Some giant monster movies you watch once and never think about again. Then there are the monster movies you pass down to your children. My parents passed Them! down to me around the time they passed down The Thing from Another World and War of the Worlds, praising it as an original masterpiece of daikaiju movie making…which is funny, since Them! started out as a good way for Warner Brothers to cash in on that other original masterpiece of daikaiju movie making, 1953’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Not a rip-off exactly…more like a thematic reprise, packaging the same complex of societal fears into a new model for a new year. Works for the car companies.
3D was all the rage at the time as theaters continued to hemorrhage audiences to a new and uncomfortably profitable home-entertainment medium. Warners originally concieved Them! as a widescreen 3D monster mash in Sylvia Plath-annoying technicolor, set in the already colorful deserts of California (standing in for the just as colorful deserts of New Mexico). A mechanical failure somewhere inside the 3D camera’s bowels nixed that plan and the movie’s budget with one very fortunate accident. Frankly, I can’t imagine Them! as anything other than a black and white picture with 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio.
The DVD releases has since lovingly restored its original red and blue, drop-shadowed title card. That, and a few shots designed to wag something (like a giant ant’s antenna) in the audience’s face, are the only remaining signs of Them!-That-Might’ve-Been. Read enough reviews of Them!-That-Is and you’ll come across a lot of praise for this film’s “documentary feeling.” I doubt it’d garner such accolades if it were in color…then again, maybe so…it would still hold your hand and lead you in, careful to take itself seriously. This movie is a granite idol, meeting your snickers with a stone face. It’s an almost perfect monster movie.
At the end of things our Scientist, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), notes “When man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to another world. What we’ll find in that world, no one can predict.” But plenty of people saw giant monsters on the other side of that door. Creatures that defied physics by their very existence, with no need for the complicated mechanical tools humanity employs to do the same. Like planes.
So it turns out a race of giant ants have been quietly breeding in the deserts around White Sands, New Mexico, site of the first A-bomb test. The opening shots of this movie follow a New Mexico State Police spotter plane as it flies past a road in the desert. Director Gordon Douglas chose to film this scene from another plane so he could look down on the State Police plane and get a shot of it flying by a State Police car way the hell down there in Out of Focus Land. We see the scale of this bleak desert environment and never once bother to ask how a colony of giant ants could stay hidden in such a place. Hell, there’s nothing out here. So much nothing that the wonders of human civilization look tiny in comparison…like ants…
The plane spots a little girl wandering through the wilderness in her bathrobe, clutching a plastic doll and in deep, deep shock. Local cops Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) scoop her up and cart her back to the stalled car and trailer a ways back from where they found her. The trailer’s empty, it’s walls caved in, its floor littered with debris and bloody clothes. An hours-old crime scene, Ben and Ed call the lab boys, finding nothing out of the ordinary beyond a strange footprint in the sand.
Stymied, our two cops shoot down to “Gramps” Johnson’s corner store…which is also smashed up real bad. Old Gramps (Mathew McCue) himself is dead in the basement, his desert rat rifle bent in half and lying on the sales floor, useless. Either Gramps and that little girl’s family both pissed off Superman something fierce or…no, actually, there is no “or.” Ben leaves Ed to wait for the lab boys, intending to be at the station when the little girl starts talking. This inadvertently leaves Ed to his doom and sets up Ben’s character arc for the remainder of the film.
Oh, wait, no it doesn’t. Here Ben takes a back seat to the real star, FBI Agent Robert Graham, played by the Thing himself, James Arness. Special Agent Graham just happened to be on vacation in the next National Park over. With lawmen missing and presumed dead, Graham brings the full resources of “your government” into play, even sending a cast of that unrecognizable footprint back to Washington.
That’s where the Drs. Medford, come in: Harold, as much an Elder Scientist as Beast‘s Prof. Thurgood Elson; and…hey, it’s Pat! Dr. Patricia Medford, that is. (Played by San Francisco Opera Company vet Joan Weldon.) The Medfords are on loan from the Department of Agriculture, and play things close to their chests…at first…unwilling to do more than drop Ominous Statements.
Graham: It’s getting pretty late, Doctor.
Dr. Elson (The Elder): Later than you think!
We see in these the Ominous Statement every Movie Scientist’s made since, in particular Dr. Sam Loomis’ in Ominous Statments in the Halloween series. Hoping to avoid being labeled Cassandras, the Drs. Medford drag Ben and Graham back outside, knowing full well that only a face-to-face with the giant ants will convince such stalwart idols of Americana about…well…
Graham: An ant? I don’t believe it! It’s not possible!
Scratch that. Even faced with a specimen he’s just killed, Graham’s still on the fence.
Ben: Then this is what got Ed Blackburn and Gramps Johnson and the rest?
Dr. Medford (The Elder): Yes. A fantastic mutation. Probably caused by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb.
While the Rhedosaurus that attacked New York in ’53 was awakened by a nuclear test, this is the first instance (that I know of…feel free to well, actually me) of mutation causing a daikaiju outbreak in cinematic history. Compare how casually everyone treated radiation in The Thing. And remember: everyone just assumed Godzilla was a mutation until we saw his pre-atomic form in 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. After Them!, atomic mutation became the go-to explanation for giant monster outbreaks. Now we slap our foreheads and think, What else, right? Back then, this was all new enough to imitate. And oh boy, did everyone and their mom try to imitate Them!.
Too many reviews of this movie focus on all the other movies that ripped it off throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s…which I plan to do individually anyway. So let’s focus on what makes this a classic when so many giant something movies have become the butt of jokes.
For me, it’s the script, originally by George Yates…who’d go on to write (among other things) Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and a little something called King Kong vs. Prometheus that would, after several re-writes, become King Kong vs. Godzilla. Yates’ story got “adapted” by thriller/Western screenwriter Russel S. Hughes (who also wrote Joan Weldon’s previous film, The Command). War Drama and biopic scribe Ted Sherdeman applied the final polish and their talents combine into a singular voice.
It’s the voice of a broadcast journalist doing his best Edward R. Murrow impression, a voice of authority full of calm seriousness. Once Graham and Sgt. Ben take their first ant down with a Tommy gun and some tactical advice from Dr. Medford (The Elder), the film becomes a How To Fight Giant Ants guidebook. This is also what people mean by “documentary feeling.” That makes it sound like this is The Boring Part, but nothing could be further from the truth.
This is my favorite part of Them! as Edmund Gwenn and the Eisenhower-era military industrial complex react to this world-shattering discovery with swift efficiency and due deference to Science. The middle twenty minutes of Them! are so packed with action (people killing giants ants with machine guns and white phosphorous), suspense (Bob, Pat and Ben’s stroll through the gassed ant colony, full of dead foragers…we know they can’t all be dead…sooner or later, one of ’ems gonna jump up and…godday-um) and expository monologuing, they’d form a perfectly good monster movie on their own. Them!‘s near-perfect because they come after twenty minutes of carefully paced, well-done setup.
Then, forty-eight minutes in, the movie grinds to a halt to “give [us] some idea of the nature of the creature’s we’re up against” in the form of a film on ants the Medford’s cut together for the Top Brass’ benefit. This could be excised completely. It’s naked exposition, and only Edmund Gwenn’s smooth, rolling voice saves this film from my critical wrath. It’s the aural equivalent of an incredibly comfy chair.
and I can’t argue with Kris Kringle, even if he did have to shave his beard to get that job at the Ag Department. Time to argue with Gordon Douglas, who seems to be making a point with all this. Why else would he risk derailing the second act with such blatant stock footage?
“Ants,” Dr. Medford insists during the part of this film that actually is a documentary, “are the only creatures on Earth, other than man, who make war. They campaign, they are chronic aggressors, and they make slave laborers of the captives they don’t kill.” Bad enough they’re the size of cars, with jaws the size of thresher blades. We have to anthropomorphize them, too…even make them out to be our superiors. They have (again, according to Santa Medford) “an instinct and talent for industry, social organization, and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison.”
So what system of social organization possessed the most “talent for industry, social organization, and savagery” in 1954? Well, I know what the first run audience for this movie might’ve said. Eight days after Them! premiered, the Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant became the first in the world to produce electricity for a real live, functional power grid…five whole megawatts, even. It was enough to scare the shit out of anyone worried about the great contest of nation states, the only real source of worry for the 1% of the population who actually mattered at the time.
A lot of people bitch about how movies from the 50s feel “dated” whenever they can’t figure out why they find movies from the 50s boring. Some of them just are boring, but I’m always excited by how little things have changed. Chaos monsters still tear communities apart, pushing walls in or ripping them out, it doesn’t matter. In the end, communities come together to reaffirm the order of the world against these rampaging violations. And everyone knuckles under at the first announcement of Marshal Law. (Also, no black people in LA, apparently. That part does feel pretty damn dated.)
Here’s a quote on Joan Weldon’s IMDb bio page:
I didn’t think much of [the movie] Them! (1954) when I read the script. I just knew that [my character] was a scientist, and I was hoping that somewhere along the line there would be some romance or love interest. But Gordon Douglas didn’t want to refer to any kind of romance whatsoever. It was totally devoid of any interplay with anybody. The ants were supposed to be the star.
I’d like to respectfully disagree with you on that one, Dr. Medford. If anything, the National Guard’s the real star of Them!‘s third act, eclipsing even Graham, Ben, Pat and Dr. St. Nick as the four get drafted into official anti-ant efforts, becoming defacto experts in the process. We all know which country really had the “talent for industry, social organization, and savagery” in 1954, don’t we? This movie came out only four months after the U.S. H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll…which, among other things, inspired the creation of Godzilla.
Whereas Japanese monster movies (until Toho started marketing them exclusively to children, that is) are all about the depression, desperation and death – sometimes even casting their monsters as victims “of the modern nuclear age” – American monster movies are about conquering those feelings by banding together against the Common Foe. With flamethrowers. Pick your poison…but, for my money, the best examples of the genre blend the two outlooks together…or, at the very least, run them parallel to each other.
Them! on the other hand…was one of the first, so we can’t expected it to be more than it is: a prototype that became a production model. It’s a little rough around the edges but I’ve noticed most of its negatives could be construed as positives to a certain, jaded section of my readership. Like Joan said, there’s no Love Interest and little for the cast to do besides track the ants across the southwest as they make their way into LA’s sewer system. Then again…there’s no Love Interest! Nothing to stop the plot dead with shots of Our Leading Man and Lady contemplating how neigh the End is.
Halfway through the Climactic Battle, Them! does place a couple of kids we’ve never seen before and know nothing about in jeopardy, shamelessly hoping to manipulate us into giving a crap by virtue of the fact that they’re children. I imagine that kind of shameless heart-string pulling works on plenty of people, because Steven Spielberg’s made an entire career out of it. Hell, Them! probably gave him the idea in the first place. At least the kids’ jeopardy doesn’t impact the plot much…except in way I won’t spoil for you…
Let’s call it “a 90% fat free monster movie,” so focused it doesn’t have time to distract us with personal subplots about this-or-that person’s pet issues. At the same time, these aren’t robots, they’re characters reacting to the Extraordinary. And since it’s so early in the genre’s life, Our Heroes are nowhere near as stock as some of their future colleagues. Special Agent Graham and Sgt. Ben have the enviable position of playing dual Working Class Heroes and playing them well. Dr. Medford (The Younger) is a rare Scientist Chick in the age when Scientists were automatically heroes but women were rarely more than cannon fodder. Even the Scientists are allowed to be human beings, showing the kind of real human affection for each other that Dr. Arthur Carrington would’ve dismissed as “inferior.” But it all takes a back seat to the immediate crisis…as it damn well should. Besides, there’s more pathos in the one sympathetic hand Pat puts on Bob’s arm than a thousand shots of cliched lovers kissing in the rain as music swells.
Instead, Our Heroes’ days are filled with the shrill ant chirps. These ants are the best possible example of why you should get your monster’s sound design right. A few stock recordings of frog calls (because that’s all they are) turn these lumbering puppets into enduring horror movie icons. Most modern horror movie makers were, at one point or another during their childhoods, scared shitless by these sounds. Douglas wisely keeps Them off screen for as long as possibly, keeping Them in the background until it’s time for one of Them to rush and/or maul someone.
I could go on about Them! for hours, but the more of your time I take up the less time you have to sit in contemplation of its greatness. Study this film, imbibe its principals…and pass them down to your children. Maybe they’ll find something a little less monstrous behind that Door to the Atomic Age.