do his square, clipped version of virtue on “Dragnet” (always ending a scene with some pearl of wisdom about modern life), his D.I. characterization won’t be any great surprise. At one point, Moore tells one of his peers, “When I get a punk [in my squadron], I get rid of him. When I get a guy like this Owens, I cultivate him!” (Cue commercial.)

However, for this kind of story, Webb’s straight-on directorial style works perfectly. The camera is always just close enough in that we feel the claustrophia of these put-upon soldiers. And Webb never wastes any shot with fancy technique, always making his point and then moving right on to the next scene. (There’s a surprisingly touching back-and-forth moment where Owens is planning to desert the company and one of Owens’ peers tearfully tries to talk him out of it.)

There are only a couple of instances where the movie manufactures some hollow drama just because it can’t think of anything else to do. One is where Moore’s potential love interest Annie (Jackie Loughery) gets all worked up over nothing just so that the movie can give them an argument about a conflict that isn’t there. And there’s some business regarding a dead flea that starts to make you worry that Moore has finally gone over the edge. Fortunately, these dizzy spells don’t last long, and the movie overall is quite satisfying.

During one of his lectures to Owens, Moore gets all Yoda on him and says, “We don’t try here in the Marines. We either do or we don’t!” The D.I. shows that the Marines, and Webb, get the job done pretty well.

Here’s a trailer with Webb taking you on a “tour” of the movie.