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People in the coastal areas of the southern U.S., living within what is not so affectionately called "the gnat line," would undoubtedly find it ludicrous that anything but a horror movie could be inspired by the abundant and annoying creatures in their region known variously as sand fleas, sand gnats, and no-see-ums - terms widely applied to a number of different species, but that's a topic for a different web site. That, however, is precisely the genesis of THE D.I. (1957), a military movie set at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot on Parris Island, South Carolina.
In 1950, aspiring writer James Lee Barrett was a recruit in the USMC boot camp, legendary for its grueling discipline, harsh conditions, and at the time, brutal drill instructors (until a 1956 drowning incident on the base forced a change in rules and behavior among the trainers). One of the ways these DIs, as they were known, pushed their over-the-top methods on new recruits was to forbid them to kill any of the nasty little bugs, whose lacerating bites can produce painful, red and itchy bumps. The idea was to "toughen" the troops up by forcing them to endure the pest, which is known to move in swarms that can drive anyone to distraction. Barrett happened to witness the "murder" of one of these bugs, after which the DI forced the perpetrator to dig a regulation-sized grave in front of his entire platoon and bury the tiny insect.
Later, as a student at Penn State, Barrett made the incident the subject of a two-act play he called "The Pine Box," which was eventually picked up and expanded into an hour-long show on the Kraft Television Theater series under the title "The Murder of a Sand Flea." The episode starred two former Marines who were breaking into acting, Lee Marvin and Hugh O'Brian.
The story captured the attention of Jack Webb, the popular TV star of the hit series Dragnet, a documentary-style police drama that debuted first on radio in 1949 and moved to television in 1951. Webb had been mostly a supporting player in films of the 1940s, but producing, creating, and acting in his own successful radio and TV series gave him enough clout to purchase the screen rights and get backing to produce, direct, and star in it himself.
Getting the rights proved to be no problem. The thornier issue was getting approval and cooperation from the Marine Corps. The Department of Defense was understandably nervous about any motion picture set on Parris Island ever since six recruits drowned in a treacherous stream during training in 1956. But when they reviewed the property Webb wanted to make, they reasoned that because "it deals with the character building of an emotionally immature young man, [it] would be more advantageous to the Marine Corps than many other recruit training stories." They also figured giving a quick green light to this project could derail any thought Twentieth Century Fox was giving to making a film based on the tragic deaths of the young soldiers. Webb and company got full cooperation from the Marines by February 1957, enabling them to move forward with script work.
The story's original creator, James Lee Barrett, was hired to adapt the script, his first big screen assignment. The project helped him kick off a successful screenwriting career that would include The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Shenandoah (1965), The Green Berets (1968), and Smokey and the Bandit (1977).
Charged by Webb's desire for accuracy and realism down to the last detail, Barrett and production assistant George Stevens, Jr., son of the director and a future producer of much note, went to Parris Island to take measurements for the sets and gather voice tapes and pictures for Webb and the professional actors in the cast to study in order to look and sound like real Marines. As it turned out, much of the movie's verisimilitude was achieved by hiring a number of real servicemen (out of almost 350 who auditioned) to play the troops. The use of these men, rather than professional actors, did not save the producers any money since in addition to housing and feeding them, they had to make a considerable reimbursement to the Screen Actors and Extras Guilds. According to Lt. Col. Wyatt Carneal, Jr., who was assigned by the Corps to be the film's technical adviser, using professional actors would have been a mistake because of their more mature appearance, unwillingness to get Marine haircuts, and inability to properly handle the heavy regulation weapons. Whether Col. Carneal's assessment was valid or not, it's clear the Marines were eager to have their men on camera.
In addition to Webb in the title role of The D.I., one of the few professional actors in the cast was Don Dubbins, who played the problem recruit who receives much of the DI's unwelcome attention. Dubbins was a former Marine who was trained on Parris Island in 1946. He appeared in several other military dramas, including From Here to Eternity (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and Mr. Roberts (1955).
The DI's romantic interest was played by Jackie Loughery, crowned the first Miss USA in 1952. It was Loughery who suggested to Webb, when he started worrying about putting on some weight not appropriate to a fit-and-trim Marine sergeant, that he should wear a tight girdle under his uniform. Webb not only followed her advice until he dropped the weight, he also married her about a year after The D.I. was released.
No filming was ever done on Parris Island. Most of the movie was shot at Camp Del Mar, part of Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in California, and a Corps Reserve Center in Pasadena.
Thanks to Webb's scrupulous focus on details and almost fanatical perfectionism (including 25 takes of a shot in which his character is handed a cup of coffee), the Marines were extremely pleased with the final product. Webb was presented with a Certificate of Appreciation and made an honorary DI. In May 1957, The D.I. was shown on Parris Island, prior to its general release, to more than 2,000 Marines and their families over the course of two nights.
Director: Jack Webb
Producer: Jack Webb
Screenplay: James Lee Barrett
Editing: Robert M. Leeds
Art Direction: Feild Gray, Gibson Holley
Original Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Jack Webb (Gunnery Sgt. Jim Moore), Don Dubbins (Pvt. Owens), Jackie Loughery (Annie), Lin McCarthy (Capt. Anderson), Virginia Gregg (Mrs. Owens).
by Rob Nixon