BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Keep Watching the Skies Blogathon over at The Cinematic Frontier blog.
The creation of and subsequent use of atomic bombs in World War II had a profound effect on the world – one that is still being felt to this day. It had an immediate impact in the United States with the public being afraid of potential war with Russia in the 1950s as they sought to build their own nuclear arsenal in competition with America. There was also the fear of the effects that nuclear power would have on everyday life and this manifested itself in many ways.
In the world of film, Hollywood sought to capitalize on this anxiety by producing monster movies involving irradiated animals and insects that grew to massive proportions, threatening the lives of average citizens. These movies successfully connected with audiences and soon, Hollywood was churning them out on a regular basis. Of the many that were made, one of the best was Them! (1954) featuring giant ants mutated by radiation in New Mexico.
The origins of Them! lie with former Warner Bros. staff producer Ted Sherdeman who commissioned the original story from George Worthing Yates about giant ants nesting in the New York City subway tunnels. Sherdeman liked the story because, other than man, “ants are the only creatures in the world who plan and wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at the time.” Yates also wrote the screenplay but it was rejected by the studio for being too expensive to produce because of all the special effects sequences.
Russell Hughes, a contract writer for the studio, was brought on board to rewrite the script and he came up with the structure that consisted of a detective story for the first half and an action thriller for the second half. Hughes died prematurely from a heart attack with only 20 pages completed and so Sherdeman finished it himself.
He then pitched the project to the studio via drawings and a 16mm film about ants made by entomologists from UCLA. He also got art designer Larry Meiggs to make a three-foot ant head with movable antennae and mandibles. Warner Bros. executive Steve Trilling was impressed and a film test was shot. However, studio head Jack L. Warner wasn’t convinced of its commercial prospects and offered the project to 20th Century Fox. Sherdeman convinced WB producer Walter McCuhan that Them! had commercial potential because Fox was willing to pay a decent amount of money for the story. The studio finally agreed to finance the film.
Two State Police Officers find a little girl (Sandy Descher) walking alone in the desert. She doesn’t respond to their inquiries and appears to be in a state of shock, traumatized by some unknown event. They investigate a trailer nearby and find that it has been ripped open by something quite large. I like that director Gordon Douglas shows the officers examining the trailer for clues as to what happened, especially Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) who carefully inspects various items, including a strange print in the sand outside.
This procedural stuff piques our curiosity but what really gets our attention more than anything else is a high-pitched noise that awakens the now-sleeping child. The look of absolute terror in her eyes is chilling. What would make that sound and do that kind of damage, rendering a little girl into a nearly catatonic state?
The two troopers investigate a general store later that night and it too has been torn open from the outside. A sandstorm rages outside, which only adds to the ominous atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. Like the trailer, they find sugar lying out in the open and no money has been taken. While Peterson heads back to the station his partner stays behind only to be attacked and killed by the source of the high-pitched noise.
When one of the victims turns out to be an FBI agent on vacation with his family, the Bureau sends one of its representatives, Special Agent Robert Graham (James Arness), to investigate. Everyone is mystified by the print they found at the first crime scene until two representatives from the Department of Agriculture – father /daughter team Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon) – deduce that it belongs to a monstrous ant. They get first-hand knowledge when one of them attacks Pat in a suspenseful scene in a sandstorm. The solution to the problem is simple – they have to find the nest and destroy it but it isn’t going to be that easy as two airborne queens split the scene for parts unknown.
The elder Medford is the stereotypical absent-minded professor that provides a lot of the film’s humor as he fumbles his way through things like radio etiquette but is brilliant in his area of expertise, acting as the voice of reason. He also gets to intone some of the film’s best lines, like his sage warning early on, “We maybe witness to a biblical prophecy come true.” The younger Medford is the leggy scientist that claims she is as capable as any man only having to be rescued by Graham and Peterson when attacked by a giant ant.
All of the actors do excellent work in their respective roles with Edmund Gwenn as an erudite scientist, who is both amusingly befuddled by things outside of his expertise and a wonderful deliverer of exposition dialogue, as one of the standouts along with James Whitmore who brings a no-frills authenticity that contrasts effectively with the fantastical premise of giant ants.
His style of acting echoes Douglas’ no-nonsense direction, which expertly handles simple scenes with characters talking to each other, while keeping our interest, as he does with the exciting action sequences. He even has the confidence to stop the narrative more than halfway through to give us a science lesson on how ants act and live! It is classic Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. The exposition-heavy screenplay is well-written and brought to life by the talented cast. The end result is the best monster movie to come out of the ‘50s. Them! is a fascinating reflection of the fears of atomic power that people felt at the time. Dr. Medford sums it up best at the very end when he says, “When man entered the atomic age he opened the door into a new world. What we will eventually find in that new world nobody can predict.”
Stafford, Jeff. “Them!” Turner Classic Movies.