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!
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.
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.