Actor and producer Jack Webb is best known for his copaganda franchise Dragnet – which spanned radio, film and TV across three decades. Less well known is his 1957 Marine Corps-supported movie The D.I. – a film made explicitly for military recruitment purposes. Much like in Dragnet, Webb himself took the lead, playing Gunnery Sergeant Jim Moore in an impressive foreshadowing of R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. ‘If your brains were made of dynamite, you couldn’t blow your nose’ is one line that feels very authentic.
In April 1956, a junior drill instructor at Parris Island named Matthew McKeon marched six Marine trainees to their deaths by ordering them into Ribbon Creek – a swampy, tidal creek – where they drowned. McKeon was later found guilty of drinking alcohol on duty and negligent homicide.
These events are referred to frequently throughout the Marine Corps file on The D.I., with the film being seen as an antidote to the negative attention resulting from the Ribbon Creek and other incidents. In Webb’s protagonist they saw a better image of drill instructors, even as he spends the entire movie screaming, hollering, shouting and bellowing. As one reviewer noted:
JACK WEBB, best known as Sergeant Friday on television’s “Dragnet,” is the star, director and producer of “The D.I.” all about a tough, dedicated and extremely loud Marine drill instructor on Parris Island… Some spectators will cringe. Nobody will nap.
Indeed, Webb appears in almost every scene in this perfect blend of recruitment propaganda and vanity project. Jack’s desire to compete with John Wayne as an utterly pro-establishment ‘man’s man’ resulted in a string of military- and police-supported productions that combine government PR with state-sponsored egoism. The remainder of the cast is almost entirely made up of 53 real life Marines, hired by the production to portray the recruits and other Corps officers.
The D.I. tells the story of a drill instructor struggling to turn one particularly lax recruit into a heartless fighting machine, but he succeeds through the power of yelling, including one especially surreal moment where Webb rants about sand fleas and how Marines have to just let the fleas bite them, not swatting them away lest the noise of the swat reveals their position to the enemy.
This bizarre dialogue originated in the inspiration for The D.I., a Kraft Television Theatre episode Murder of a Sand Flea, which tells a very similar story. Webb was looking around for a Navy story to turn into a movie, evidently still carrying a chip on his shoulder from World War 2, when he washed out of flight training for the US Army Air Corps. He stumbled onto Murder of a Sand Flea, hired the episode’s writer to expand it into a film script, and approached the Marine Corps about support.
Naturally, there was a script review but the feedback was given over the phone so we cannot be sure exactly what changes were made. It seems this was quite intentional, not wanting to leave a papertrail. When Webb sent a copy of the rewritten script to Major William McCullough at the Marine’s Information Division, he wrote:
Enclosed please find two copies of the final shooting script for our Marlne feature motion picture. Please read rather carefully, as I have made further changes even beyond those that you people requested. As soon as you have read same, please call me at Mark VII collect, as I would like to speak with you rather than comment by mail in this particular matter.
A couple of months later, the film completed and the rough cut viewed and approved by the DOD, Don Baruch wrote to Webb informing him of their approval, and noting:
The Corps believes that the picture will be beneficial for recruiting. Therefore, it has indicated that full support will be granted within limitations of policies for premieres and subsequent looal showings.
Indeed, the Corps were so enamoured of the film that they came up with extensive PR and recruitment efforts around its release, including having the Commandant appear on the Ed Sullivan show to present Webb with a certificate of appreciation and to make him an ‘honorary drill instructor’. Recruiters hung out in the lobbies of cinemas showing The D.I., one of the Marines who appeared in the movie went on a week-long tour of major US cities ‘on behalf of the Corps and the motion picture’, held special screenings – the works. They even invited around 40 journalists to Parris Island to take part in some basic training exercises and attend a screening of the film. One proposal – to have a female DI ‘detached for use on radio and television shows and, possibly, a cross-country tour’ was not taken up, but otherwise it was a full court press.
However, the film appears to have been a failure as a recruitment vehicle, offering perhaps too blunt and loud a depiction of Marine training. While the file is full of letters from current and former military members praising The D.I., it is also full of reviews implying or stating that it wasn’t encouraging people to sign up. One letter to Webb from a Marine Corps recruitment officer praised the movie, and wrote:
I shall now endeavour to convince a great many mothers that Boot Camp ain’t like that at all, all the time thanking God Boot Camp is exactly like that.
The conflict between wanting to depict boot training accurately – with all the yelling, bullying, harassment, dehumanisation and more yelling – and wanting to help the Corps publicly wash its hands of drill instructors who had been court martialed for beating or even killing their trainees proved problematic. As Webb put it in one interview:
In our picture we are dealing with a composite of the good DIs. In our story, against the backdrop of Marine boot training, there are no beatings. There would be no room in our story for those phases even if we desired to do that—which we don’t. That would be the sensationalist approach, and I don’t care about that type of picture. Our picture has a lot of guts, but it is not a distorted picture of the Marine Corps, which has covered itself with glory in every war.
The problem was that Webb and the Corps wanted to show that its necessary to brutalise recruits in order to turn them into fighting men, but also wanted positive PR that made it look like the lurid newspaper stories of dead and injured recruits were not representative of the Corps overall. They wanted the Corps’ characters to be tough guys, without realising the tougher they made them, the less they chimed with anyone but a military audience. One of those rare instances where the US military helped make a film more realistic and true and made it less enjoyable and effective as a result.