Sunday, 12 August 2012

Them! (1954)

Country: USA

The rich and fertile landscape of American science-fiction was sown in the 1950’s, and the production companies that ploughed the land most consistently were Universal International Pictures and American International Pictures. The former were able to bring a certain degree of filmmaking sophistication to such efforts as It Came from Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and The Monolith Monsters (1957), and they gave director Jack Arnold a platform to investigate his thematic concerns in a series of sci-fi pictures that culminated with his unqualified masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In some quarters Arnold is considered an auteur, and so too is Roger Corman, who was to AIP what Arnold was to UI. By contrast the productions of AIP were marked by ultra low budgets, non-existent production values, and owing to their status as independent producers and distributors a certain amount of political and social radicalism. Like the cycle of monochrome horrors initiated in the 1930’s by Universal every major production company got in on the act, and independent production outfits had a field day with material perfectly suited to the drive-ins and the affluent teenage demographic; for whatever reason Warner Bros. were consistently uninterested in the booming sci-fi/horror cycle of the 1950’s. This mirrored their lack of interest in the horror cycle of the 1930’s, which was paid the slightest lip service with a small handful of films. Their influence in the 1950’s extended mostly to the area of distribution as they put out The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Godzilla Raids Again (1955), X the Unknown (1956), and The Black Scorpion (1957). Their sole foray into the area of production was clearly intended to emulate the success of 20,000 Fathoms, and it did so and more, with a prehistoric dinosaur being replaced by a colony of giant irradiated ants.

Although we are now used to the beautiful monochrome cinematography of Sidney Hickox imbuing Them! with both an atmosphere of creeping menace and semi-documentary realism the film was initially conceived in colour and in 3D. Although it is comforting to know that the leadership of Warner’s saw Them! in such prestigious terms, I can’t help feeling that the decision to abandon these techniques has been of tremendous benefit to the lasting appeal of this cherished film. The senses of isolation and moody alienation that opens the film may well have been totally undone were the film shot in colour. Instead the desert locale (a frequent and favoured setting for numerous earth based sci-fi films of the 1950’s) becomes an intimidating and threatening space, a terrifying and nightmarish landscape in which a solitary catatonic child wanders aimlessly amid the rock strewn and pitted terrain, dwarfed into insignificance by the sublime vastness of the topography. It’s a testament to the inventive screenplay of Ted Sherdeman (adapted by Russell S. Hughes from a story by George Worthing Yates) that the mode of address that opens the film owes more to the police procedural/murder mystery than it does science-fiction. This is one of several generic surprises that sets Them! apart from its contemporaries. The perplexing and troubling investigation led by square jawed Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) into the mysterious disappearance of the little girls family cultivates a genuine sense of dread, but also more importantly an atmosphere of ominous and portentous doom. It is these early moments amid the remote seclusion of the desert that really communicate a feeling of mankind on the brink of destruction, rather than the city under siege pyrotechnics of the second half.

Much of the tension in these desert bound sequences is generated by an eerie electronic sound effect which represents the nearby presence of a giant ant. When the mutated creatures are given screen time they are an inevitable let down, but their omnipotent threat remains undiminished. Them! is a sci-fi film that emphasises consensus and cooperation, Peterson is not at all resentful of FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness), and neither flatfoot show indignation towards the two scientists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Patricia (Joan Weldon), though inevitably we do have to endure the typical gender dynamics that often blight these films. It has to be said though that Patricia represents a relatively strong feminine presence as she takes on the physical duties that her aged father is no longer able to perform. This includes a standout sequence in which she leads an expedition into the central ant colony, only to discover that the winged queen has fled to pastures new. The consensual nature of the film extends to the authorities (both political and military) when Medford explains his thesis in Washington. It is perhaps the ease with which all parties concede to Medford’s proposals that doesn’t quite ring true, but it does afford the affable doctor an opportunity to present a lecture on the nature of ants and in so doing distil the propagandist themes of the picture. The film that Medford shows emphasises the collective structure of the ant society, all working to a common cause, and all willing to subsume their individuality for the good of the wider group. The allusions to Soviet communism are transparently conveyed, but fortunately Them! chooses not to labour the point as it shifts gear in the final third as the storm drains of Los Angeles become a war zone between mankind and the mutated ants it has unwittingly created.

The storm drains are an inspired location for the final showdown, and once martial law is declared the empty streets echo the eeriness of the desert. Los Angeles isn’t really a city under siege, and there are no sequences of ants attempting to destroy buildings in the way presented in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In fact we have the direct opposite, as the forces of good pit their wits against the ants in the winding tunnels under the city. This is the second spatial triumph of the film, and it’s not even ruined by a nonsense subplot involving two snot nosed kids who have got themselves trapped. The military are equipped with flamethrowers (some of which fire directly into the camera as a reminder that this film was intended for 3D) and they mercilessly pour on the flames too eradicate the mistake that there atomic testing created. The film ends on a doom laden note, thus confirming its pacifist intentions, and its cautious position towards atomic testing. The director Gordon Douglas, who was making his first and last sci-fi picture, approaches the material with logic rather than inspiration, and he brings a certain urban realism to the final third which exists in contrast (at times Them! feels like two films) to the desert bound setting. This all works to give the film a uniqueness which would be eroded by successive giant monster movies. Although Them! wasn’t the first, it still nevertheless provided the blueprint for latter entries in the cycle. Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding Them! was why Warner Bros. chose not to follow up its maiden voyage in the burgeoning sci-fi cycle of the 1950’s, especially in light of the fact that it was their most profitable production of 1954.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. THEM! is one of my favorites for many of the reasons you state. I'm from New Mexico as well, so the Trinity/Atomic mutation thing strikes a happily familiar chord!

    Forgive me if I get a bit recondite here, but you bring up some things that make me wonder. The daughter figure in THEM! seems to subsequence the strong female sidekick from jungle/adventure pictures of the forties; the female companion to the objective American scientist (discover/catalogue) that followed/countered so many 'British Empire' films of the 30's and 40's.

    Finally, It's been a damned long while since I saw this gem, I can't believe I missed the anti-Commie bent last time. AIP/Corman (It Conquered the World being a fine example) were equally concerned with demonstrating their patriotism.

    Maybe Lee Van Cleef would have made THEM! even better?

  2. By all accounts THEM! would appear to be one of the most loved sci-fi/horror pics of the 1950's. I have yet to come across a dissenting voice, and would be intrigued if I did so. You raise an interesting point about the role played by Joan Weldon. She is an unusually proactive feminine presence, and although we have the mild opposition from the FBI Agent, she is completely accepted, and this feeds into the general theme of consensus. But at the same she does have the archetypal qualities you point out.

    I think the anti-Commie aspects of THEM! are entirely part of its subtext, rather than its sole purpose. I think they are there if you want to find them, but can easily be ignored or dispensed with if that doesn't interest you. This is the great success of THEM! it can be enjoyed purely as an escapist example of the giant monster movie, and as a film about socio/political issues...the best 50's sci-fi I find, always perform this tricky balancing act.

    Lee Van Cleef would make anything better! :-)

    Cheers for the informative and intriguing comment Goodkind.

  3. Great film this one, and one that gets better with age. I am also shocked that no remake has been forthcoming. And grateful!


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