Tag Archives: The War of the Worlds

50’s Sci-Fi Feature #2 – Them! (1954)

Them02Them! (1954)
Directed by: Gordon Douglas
Written by: Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes (story by George Worthing Yates)
Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

One of the most charming things about classic science fiction films is that many of them were somehow able to reflect the real fears and concerns of western society, but project it onto something so mundane and have it be so horrifying.  Them! does just that, taking America’s post-war blues and fears of atomic weapons and using giant monster ants to get the message across.  While it may sound goofy all these years later, Them! has been remembered as one of the great pieces of 1950’s sci-fi for a reason.  Prolific child-star turned director Gordon Douglas was the perfect fit for an ambitious B-project like Them!  Douglas had previously directed dozens of films of various genre, size, and scope, but found arguably his greatest success with this Warner Brothers produced science fiction allegory.  The film starred big screen heavy hitters like the Academy Award nominated James Whitmore and future Gunsmoke television star James Arness.  In a classic bit of movie magic, Whitmore was forced to wear lifts in his shoes to compensate for his utterly average height when standing next to the taller Arness.  As a short man myself, I feel every bit of James Whitmore’s humiliating pain.  The two relatively big name actors, a competent director, and groundbreaking and innovative special effects led to Them! becoming Warner Brothers’ biggest success of the year, and would ultimately help the film cement its place in sci-fi and horror history.  It made $2.2 million at the box office, and helped to kick-start generations of “creature features”, often imitating but never duplicating the critical and commercial success of Them!  The Academy Awards honored the film’s special effects with a nomination for Best Special Effects, but the award ultimately went to the bigger budget screen adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Them! starts with two police officers finding a small girl wandering around the hot New Mexico desert.  The young girl is in shock, so the two officers get her to safety and begin to retrace her steps.  After finding no sign of the girl’s family, the girl hears a high-pitched squeal carried by the wind, unbeknownst to the officers around her.  Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is one of the responding officers to the scene of a general store that has been completely decimated from the outside.  The owner is found dead, and a large barrel of sugar is found smashed to pieces.  His partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) is killed by an unknown entity while Peterson is filing a report away from the general store.  The deaths of the general store owner and Trooper Blackburn pique the curiosity of the FBI, who sends Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to aid in the investigation.  Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) join Graham on the trip.  Dr. Medford is able to revive the small girl from her catatonic state, prompting her to scream the words “them!” over and over without any sort of explanation.  The team soon comes face to face with the source of all the chaos in the New Mexico desert, a colony of genetically mutated giant ants.  The first encounter ends after the use of an automatic machine gun, but the group learns that the creature was merely a forager from the colony.  A plan is concocted to gas the ants out of their nest with the use of cyanide, with the team descending into it in order to eliminate any leftover ants.  While inside, Dr. Pat Medford discovers that two queens had hatched and escaped from the nest to establish new colonies.  Can the team stop them with the power of brute human force, or will the mutated ants prove too much to bear?  Find out in 1954’s Them!

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Sandy Deschner as the young catatonic girl who unknowingly sets off the events in Them!

I was originally going to review another film as my second feature of this spotlight, but I felt compelled to write about Them! as soon as the credits rolled.  I went into it expecting nothing but a fun, mindless cheesy science fiction flick, but what I got was so much more.  While it might not be nearly as thought provoking or innovative in hindsight, this is a film that was doing a lot of new and original things at a time where studios weren’t taking many major risks.  Allegory always seems like a better idea in genre films, and it works perfectly in Them!  The fears of the common American citizen can be felt towards the end of the film, especially when the research team finds out the scale of the colony and what the ants are capable of.  They know that they’ve indirectly lent a hand in their creation by allowing atomic weapons to be created, and they know that they must now stop something that’s far more powerful than they themselves are.  The entire first act of the film with the little girl being found has enough atmosphere to match even the best modern sci-fi/horror films.  The fact that the audience doesn’t see the actual ants right away is another effective decision, forcing viewers to create their own monstrosities in the theatre of the mind.  While none of the performances are exceptional (or even noteworthy), it’s probably worth mentioning that the entire principal cast has really solid chemistry together, with no one performance trying to hog the spotlight.  This isn’t exactly a character study as much as it is a “giant monsters destroy things and get destroyed” kind of film, which makes the unmemorable performances a lot easier to swallow.  The direction fits under this “good, but ultimately forgettable” umbrella as well, which I pretty much expected from a journeyman director like Gordon Douglas.  He does his absolute best to hide weak moments in the special effects using dust storms and playing with light and darkness effectively, which helps the creatures feel much more imposing and threatening.  Other than hiding some potential weak SFX, Douglas doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with his camera, nor does his direction stand out in any way.  The best part about Them! is without a doubt its screenplay, which says a great deal about the aforementioned nuclear holocaust fears and Cold War-era paranoia, but does so in a fairly subtle and evenhanded way.  The film’s message is obvious and anybody with any knowledge of the time period can figure out where it’s going and why it’s stressed so much, but it never overshadows the best part of the film: giant, badass killer ants.  The effects hold up better than those previously seen in something like previous year’s The War of the Worlds, mostly due to the decision to not overexpose the ants and the effective use of animatronics.

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The famous first encounter with a giant mutated ant in 1954’s Them!

Overall, Them! is an incredibly fun science fiction film that in no way feels like it should be nearly as good or important as it is.  At face value, none of the cinematic aspects of the film actually stand out as being different or even anything more than competent, but it just somehow works.  Them! gets by on having a tremendous script that plays its hand at being allegorical, but never opts for heavy handedness that would overshadow the intentions of the B movie that it really is.  The special effects look incredible for the time period, and the atmosphere during the first and lasts acts of the movie feels perfectly chilling and creepy.  Them! is a hell of a good time, and is highly recommended for anybody who loves some allegory in their giant ant movies.

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #1 – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Film1953-TheWarOfTheWorlds-OriginalPosterThe War of the Worlds (1953)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Barre Lyndon (based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time, largely in part to how many times the story has been adapted and improved upon.  The classic novel led to Orson Welles’ infamous panic-inducing radio drama, which would originally lead to a big screen adaptation of the novel, and that film led to countless remakes.  The original film version differs greatly from the novel, mainly by setting it in modern America, rather than the Victorian England setting of the Wells story.  The film instead takes place after the first two World Wars, which saw humans banding together to defeat a common enemy, a theme that becomes important in the film version.  The War of the Worlds was directed by former special effects artist Byron Haskin, and it would go on to be the biggest success of his long career.  Haskin teamed up with his friend and producer George Pal, making it one of the many successful projects the two underwent together.  The special effects experience and knowledge held by the film’s director would lead to an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, and would cement the film’s legacy as a special effects marvel.  The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom had successful careers as television actors, and would both later appear in cameo roles in Steven Spielberg’s modern take on the story.  The War of the Worlds was a massive financial success, becoming the highest grossing sci-fi film of 1953, and spawning a great deal of imitators in the years to follow.  The tremendous success and influence of the original film has been mostly overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s highly successful (and arguably much better) 2005 reimagining of the story.  Today, Byron Haksin’s The War of the Worlds sits in the National Film Registry, and is looked back upon fondly by historians for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The War of the Worlds begins with a montage of Earth’s first two World Wars, with a narrator remarking how much technology has rapidly advanced throughout these decades.  The narrator then gives us a quick explanation of the harsh conditions on Mars, and explains the motivations for its inhabitants wanting to scout the planet Earth for eventual relocation of the remaining Martians.  We meet a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), just as a large meteor-like object is touching down on Earth.  Dr. Forrester and his troupe go to investigate the crash site, where he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and others.  Later that evening, after most of the crowd has called it a day, the “meteor” opens up and the inhabitants found within kill all those in the area of impact.  All technology in the town is disabled by the invading Martians after an EMP is set off, causing the United States military to investigate the invaders.  Reports from all around the world are soon received with similar stories, meaning that the invaders are here to conquer.  After an attempted peace offering, the Martians destroy the military’s best with little effort and move on to the next town.  Dr. Forrester and Sylvia take shelter in an old farmhouse, where the two fall in love.  After a close encounter with the invaders, the two manage to steal a sample of alien DNA and escape to the relative safety of Dr. Forrester’s Pacific Tech.  When they are, the doctor, Sylvia, and their fellow survivors and military officials begin to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to take down the seemingly indestructible Martian ships.  Can humankind overcome the impossible odds stacked against them, or will the Martian invaders squash human beings from existence?  Find out in the iconic 1953 film The War of the Worlds!

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Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, stars of The War of the Worlds.

I was thirteen when I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic reimagining of The War of the Worlds, and it instantly became one of my favorite films as an adolescent. While I don’t look back on it with the same fondness I once did, the film inspired me to read H.G. Wells’ terrific novel, and launched my love for all things science fiction.  It took me a decade to finally get around to seeing the original film, and I can definitely see why 1953’s The War of the Worlds was so influential on the genre.  While I can’t say that I’m in love with the film by any means, I also can’t deny the fact that this is a very fun, very fast moving action sci-fi flick.  Its groundbreaking use of special effects haven’t aged well, but they’re still incredibly charming today in all of their faults.  The heat ray weapon used by the Martians is still really effective, even if the actual effect looks completely silly with actors just kind of disappearing.  The effect used in Spielberg’s film where those affected by the weapon “disintegrate” into dust doesn’t look great today either, so it’s clearly a case of the effect being hard to realize visually.  Despite the charming goofiness of the heat rays and the actual snake-like alien ships, the design of the aliens themselves is quite creepy and definitely adds to their presence.  Of course, it helps that we very rarely see the creatures through the film’s last half, adding to the uneasiness felt by their presence.  Aside from some obviously dated effects, The War of the Worlds features consistently flat and unremarkable direction from Byron Haskin.  While the Martians feel like a threat throughout, it has almost nothing to do with Haskin’s steady and lazy direction.  Haskin’s direction doesn’t do much to detract from the overall film, but it does absolutely nothing to add to it.  The direction brings the film down from what could have been incredible heights, making it instead feel like what it is: a pretty good science fiction film that was ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.  On top of unremarkable direction, the lead performances in The War of the Worlds are nothing to write home about.  Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson do an admirable job of being likeable protagonists, but they never quite go into the territory that Spielberg brought Tom Cruise’s multi-layered loser father character to.  While this isn’t exactly a quiet character study, the lack of any sort of depth or development certainly doesn’t help the film’s case.  Luckily for science fiction fans, The War of the Worlds still feels significant because of its ridiculously fast pacing.  It never pauses for too long, never focuses on insignificant side stories or characters, but instead gives it to us straight.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what everybody wants from a cheesy, fun sci-fi flick?

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The iconic Martian spaceship design from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Overall, The War of the Worlds isn’t a great film.  I’m not even completely convinced that it’s a really good film, to be honest.  What we have here though is an incredibly charming and fun (albeit goofy) thrill ride.  While the special effects may seem dated to most today, they do the trick in getting the audience engaged enough to buy into the fantastic story at hand.  The direction and acting may be completely ordinary, but that doesn’t hinder The War of the Worlds the same way it would completely destroy most films.  If you want a fun piece of American history to digest after something with a little more weight like Spielberg’s 2005 film, this might be your ticket.  It may not wow you like it did for audiences in 1953, but it’s a hell of a good time.  The War of the Worlds is cautiously recommended.

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