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I don't know about you, but when I think of drill instructors I think of R. Lee Ermey. Clear;y though, Ermey himself must have seen this film at some point I have to think. It would seem that FULL METAL JACKET director Stanley Kubrick was a fan of the film for sure:THE D.I. opens with a shot of a Marine placard which reads, "Let's Be Damned Sure That No Man's Ghost Will Ever Say - "If Your Training Program Had Only Done It's Job"". Out side of the obvious erroneous use of "it's" versus "its", (which is kinda funny), this quote sets the tone/stage for a serious movie. The very first scene after that is a young soldier stepping into frame and addressing Jack Webb in the titular role. The back of Webb's head and his voice is all we get in this shot, but it is effective enough to convey his character in a matter of three or four lines. Webb has always had a specific cadence and tone of voice that are very specific and compelling. We all remember his DRAGNET voice-overs and how perfectly they worked inside of the police-procedural, investigative environment of that TV show. Webb delivers his dialogue in such a sharp, machine-gun-quick manner that it's hard not to feel how he easily commands his trainees. His no-nonsense persona is well suited to a role like THE D.I. for sure. I think it's quite interesting that Jack Webb served as lead actor and director on this film as well. This was his third feature film (he'd done a DRAGNET movie in 1954 and PETE KELLY'S BLUES in 1955) and it's well put together (and acted by him). Some of the soldier boys are a little stiff, but it almost works in the film's favor as they seem justifiably nervous. Jack Webb was apparently a pretty no-nonsense kind of guy in real life and took his work quite seriously. Seems like another reason he plays this part so well (and even unsympathetically at times).
In poking around for information about the production, I came across news of the Ribbon Creek Incident of 1956 (where a drunken Marine staff sergeant drowned six of his recruits during an outlandish exercise). Though the staff sergeant was ultimately acquitted of the manslaughter charges, it was bad press for the Marines of course. Apparently many Hollywood types approached the U.S. Marines about dramatizing the incident soon after that, but Jack Webb chose a much more pro-Marines story/film and was met with open military arms and many technical advisors to boot. Webb even plays "The Halls of Montezuma" over the credits of his movie. The film is certainly a much different movie than FULL METAL JACKET and they both have distinctly disparate takes on Marine training (though both films take place use Parris Island as a location). Like FULL METAL JACKET, THE D.I. serves as a kind of "look inside" for civilians as to how the Marine Corps prepares its soldiers for combat (though I wouldn't call FMJ a pro-Marines movie by any means). Both films have the effect of being a bit shocking and tough to watch on parts because the training is quite grueling. It's very interesting to compare what Kubrick would have you take away from his peek at the process versus Webb. Both films have somewhat similar stories in that they focus on a single platoon, which happens to have one problem recruit within. It's interesting to see how different the movies are though despite that. There's certainly a perspective shift in that THE D.I. is from Jack Webb's point of view whilst FMJ is through the eyes of the young soldiers. I have to admit that my own personal feelings about Jack Webb end up taking away from his effectiveness in the role on some small level. He's great, don't get me wrong, but somehow he isn't scary like R. Lee Ermey can be in FMJ. I feel like a Drill Instructor needs to be scary to be believable. Webb is serious and always on point with the way he speaks to his platoon, but I found myself occasionally grinning at some of the cracks he makes to them. While I also laughed a bit at some things Ermey said in FMJ, it was a laugh that was often immediately followed by a quick drawing in of my breath as I felt the tension between him and his recruits. Webb's persona and his years of being Joe Friday (and parodied as that character) certainly undercut my suspension of disbelief as I watched the film. Webb is completely believable though and I wish I didn't have my previous popular cultural attachments to interfere with what he was doing. It might just be that Ermey was a Drill Instructor in real life prior to becoming an actor and Webb wasn't (in fact he "washed out" when he enlisted in the Air Force). In writing this post, I realize I may sound like I'm bagging on Jack Webb, however that is not my intention at all. He is an actor I admire very much and his work as a director is quite solid. I was just swept away while watching the film by the fact that there are basically two truly standout Drill Instructor performances in cinema. I think because I saw FULL METAL JACKET first (and many many times) I found myself wrestling with the two portrayals and unable to help myself from comparing them. Webb comes off as ever so slightly smug in some moments whereas Ermey comes off as frightening. I think the difference might be that Ermey (as expressed in the film) feels an obligation to make sure that none of his platoon are "weak links" that might end up getting any other Marines killed due to their negligence. He's really kind of trying to terrify them into understanding that they need to take this stuff seriously. Webb does some of the same with his D.I. character, but like I said, he's just not as scary. I think it's really all about the eyes. Webb's eyes are a little dead (at least here), like those of a shark. Ermey's eyes are often wide and crazy-looking and there is a big difference there. Regardless of all this back and forth comparing, I still highly recommend that folks check out THE D.I. It makes a neat companion piece to FULL METAL JACKET and is clearly a text that Kubrick used to make his film more effective (he seems to have cribbed some of Webb's techniques for shooting the barracks at the very least). Without one we don't have the other (at least not in the same way).
Here's a rare extended trailer for THE D.I.
THE D.I. is currently available on DVD via Warner Archive: