Man meddles in the natural world, and nature strikes back! Them! is a cautionary tale of mankind messing with forces they don’t understand.
Titling a 1950s sci-fi/horror film Them! is both brilliant and absurd. It’s a unique enough name for a film that really grabs a viewers attention, but also generic enough that it could be confusing. Either way the story breaks new ground in the giant-monster genre!
Terror, horror, excitement, & mystery – that spells THEM! This preview for this film presents itself with enough mystery and excitement, that audiences become intrigued by what force is going to wipe out humanity. Instead of invaders from outer space, the trailer seems to intimate that man’s meddling with forces beyond his understanding is what unleashed this terror. And that terror appears to be giant ants! The horror of giant insects, unstoppable by weapons, fire and science is an intriguing premise that could make a great film or be a laughable mess. Let’s see which way this one goes!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Them! seems like it could be a terrible B-movie, but it is actually quite a taut thriller. A pair of New Mexico state police officers, Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), discover a young girl in shock, walking alone in the desert. They discover her family’s car and trailer destroyed. A strange high-pitched sound is heard but quickly fades away. She is put into an ambulance and driven back into town while the pair of officers investigates the local supply store. Upon arrival they find the store ransacked and the owner, Gramps, dead. Ed stays behind while Ben returns to file a report, and is startled by a similar high-pitched sound. He investigates, but is surprised by something. He manages to fire his gun but does not survive.
The owner of the damaged trailer was a vacationing FBI Agent, so the Bureau sends Robert Graham (James Arness) as a liaison to aide in the investigation. They send reports of the incident back to Washington, which forwards them to the Department of Agriculture. Ben and Robert are surprised by this news, and even more confused when Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon) show up to investigate further.
The four of them take a trip to the desert after questioning the girl, which the elder Medford is able to pull from her catatonic state using the smell of formic acid. Ben wants to understand what they are thinking, but Pat tells him that her father won’t say until he’s sure. The high-pitched sounds are heard again as a gigantic ant appears over a rise. Ben and Robert shoot its antennae, essentially blinding it, before killing it with a machine gun. Harold reveals it is as he feared. The atomic tests near Alamogordo nearly a decade before have yielded a mutated strain of ant, grown to enormous size by the radiation.
General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) orders a pair of helicopters be dispatched to search for the nest. Upon finding it, the four heroes blast the mound with thermite and then toss cyanide gas inside. When they are satisfied that the gas has done its job, Ben, Robert and Pat descend into the mound to investigate. They discover that two queen ants have hatched and left the nest prior to their attack. The group travels to Washington DC to provide an update to the Senate and FBI. Harold shows a film about the life cycle and behavior of ants to bring everyone up to speed on what they’re dealing with. After that the new task force begins investigating strange reports from around the country.
A Texas pilot, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker), reports that he saw a UFO that looked like a giant ant near Brownsville. Following up on that report, the group discovers that one of the queen’s has created her nest in a freighter on the Pacific. The Navy destroys that ship leaving one queen left to find. Ben and Robert follow up on a report of a theft of sugar from a Los Angeles rail yard. This leads them to question a local drunk who reported seeing giant ants outside the window of his hospital room. Ben, Robert and the Medfords along with General O’Brien and Major Kibbee (Sean McClory) discover that the ants of nested in the drainage channels for the Los Angeles river.
Additionally a pair of missing boys were last reported in the area of one of the channels, preventing the military from using incindiaries or other destructive means immediately. Ben discovers an odd sound which leads him to the two boys. He manages to rescue them from two ants that had them trapped, but is grabbed by the mandibles of a third ant helping them escape. Robert discovers his body and leads the remaining soldiers deeper into the nest, killing giant ants on their way. Both he and Pat find the brood chamber, and realizing that the newly hatched queens have not left, the group use flamethrowers to put a stop to the infestation once and for all. The senior Dr. Medford puzzles the mysteries of mutation and what the world may discover next.
“When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” – Dr. Harold Medford
History in the Making
While there are examples in science fiction literature of giant animals, running amuck over the population, it took until 1954 for Hollywood to feel confident in creating a giant creature worthy of a motion picture. Them! is the birthplace of the giant nature and the irradiated animal sub genre of the sci-fi film, and probably no other sub-genre defined the 50s as much as the giant mutated animal film. In the year 1957 alone, there were no less than seven of these types of films, all centering around giant creatures like spiders, crabs, wasps, grasshoppers and even mollusks!
The radioactive element that Them! included as the source of the ants growth, appears to also be a popular trope. And it was not only an American phobia. Five months after the release of Them! the Japanese released a film that may be the biggest backlash to atomic testing, Gojira! But more on that film next week.
Them! also proved popular as a wholly original story and screenplay. Many sci-fi films to date, as have been explored here already, started as a story from some other media, whether pulp or novel. The writers George Worthing Yates, Russell S. Hughes and Ted Sherdeman hit upon a great mix of sci-fi, suspense and horror in creating a film about giant insects terrorizing the southwest. And whether the invasion of Los Angeles by the ants was done as an homage to films such as The War of The Worlds, or as suspected, more for budgetary concerns, Them! brings the action into a large metroplex as a means of driving the point home – atomic testing is dangerous.
Them! stands as more of a pseudo science-fiction film, given that the atomic radiation from the tests in New Mexico was never proven to enlarge or mutate animals in this way. However, it stands as a strong cautionary tale, as do many other sci-fi films. Humans upsetting the balance of nature with their atomic tests cannot know what horrors they may unleash. The fear that giant mutated insects might arise is a scary premise indeed and one that the filmmakers present in a way that doesn’t make it seem hokey.
By limiting the number of times the ants are seen, and using the eerie sound effect for the “ant communication,” director Gordon Douglas increases the tension and limits the laughs that could surely have happened. The ant creatures created for the film are very well done, for the time, but probably would not stand up under extreme scrutiny on-screen. Many films that focus on weird aliens or creatures tend to show the creatures on screen, thinking that the cost to create such an effect should be put on screen to justify itself. Many of the best sci-fi/horror mashups do just the opposite, by limiting the screen time for the monsters so that the audience can fill in the gaps.
While this film inspired many (if not all) of the giant animal films to come, only some of those films would be a worthy successor. Them! seemed to provide more impetus to the horror genre than the sci-fi genre. By 1960 many of these films had run their course. There was a slight resurgence in the mid 70s with The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants, but films about space, aliens or time travel seemed to be preferred. Upon rewatching this film for Sci-Fi Saturdays I was struck how similar it was to the 1990 horror-comedy Tremors. Short of the giant worms attacking a large city, both films share very similar DNA.
What Them! provides for the genre is strong characterization of the protagonists – usually a scientist, but in this case officers of the law (State Patrolman and FBI agent). The driving force is that they want to protect human life from the mutations, but are also thrust into situations outside of their comfort or knowledge. As mentioned previously, adding in the element of radiation causing the mutation provides a very topical subject to draw the audience in. But unlike more modern films, where mankind’s experiments are blamed on the government, when they go awry, Them! places no blame, and actually seeks out the government to help solve the problem.
Being the first film in this new sub-genre of the atomically mutated creature, Them! is naive enough to only ask the question “what has man unleashed on itself?” It doesn’t go so far as to place any blame for the creation of the the giant ants. And while the end of the film appears to wrap things up neatly, with the destruction of all the ant colonies, Dr. Medford’s final quote, reprinted above, does provide the question about what other horrors the future will hold.
By the time this film was released, nuclear power had been providing energy in the United States for approximately three years, and a few months later the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 would provide instruction and regulation for civilian and military uses of nuclear power. Citizens were probably well within their rights to be concerned about the dangers of this type of radiation. Couldn’t anything used as a destructive bomb, and being harnessed for power potential be capable of causing a greater, unknown disaster?
In the long run, giant ants may have been the best premise to come from the nuclear fears. The fallout from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still not fully understood, and the world was still 25-30 years away from understanding the real horrors of atomic meltdowns (regarding Three Mile island in 1979 and the Chernobyl breach in 1986). But fears in Hollywood always present themselves in strange ways.
The Science in The Fiction
The film does present quite a bit of information on ants, allowing the public to get a crash course in entomology. Dr. Medford presents a short documentary on what was known about ants at the time, including the way they built their shelters, their social hierarchy and mating rituals, as well as their penchant for making war. It’s heavily implied that this factor makes them formidable opponents, and not just the fact that they’re 8 feet long. An interesting parallel is drawn between man and insect at this point, but one that is not further explored.
The film doesn’t attempt to make sense of giant ants or the way they would function in the real world. Nor should it. As an entertaining thriller, the fact that ants such as this exist is enough. And to delve any deeper into their existence would only slow the picture down. Surprisingly, the insect documentary provides a nice breather before the third act. It also provides some background about the role of the queen and her mates which is necessary to build the tension for the end of the film.
The Final Frontier
As stated previously, Them! seems like it might be a B-film, but it turns into a lot of fun. The cast takes the film very seriously, and helps drive the plot forward in a way that doesn’t suggest anything but honesty. James Whitmore and James Arness both provide strong performances that help sell the absurdity of giant ants in the desert. And while Joan Weldon’s character is given a ‘scream queen’ moment when the ant first appears on screen, she provides a much stronger supporting role for a female that had been seen on film before. As a scientist that understands the nature of the problems being faced she takes charge and is able to direct her male counterparts to action, or from it.
The film is also littered with character actors that fans will be familiar with. Whitmore would go on to play the president of the assembly in 1968s Planet of the Apes, and may be better known to modern audiences as Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption. Arness, previously having made a splash as the titular monster in 1951s The Thing from Another World would go on to great acclaim in the TV series Gunsmoke. Edmund Gwenn may also be better recognized during the holidays as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street. But the role that stood out the most to me was a younger Fess Parker, who would become both Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone for the Magical World of Walt Disney, as the pilot that initially spotted the queen ant in Texas.
As a film that gave birth to a whole new style of sci-fi and horror cinema, Them! provides something for everyone, without feeling campy or silly. It holds up surprisingly well in a modern setting, if you can get past the 1950s era special effects.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.