I watched another famous Fifties sci-fi/horror movie with my girlfriend this past weekend. And unlike my experience with The War of the Worlds, I enjoyed it a great deal. That came as no great surprise to me, since this particular film is one of my favorites and I have watched it many times, but it may come as a surprise to others (though most likely not the followers of this blog), since it is also virtually synonymous with late-night, black-and-white, poorly-acted Fifties camp. Whenever anyone wants to use shorthand for a joke about dreadful late-show movies (or nuclear fallout), more likely than not they start talking about giant ants.
Yes. I’m talking about Them!.
(Yes, that exclamation point is part of the title.)
For those who aren’t familiar with Them!, it’s one of the first of the “Atomic Monster” movies, a genre that has largely faded away with the end of the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation that went with it. The undisputed champion of the Atomic Monsters was (and is) Godzilla. More than any other, he is nuclear annihilation incarnate, The Bomb on two legs. He casts his enormous shadow over the entire genre, to the point that it’s easy to forget that it includes anyone but him. This is entirely deserved. Americans may have lived in fear of nuclear war, but the Japanese had firsthand knowledge. Still, while he may have been the greatest, Godzilla was not the first. The first Atomic Monster was 1953’s Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, with both Them! and Godzilla following one year later. Between the three of them, they launched the Atomic Horror genre. Them! itself is the first, the greatest and the progenitor of the infamous Big Bug genre…which may be responsible for its reputation.
Now, Heaven knows, I have no problem enjoying cheesey films of questionable quality. My very first review on this site was of one such, and if you followed that link, you’ll know that I couldn’t stop gushing. But Them! does not fit that description. The script is well-written and fast-paced, without a scene or detail wasted. The special effects – hard as it may be to believe from a 21st-century perspective – were Oscar-nominated, and the acting…
Well! The acting was (with one or two exceptions) very high quality, despite being in the broad, stage-theatrical style of the time. What’s really impressive about it is the number of big names that are connected to this humble science-fiction effort (though admittedly most of them didn’t become big until after, in some cases because of this movie). FBI Agent Robert Graham is played by James Arness, who my father would more likely recognize as Marshal Dillon from “Gunsmoke”. Both of my parents would recognize Fess Parker – his cameo here as Alan Crotty, an unfortunate bystander caught up in the coverup surrounding the ants, earned him his most famous gig as Disney’s Daniel Boone. Most enduringly famous of all, Dr. Harold Medford is played by Edmund Gwenn, best known as Kris Kringle from the original “Miracle on 34th Street”.
Welp, now that I’m finished defending Them!, I suppose I should get around to reviewing it, don’t you think?
Them! begins with New Mexico State Troopers Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn searching the desert near Alamagordo with the aid of a spotter plane, following some sort of tip. They’re just about to give up when “Johnny” in the plane spots something: a little girl wandering aimless and alone. Ben and Ed rush to the site and find the girl to be dressed in only pajamas and a bathrobe, completely unresponsive, and carrying a vaguely ominous broken doll. “Johnny” then spots something else: a trailer parked on the road nearby. Thinking they may have found the girl’s family, Peterson and Blackburn hurry to the trailer, only to find a mystery: a wall of the trailer has been destroyed, but it looks like it was pulled out, not pushed in – surely not a traffic accident. The inside has been ransacked, but only sugar taken. There is much blood, but no bodies. Ed finds some sort of print outside, but has no idea what it could be.
Ben also finds a piece of the girl’s nightgown and the missing piece of her doll’s head. This moment is done with commendable understatement: Ed is on the CB radio, calling for a 1954-era CSI team, while Ben matches the missing pieces. When Ed asks Ben if he has anything to add, Ben simply shakes his head and, without comment, shows Ed the matches he’s made. I don’t think a modern movie could handle such a Big Revelation without shouting or spelling it out somehow.
Anyway, the CSI team and an ambulance arrive, and I’m once again amazed by the formality of dress required by 1950’s culture. The photographer is wearing a business suit while taking pictures of a crime scene in the middle of the New Mexico desert.
The girl is packed into an ambulance, still unresponsive, when we hear a strange whistling-chirping noise. The men are distracted by it, so they don’t see her sit up, and she lies back down again as soon as the sound ends. The men dismiss the sound as the wind, but uneasily – they’ve clearly never heard the wind do that before.
Leaving the CSI team to their work, Ben and Ed head down to Gramps Johnson’s General Store to see if Gramps saw or heard anything. Unfortunately, it seems that he did. The wall of the store is destroyed in the same manner as the wall of the trailer, the store is completely tossed (again, only sugar taken), and the rifle Gramps keeps under the counter is broken in half. This time, however, they find a body: Gramps himself. As we will later discover from the coroner, Gramps could have died in any one of five ways: his neck and back are broken, his skull is fractured, his chest is crushed, and his body is filled with enough formic acid to kill twenty men.
This last, as you can imagine, adds a bit to the general mystery. Who injects people with massive amounts of formic acid as a method of murder, especially when their victim is already dead four times over?
I’d like to take a moment here to mention that I absolutely love Gramps Johnson’s General Store. It’s a downright gorgeous piece of period-setting scenery. Everything from the archaic gas pump out front to the bachelor’s (or widower’s) apartment out back with the teapot whistling on the iron woodstove, announces this as a place that you just don’t find in the world anymore, and was probably dying out even then.
Ben leaves the scene to check on the girl and make a report, while Ed stays behind to guard the store. This does not end well for Ed. His disappearance adds still more to the mystery: Ed is known in the police department as a crack shot. Who or what could have overcome him?
The plates on the trailer are traced to an FBI agent on an extended vacation with his wife and two(!) children. The FBI sends agent Robert Graham to participate in the investigation, but he’s just as stumped as the locals. The best he can think of to do is to send the mysterious print to Washington to be analyzed by the FBI’s own experts.
Several days later, the Doctors Medford from the Department of Agriculture arrive. It seems that they have information about the mysterious print that the FBI did not. It’s another reminder of the period that the plane they arrive in is a spartan, military-looking affair that they have to climb out of with a ladder. This WWII relic is what a cheap flight looked like in 1954.
The “Doctors Medford” are Doctor Harold Medford (a plump old man of approximately 76, if we go by Edmund Gwenn’s age) and his daughter Pat, and I love them. Just love them. They are far and away my favorite part of this movie. Agent Robert Graham is your standard Our Hero, square-jawed, forthright and brave. Ben (once Robert arrives and takes the spotlight) is your pragmatic, down-to-Earth sidekick. The doctors Medford are…something altogether more interesting. Harold (the one actually addressed as “Dr. Medford” throughout the movie, which I’m going to do from here on out of pure habit) is exactly what I was talking about here when I said to write scientists as they are. Dr. Medford is almost…almost…the classic stereotype of the absent-minded professor. When not working in his field, he gives the impression of being permanently lost in thought (probably thoughts about his field). When confronted with things he doesn’t understand, he’s either childishly delighted (goggles to protect his eyes from blowing sand) or childishly petulant (military radio protocol). However, Dr. Medford is no comic relief stereotype who steps in whenever the group needs someone to do their thinking for them. He’s a thorough professional who treats everyone with formality and respect regardless of sex or social class (he even addresses his own daughter as “Doctor” when they’re on the clock), and when he is in his field, you see just how frighteningly focused, methodical and brilliant he really is. In some ways, he reminds me very much of the friend I describe in the post at that link.
As for Dr. Pat Medford (addressed as “Pat” throughout the movie to make the male characters, especially Robert, more comfortable)…everything that was done wrong with Sylvia van Buren in The War of the Worlds is done right with Pat. There’s definitely attraction between her and Agent Robert, but the movie doesn’t shoehorn in an obligatory love story as they’re working together to protect people from being eaten by monsters. Her expertise is used to the full; while her father is definitely the senior scientist on the project, his age and health make her the field operative. She even takes charge when necessary. Best of all, she only screams once, and even then it’s in circumstances where screaming is not only warranted but useful. It’s a remarkably feminist portrayal for the time, and it stands out even today.
Getting back to the movie: the Medfords examine all the evidence gathered thus far, and quickly conclude that they were wrong to even think “this” might be a hoax. They spend the next few minutes asking odd questions (“Where was the first atomic bomb exploded?”), rushing from one random errand to the next, and refusing to explain what “this” is. They manage to bring the little girl out of her catatonia (by wafting formic acid under her nose), which counts as Getting Results and buys them a little time, but it isn’t long before Agent Graham demands some answers.
Dr. Medford handles this better than 95+% of fictional Smart Guys by assuring them that he isn’t being deliberately coy with them, but that he dares not give voice to his theory until he is certain he’s correct, for fear of a widespread panic.
Another digression here: Our Heroes spend a great deal of time and effort keeping the giant ants secret for fear of a widespread panic. When the secret can no longer be kept, the public is finally told, and…no panic. Might as well have told them; they might have been some help in…well, I’ll get to that.
I often wonder about stories like this, where the tension is artificially raised by insisting the public would “panic” if they knew what was happening – as if people were “dumb, panicky, dangerous animals,” as K from MiB would say. In some cases (such as aliens hiding amongst us in human guise), sure, they would be. But large dangerous animals trying to knock us out of our place at the top of the food chain? We’ve been dealing with that since we chipped our first flint spear.
Anyway, Robert tries to get answers from Pat, who he thinks might be more reasonable. She is, but she’s deferring to her father’s judgment on this. Frustrated, Robert asks just what her father’s qualifications are, anyway. She informs him that her father (and she herself, for that matter) is one of the world’s leading myrmecologists.
I like that. Qualified scientists working within their specialty, instead of experts-in-everything cinematic “Scientists!”. Something else this movie handles better than almost every movie of its time, and even most movies today.
Anyway…Robert doesn’t know what the word “myrmecologist” means (anyone who does has had The Twist revealed to them…though how much of a twist it really was, given the movie posters, I don’t know), but before Pat can explain, her father calls them to see something: a print, identical to the one found by Ed Blackburn. He doesn’t explain what it is, but makes it clear that it’s absolutely enormous for its type, and sends the others to find more before the rising sandstorm fills them in.
Pat finds one, and has crouched to examine it – still dressed in a skirt and heels – when the creature that made it rises over the dune behind her: an ant eight feet long.
This is when Pat screams. Can you blame her? She also tries to run, but you know…skirt. Heels. Desert sand. Fortunately, the men heard her scream, and come running. At Dr. Medford’s direction, Robert and Ben “blind” the ant by disabling its antennae with implausibly accurate shots from their sidearms, but Ben has to run back to his squad car and fetch the assault rifle that’s apparently standard issue for New Mexico State Police to finish the job of putting it down.
Of course, the ant is incredibly primitive by the standards of 2013, a giant puppet that in no way looks real, but like watching a movie where human characters interact with Muppets or cartoons, you quickly come to accept it anyway.
Dr. Medford quotes a Biblical Prophecy that I’m pretty sure is nothing of the kind, and the movie switches from mystery to action. The Doctors Medford, having the definitive proof they sought, finally explain their theory: the assorted disappearances and murders have been caused by giant ants like the one they just killed, which were mutated from ordinary desert ants by radiation from the atomic bomb tests at White Sands. This even explains the weird formic acid murders: the ants use the stuff for venom.
Of course, there’s no way that a colony of creatures that large could possibly find enough food in the desert (and Pat’s suggestion that they’ve turned carnivorous for lack of a vegetable diet, even if possible, actually makes it worse), and physics laughs at your silly idea that ants that size could support their own weight, but if you’re going to worry about stuff like that, you’re not going to enjoy Atomic Monster movies anyway.
Our Heroes seek out the anthill and kill the colony with cyanide gas, but upon examination, they find that their work isn’t done.
This is an awesome scene. The stated purpose of the mission into the nest is to make sure that everything is dead, but the Doctors Medford know that isn’t enough. They need to confirm that no young queens escaped, and for that, an expert needs to go. Given all the strenuous climbing involved, which expert needs to go is obvious, but since this is the Fifties, it isn’t actually obvious at all. Robert insists that the nest is “no place for you or any other woman”, but Pat – with her father’s backing – asserts her authority as the only expert on-site who can manage the climb. No, she can’t teach him what he needs to look for in the time they have.
With no answer to that, Robert grudgingly agrees…and it’s a good thing that he does. Two queens did indeed escape, and they must be found and destroyed before before they establish nests of their own…and birth more new queens.
The next part of the movie is an interesting experience: how often, even in the movies, do you get to see the mysterious government coverup from the inside? What’s more, the characters performing the coverup – including keeping Fess Parker locked up in a mental hospital until the crisis is past – are portrayed as neither personally conflicted nor morally grey. Even more foreign to modern expectations, every level of the government is as helpful and efficient as they can be in dealing with the threat. It must have been nice to have that much faith in the government.
Incidentally, if you’ll look carefully at the actor with the bit part as a soldier delivering a report about “Flying saucers” (actually one of the young queens and two males on their mating flight) to a secretary and commenting “When bigger stories are told, Texans will tell ’em”, you’ll recognize a very young Leonard Nimoy.
The first queen establishes her nest on a ship at sea, which is easily dealt with by sinking it. The second is a bit trickier: she establishes her nest in the storm drains beneath Los Angeles.
At this point, the coverup is no longer tenable. Martial law is declared, Fess Parker is presumably released, and the military roars into town. Again, this is portrayed in an entirely positive light: these are the heroes of WWII racing to the rescue, not the government jackboot coming down.
That’s one thing this movie shares with The War of the Worlds (and the Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, for that matter): the pervasive influence of World War II. Both Ben and Robert served in it, for one. This is not discussed; it’s taken for granted so completely that there’s no need for exposition. While Our Heroes are using bazookas to lay white phosphorous on the New Mexico anthill, Ben instructs the General(!) loading his bazooka. The general replies “Don’t rush me, I’m doing this by the book. I’ve never loaded one of these babies before.” Ben’s answer “Well I guess that makes us even. I’ve never given orders to a general before.” A more tragic example occurs later on, when Robert (dressed in the helmet and fatigues of the common dogface, rather than exploring the LA storm drains in the suit of an FBI Agent to maintain his heroic individuality, as would be done today) sees a friend killed by the ants, automatically yells for a medic, then carries on with the weary resignation of someone who’s seen it too many damn times before.
By the way. When the coverup finally comes down? No panic. Everyone pretty much keeps cool. Maybe people watching at the time were thinking “it’s a good thing the firm hand of martial law was in place, or there might have been chaos”, but from my place in the 21st century, all I was thinking was “Looks like you underestimated the public. Wouldn’t it have been useful to have their help in looking for the large, dangerous animals with the very noticeable dietary needs over the last few months?”
I should also note just how much LA has changed from the time this movie was made. In some ways, it seems more like a small town writ large than something qualitatively different – big as it may be, there’s still the corner malt shop, and scenic overlooks for teenagers to park their cars and listen to the radio.
Also, it seems that there was only one non-white person in the entire city of LA in 1954, a fellow we see working at a shoe shine stand.
The movie ends in grand style, with the first known example of the heroes chasing the monsters through dark, constricted tunnels with flamethrowers. Our Heroes triumph, of course, which I don’t feel is a spoiler because it was pretty much a given for American movies at the time. Indeed, the fact that we see the death of an important character already makes this movie much darker than the norm for 1954.
Which…see what I said above re. Godzilla. I actually enjoy this movie much more than I do Godzilla, but I can’t deny: when one ends on a note of “it’s not over” apprehension about what may have been awakened by the other nuclear tests, but shows this crisis being handled with good ol’ American ingenuity and little cost, while the other shows the terrible devastation that would almost certainly result, it’s not hard to guess which is more honest.