Here, I’m taking my next look at a classic film that A Reader Recommended. Last time out, I gave you my take on the martial arts horror film The Boxer’s Omen. This time, my thanks to reader GUNNY KOON USMC Ret for mentioning this movie in a comment he left on the post…well, on just about every post where he’s left a comment!
The concept of manhood is central to director/star Jack Webb’s 1957 military drama The D.I., so it’s fitting that I would have been introduced to it during one of many “Real Man Movie” nights I attended in college. My neighbor in the dorm, who was the Resident Assistant, was the film buff who ran these get-togethers.
We’d screen 1-3 pictures on a given night, depending on how much we decided to drink, and how much we could tolerate the cigar smoke. (Oh, how glad I am to have not maintained that habit outside of the occasional indulgence on a Real Man Movie night.) The films in our repertoire ranged from the works of Clint Eastwood (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Dirty Harry, and so on) to those of Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep), to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to repeated screenings of The Right Stuff (my neighbor was particularly interested in rocket building); one Real Man regular was partial to the Robert Redford outdoors classic Jeremiah Johnson (we used to do call-and-respond of the mythic opening narration with him endlessly), and he was also very much enamored of The D.I.
As I remember, most of us then felt the film to be pretty cartoonish. Maybe that’s the wrong word. It may have been that, not having been raised on reruns of Dragnet—though we were certainly aware of it—star Webb’s rat-a-tat-tat delivery, in a performance that seemed to younger, less sophisticated eyes to maintain a supernaturally constant emotional temperature, possibly came across as comical, surreal, or absurd.
Plus, we’d already seen Full Metal Jacket, which took the essential narrative of The D.I. (not to mention a hilariously disturbing, gutter-mouthed variation of the title character in the form of real-life drill instructor R. Lee Ermey) and compressed it into the insane first act of its Vietnam saga, with not a heartening happy ending but a darkly satirical and crazy-violent outcome. By comparison, The D.I. may have seemed then like nothing so much as a rah-rah recruiting tool, a piece of propaganda that hardly deserved to be taken so very seriously.
But there are many, many people who do take the movie seriously, and regard it as one of the most realistic portrayals of the Marines—or at least of their demanding training program—ever filmed. That reputation is bolstered by the fact that most of the men cast in the movie were, in fact, not professional actors but
soldiers Marines themselves. (Thanks to reader Gunny Koon for pointing out the “soldier” distinction, and for pointing out that below, I’d originally called The D.I. “Joe” and not “Jim”!) Webb himself was an Air Force enlistee who received a hardship discharge—surely a piece of his biography that allowed him to tap into the emotional core of the screenplay.
Webb plays no-nonsense Technical Sgt. Jim Moore, who fights to “make a man” of the troubled Owens (Don Dubbins), a private consistently complaining of headaches and actively pursuing a discharge from the service. The training regimen at Parris Island has overwhelmed him for reasons that are long left unexplained, leading to a challenge from Moore’s commanding officer (Lin McCarthy) to straighten out his weak-kneed recruit in three days or face repercussions should he damage the success of the unit.
As Moore does his best to rattle Owens’ cage and make it possible for him to be properly trained by his comrades-in-arms (who, of course, face punishments every time Owens screws up), the dedicated drill instructor carries on an uncertain romance with a young woman (Jackie Loughery) he meets at a club.
Based on a television script called The Murder of a Sand Flea—the title of which reflects a mishap that gets Owens into big trouble and the men ordered on a ridiculous nighttime mission that smacks of the infamous strawberry investigation in The Caine Mutiny—The D.I. appeared to some to be a conscious effort made by the Marines to rehabilitate their public image, which had been tarnished by the death of six Marine recruits in the controversial “Ribbon Creek incident” of 1956. As one of the rare military films that eschews battle scenes or other conscience-troubling illustrations of the “horrors of war,” it likewise is that rare picture without a genuine antagonist—unless you regard Owens as the bad guy for not packing the gear to serve in his beloved Corps.
This is a film where even Moore’s other dramatic foil, a rival drill sergeant—who publicly belittles him for being a “mother” to Owens—confesses his respect for, admiration for, and jealousy of him openly to Moore’s soon-to-be-girlfriend right after the D.I. gives him a bloody nose for failing to “keep (his) mouth dry” and acting like a blustering goon. This kind of candid, forgiving maturity from one’s enemy immediately marks the film as fairy-tale fiction in my book—but then again, I’m not a Marine (and am not now nor have ever been a member of the armed services), so who am I to say that’s not how it really goes?
Humorous point aside, much of The D.I. does feel almost like documentary. Webb’s directing style is as deceptively straightforward as his acting; there’s nothing fancy here, just enough visual invention to get the job done. In those rare moments when the cinematography and/or cutting departs from the kind of approach we’d most associate with television programs (comfortable medium shots, back-and-forth over-the-shoulders for conversations, dead-centered closeups), it’s done with potency and to make pretty direct and uncomplicated statements of subtext.
When Moore wants to prove his efficacy at training his men, he barks at a recruit (Joseph C. Holmes) to recite his general orders. The camera moves in for a sustained closeup on the soldier’s lips as he bellows out the words in a lightning-fast monotone. The shot lasts an unusually long time, giving you the kind of ecstatic detail we would associate with a Frederick Wiseman documentary.
When Moore is grilling the troops, he is framed from a low angle, because he’s God:
When he’s at his weakest, having been put in his place by a woman—a woman!—the camera instead adopts the God point-of-view to look down on Moore, to illustrate his smallness and helplessness:
And if the movie is occasionally guilty of coming across as over-the-top in spots, I would allow that it would be at least partially attributable to a modern viewer’s cynicism. Who can look at compositions like this and not be a little tickled—however inappropriately—at the notion of how this film relates to the post-DADT era?
The military was officially desegregated by President Truman in 1948, yet you don’t see so very much diversity in these ranks, excepting the presence of Pvt. Rodriguez (Peter J. O’Neill). The D.I. can feel dated in some other ways, including the manner in which Webb courts store clerk Loughery. I wonder how often men—even those in uniform confident of their sex appeal—are tempted these days to roughly grab hold of a woman they hardly know and plant that first kiss on her and expect the second date? It’s funny to watch Webb get uncomfortable around lingerie; not so much watching him almost hit Loughery during a flash of anger, as if it’s the sort of behavior he might regularly engage in but for this broad’s spunk.
As for the central tension between the D.I. and Owens, his anguished recruit? I was struck by how disturbing their initial confrontation in the film seems today; it is difficult to watch Owens’ superior officer insult and disregard his headaches as if they were figments of his imagination, especially given the tragic situation that recently unfolded in Afghanistan. The scenes immediately following do serve to deepen Moore’s character by revealing that the sergeant is, indeed, a thoughtful man who cares in his own way.
We discover, late in the film, that there are very specific reasons for Owens’ psychological difficulties; while the manner in which they are discovered seems to stretch the script’s credibility almost to the breaking point—could things really have progressed to this level without his superiors doing the kind of due diligence that would reveal these facts?—the delay in our getting the details does serve the drama well. You can picture the wheels turning in audience members’ heads as they try to decide for themselves which “problem” to assign Owens.
Is he yellow?
He says he’s “mixed up.”
Oh, God forbid, is he gay?
Is there a sigh of relief that comes for audiences when they discover his torments have origins less challenging or threatening to their values? The bow gets tied a bit too neatly and quickly for my taste at the end of the film (this is late-‘50s filmmaking, so I suppose we can forgive that) after Owens’ mother (Virginia Gregg) delivers a climactic speech that was as disconcerting to me as it was entirely appropriate to what I took to be the message of the film: “We Marines understand each other,” she tells the D.I. and his commanding officer.
I remarked earlier that I hadn’t had the honor of military service. We of course never know quite how we will perform in extremis until and unless we are required to do so, but I can make an educated guess that I would have been a terrible fit for the military. I have the feeling that in the midst of being berated by a drill instructor, I would either be angered into insubordination by the kinds of brutal insults they hurled in my direction…or I’d find the whole thing irresistibly funny, and be branded insubordinate for that reason. Is that you, John Wayne?
That’s the reason I join many who can mostly approach The D.I. only as outsiders. Having said that, we can certainly watch the film and see how its concerns about manhood could translate to those not in the military. You don’t have to be a Marine private like Owens to be a man feeling burdened by the past and so paralyzed in the present that it’s difficult to improve your future. As a vehicle for Jack Webb’s unique persona, the picture is terrific; the quality of the screen acting by its largely nonprofessional cast is truly impressive; you can see the film’s influence on so many others that came later.
And if some of the mores espoused by the picture seem alien to me—including those not limited to the film’s vintage but values that would seem to be intact today—I also recognize that the film is, in large part, by the military…and for the military. The closing credits say as much, saluting the USMC not just for its cooperation in making the film but for:
The film is not just an entertainment, but an expression of thanks. It does a hardy job of serving as both.