James Arness and Edmund Gwenn chase giant ants in this atmospheric 1954 SF horror thriller. The original giant bug film, considered by many to be the best. Good direction, solid acting and a smart script that taps into the era’s atomic fears. 8/10
Them! 1954, USA. Directed by Gordon Douglas. Written by George Worthing Yates, Russell S. Hughes, Ted Sherdeman. Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Sandy Descher. Produced by David Weisbart. IMDb: 7.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 93/100. Metacritic: N/A.
On the site Gary Westfahl’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Films, the author writes: ”Although there were several strange and striking films in the early 1950s that demonstrated in various ways what science fiction films of that era might have become /…/ there was one film that precisely exemplified what science fiction film in the 1950s actually became, and that was Them!” I agree. While there were quite a few notable exceptions, like George Pal’s ambitious space film Conquest of Space (1955, review), the claustrophobic social drama Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and the Shakespearean space opera Forbidden Planet (1956), Them! set the template for the latter part of the fifties. This was the first actual giant bug film, and, many would say, the best.
Police spot a little girl (Sandy Descher) walking alone with a broken doll in the middle of the New Mexico desert (actually the Mojave desert). As one of the police officers, Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) tries to speak to her, she appears to be shocked into an almost catatonic state. The officers then spot a destroyed camper van and deduce that the girl must have escaped from there. The parents are nowhere to be seen, the trailer has a huge hole in the side, but nothing is taken, except for a looted package of sugar. The only clue as to the assailant is a strange large print in the sand. As the girl is loaded into an ambulance (driven by sci-fi stalwart William Schallert in a walk-on role), the officers hear an eerie, ominous chirping sound, but don’t see the girl reacting to it by sitting straight up in her stretcher.
Later that evening Peterson, along with his partner Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) investigate a break-in in a local convenient store, again with a huge hole in the wall. Again, nothing is taken, except sugar. The owner is found dead. Peterson leaves to make a report, while Blackburn stays behind on guard. Only to be brutally killed off-screen by an unseen assailant making the same strange noises the officers heard in the desert.
Cue FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) who is just as baffled as anyone else by the strange footprint, the sugar theft, the brutal murders and the fact that the victims were filled with enough formic acid ”to kill 20 men”. Graham decides to send the print to Washington for analysis, which prompts the arrival of two scientists from the department of agriculture, the eccentric Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his beautiful daughter Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon), who catches the eye of agent Graham. But there’s no time for romance, as the Medfords head straight out to see the little catatonic girl. Dr. Medford Sr. gives her a whiff of formic acid, and she snaps back to consciousness, screaming into the camera: ”THEM! THEM! THEM!”
Assured in his unspoken assumptions, Dr. Medford demands to be taken to the broken trailer, where a wild desert storm has broken out. To the dismay of Graham and Peterson, he refuses to divulge his suspicions until he is certain, as they might send the country into a state of panic. He investigates another print, and Dr. Medford the younger goes out to look for more. Drowning out the howling storm, here come again those eerie chirping noises, and from behind a dune rises the head of a gigantic, black, shaggy ant, reaching with its brutal pincers for Patricia Medford. ”Shoot the antennae!” shouts Medford Sr., which Graham and Peterson do, as their handguns do nothing to slow the beast down. Finally Peterson gets his machine gun from the squad car, and peppers the beast full of holes, saving the female scientist. This, explains Dr. Medford, is a giant ant – but all this must be kept secret until the time he says so. Wind howling and sand blowing, he adds, in a great close-up shot: ”We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true – ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.’”
By this time we are almost half an hour into the 95 minutes long film – and it is probably the best part of the movie. The slow, scary build-up is absolute top-notch filmmaking. Of course everyone in the audience knew it was going to be giant ants, because they were on the bloody poster. But the beauty of the filmmaking is that it STILL works. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the rest of the film either, but if it had continued in this spectacular way, this would have been a ten-star movie.
It turns out that the ants have appeared in the same spot as atom bomb testings were carried out in 1945, and as Dr. Medford explains, the creatures have since mutated into giant monsters by the lingering radiation.
I don’t want to give too much away for those who haven’t seen the film, but in short Peterson, Graham and the Medfords team up with the military to destroy the underground ant hive in the middle of the desert, and after gassing it, the two heroes go underground into the tunnels, along with a very capable and tough Patricia Medford, walking past the giant corpses of dead ants, killing stragglers with flame throwers, and finally come upon the queen’s chamber, filled with translucent eggs, some of which have unfortunately hatched, and may have gotten out. To their dismay, they find that two of the eggs contained queen ants, who have now flown away in search of new breeding grounds. Peterson and Graham think they’re done, but Patricia snaps at them, they’re far from done: ”I said burn it! Burn everything!”
The operation to find the two escaped queens goes nationwide, the team travels to Washington to convince top brass and politicians, and unusually for a film like this, everyone’s on board, from police to scientists to military and government – all US authorities, together, fighting for the same goal. Dr. Medford explains that one queen can lay millions of eggs, and if they hatch, then ”man, as the dominant species of life on earth, will probably be extinct within … a year”. Finally, a showdown for the survival of life itself commences in the storm drain tunnels of Los Angeles …
Them! is so good that it surprises me every time I see it, and it loses none of its punch even after a fifth viewing. This is very much thanks to director Gordon Douglas, who keeps the pacing tight, and works with cinematographer Sidney Hickox to give the film a noirish, almost documentary style. The action sequences are the best of all filmed in any science fiction movie of the fifties. The acting ranges from good to brilliant – especially Gwenn, Whitmore, Mary Alan Hokanson and Fess Parker stand out. But credit should also go to screenwriters George Worthing Yates, Russell S. Hughes and Ted Sherdeman for cutting out the fluff, for writing decent dialogue and for avoiding camp and the most worn cliches. And most of all for writing a script that holds the viewer nailed from beginning to end. Not counting some slow 15 minutes in the middle of the movie, it is a fast-paced, suspenseful, rather intelligent script, that avoids unnecessary tacked-on romance, gives us an unusually strong female lead, and gives the characters just enough time to develop into rounded people. Gordon enhances this by smart direction that gives small gestures big meaning.
The film drags slightly in the middle, when we get a bit too much techno-babble and office and war council scenes that go on for a bit too long, but they are counterbalanced by absolute gems. One of the best scenes of the film is where Graham, Peterson and Pat Medford interview an air force pilot convinced he’s seen an ant-shaped UFO, for which he has been confined into a mental hospital. The role of the pilot is brilliantly played by Fess Parker, who has just the right balance of believability and comic timing to make it an ace scene. This sort of dry, laconic humour is prevalent throughout the movie, often instigated by the superb Edmund Gwenn. But there are also scenes of poignancy and emotion, such as one where a mother of two boys learns that the ants have killed the father, who was taking out the boys to play in the storm drains on his day off. This is a heartbreaking performance by Mary Alan Hokanson, and the scene makes the audience actually feel the loss and anguish of the victims of the monsters, which is very rare in films like this.
The production of the film is pretty well documented, although there are some inconsistencies and question marks, which I’ll get to. Warner Bros. planned on following up the smash hit The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) with a big production. The production team, led by Ted Sherdeman, chose to work from a story treatment by George Worthing Yates. Born in 1901, Yates seems to have been writing short stories and treatments as early as the twenties, when his one of his westerns were adapted into film. From 1938 to 1954 he contributed to about a dozen screenplays, mostly B westerns, but also crime dramas and adventure films. In the thirties and forties he released a handful of mystery novels, sometimes working under pseudonym with another author.
According to Bill Warren’s splendid book Keep Watching the Skies, the idea for the film came about when Yates had a discussion about what sort of script he could best sell to a movie company. According to Warren, he started working on the script, inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in 1952, which is strange, as that film wasn’t released until 1953. But however it played out, the gist of it was that he thought that another nuclear monster would sell well after the success of Beast, and thought giant ants would be appropriate, as ants were very familiar to audiences and there would’t be much need to explain how ants work and behave.
Of course the giant ants in Them! weren’t without precedent. Science fiction and horror films and serials had occasionally used spiders and lizards as rear-projected images either in lost world or prehistoric films, as monsters on other planets or as pets of mad scientists. Giant spiders were created by Jackie Coogan by manipulating their glands in Mesa of Lost Women (1953, review) and appeared on the moon in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review). W. Lee Wilder had his hero escape giant lizards, bugs and rodents in Phantom from Space (1953, review), but in all these cases the creepy crawlies were not much more than diversions. Giant monsters had, of course, existed since The Lost World (1925, review), and in a number of imitations, including King Kong (1933, review). The radiation-created monster appeared in a number of horror movies in the thirties and forties, usually in the form a human being (be it Karloff or Chaney), but really hit its stride with Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaur in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which kicked off the second wave of monster movies.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was created not so much by an atom bomb as it was by Warner Bros. The movie, which cost around 200 000 dollars to make, cashed in 2,2 million dollars in the US alone in 1953, and thus the studio was anxious to follow up with another giant monster movie in 1954. 1953 had also seen the rise of 3D, with popular films like House of Wax and It Came from Outer Space (review). Inspired by these films and the commercial success of George Pal’s Technicolor space operas, Warner set out to make a lavish A-movie in colour and 3D. This, as anyone who’s seen the film will know, was not what they ended up with. Instead the final result was made in 2D and in black-and-white.
While the film can be commended for its portrait of the female scientist, it shares a problem with most of the films of the day: its complete whiteness. There are more white Brits in it than people of colour. But all of Yates’ drafts involved both Latinos and Native Americans, which would be quite natural in New Mexico. The drafts Yates wrote were, however, almost unfilmable without a budget nearing one the size of Ben-Hur’s. Yates wanted to take the fight to New York, with ants attacking the subway stations and a famous shopping mall, and he wanted to use footage of live ants spliced in with the live action, which, as we know, never turns out well. And judging from his other scripts, the script almost certainly wasn’t near as good as the finished result.
The script was turned over to Russell S. Hughes, a prolific radio writer who had done a handful of movie scripts for B westerns. For some strange reason two different sources claim that Hughes died in the middle of his rewrite, although both Wikipedia and IMDb give his date of death as April 16, 1958, and it is clear that he kept on working with films and TV up until that time.
However it played out, Hughes’ rewrites were taken over by producer Ted Sherdeman, who did an almost page one overhaul. According to Dennis Fischer’s book Science Fiction Directors 1895-1998, director Gordon Douglas said that Sherdeman wrote about three quarters of the script, with some strong suggestions from Douglas himself. In Fischer’s book Douglas says that it was his own idea to delay the appearance of the ants, in order to build up suspense – giving the audience time to invest in the monsters, thus making them easier to accept. And it was a stroke of genius
The studio’s choice of Gordon Douglas for director may seem a tad surprising, as he had neither worked with horror nor sci-fi before. But it might have come down to the fact that Douglas had directed the studio’s previous 3D movie, the western The Charge at Feather River (1953). What he brought to the table was the crucial knowledge that optical effects were almost impossible to do in 3D – therefore the idea to combine footage of live ants and actors had to be thrown out the window. According to Fischer’s book, producer/writer Ted Sherdeman insisted on the film being in black-and-white, and real ants to be used, which is why he got thrown out of the producer’s chair and replaced with David Weisbart, a Warner up-and-comer who had worked with Douglas on The Charge at Feather River.
As visual effects were impossible to achieve in 3D, both live ants and stop-motion photography had to be ruled out: everything had to happen in-camera. Thus began the process of designing and building giant ant puppets, a work that was overseen by art director Stanley Fleischer, but carried out by prop builder Dick Smith and his team, with much input by Gordon Douglas, who seems to have been heavily involved in most aspects of the production. One full-size ant was built, and according to Douglas it took six people to operate it, as well as one front half of an ant – and a number of ant heads. In Paul Parla’s and Charles P. Mitchell’s book Screen Sirens Scream!, Sandy Descher says that the ants were quite impressive on set – they were painted a greenish purple, and they appeared slimy as they were wet down with vaseline. They were built on an aluminium skeleton with a netted body, and the hairs were glued on. Douglas says that the eyes were filled with tinted soapy water, and agitated with washing machine servos as to make them come alive. This was one of the first times, if not the first time, in Hollywood that an actual working full-size giant monster puppet had been built for a movie. I’m trying to think here, but I can’t think of a a full-size animatronic on this scale and with this level of operation that would have been built in the years between this film and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1973. But I may be forgetting something.
Douglas never forgave the studio for slashing the budget and ordering the film to be shot flat in black-and-white. According to one story, there was a malfunction in the 3D camera just prior to filming, and it would have cost so much to repair it, that the studio instead opted to film it flat. Originally the film was meant to be a blockbuster outshining of The War of the Worlds (1953, review), with a budget well over a million dollars, which was quite a big budget back in the day. Compare this to Warner’s previous hit The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which cost 200 000 dollars to make.
However, studio boss Jack Warner hated the project from the start, and didn’t think it would reprise the previous movie’s success. In his mind, the idea of creating a film with giant ants as antagonists was utter crap, shit, poop, however you want to phrase it. When the camera broke down, he saw it as an excuse to slash the budget, and just two days prior to shooting, he demanded it be cut even further, and the film was to be shot in black and white. Ironically this may have been a blessing in disguise, as the black-and-white photography lends the movie a sort of timeless, documentary feel, and invokes an air of film noir. The old Eastmancolor films of the fifties and sixties, while still often stunning, do feel very dated today because the colour extraction processed had yet not been perfected to what we now refer to as ”natural colour”.
The visuals of Them! are occasionally stunning. Three sequences in particular stand out. The first one is the harrowing opening scene with the little girl walking catatonic through the desert. We begin with a wide aerial shot of the empty, unforgiving desert, where she only is a speck moving diagonally through the frame. We close in as the police officers arrive, but still don’t know exactly what’s up, as we only see her in wide shots. Not until Whitmore gets close, do we get a close-up of Sandy Descher’s ghostly blank face. The sequence is one of the most enigmatic and haunting in science fiction history, and endlessly copied in later movies.
The second sequence of note is the one where Peterson, Pat and Graham find the queen’s chamber in the desert, filled with dead ants and strange, translucent eggs, like something out of a space nightmare. In fact, such a scene would be recreated many years later by a certain James Cameron in his film Aliens (1986). And of course the riveting final showdown in the sewers of Los Angeles, which has to be seen to be believed that it was actually made in 1954. In fact, there are numerous other scenes that could be singled out for their superb direction and camera work. Almost every seen seems meticulously worked out in advance and there are flairs of true genius. I certainly haven’t seen all of Gordon Douglas’ films, but those in the know claim that Them! is his masterpiece, and I suppose it would be hard to top it.
As Douglas had his background in comedy, he also brings some much needed lightness and fun amidst the terror, making the film an extremely enjoyable experience. But the fun parts never take the viewer out of the carefully built illusion. There are no slapstick characters or dumb comedic sidekicks, a mistake that completely killed George Pal’s Conquest of Space a year later. Instead we get Edmund Gwenn, a natural comedian and one of the most distinguished character actors of the forties and fifties.
Whitmore is likeable as the everyman cop from the moment he enters the screen in Them! James Arness’ role as the FBI agent is written as the hero of the piece, but the character we actually end up caring for is the police officer Ben Peterson. Whitmore does a fantastic job, and does more for the image of police officers than any campaign would (although he has been accused of “doing business” – or scene grabbing – in certain scenes). He plays the role with intelligence and much warmth, established early on with the scenes with the little girl, where we really get the feeling that he cares for the stray child.
Them! remains Joan Weldon’s best remembered film in her short career, although she did play the female lead in a couple of fairly well-regarded westerns in the mid-fifties. Weldon is helped tremendously by a script that doesn’t demean her because she is a woman, in fact she often appears as the toughest of the bunch, such as in the scene where she refuses to be left behind when the two male heroes venture into the ant hive – and then she subsequently orders them to ”burn everything”. She takes the back-seat after this scene, but is never left out of the proceedings or reduced to serving coffee. The chemistry between Weldon and Gwenn works well, and she does a good portrait of a daughter caring for her old, sick father. And vice versa. She said in an interview that it was amazing watching Gwenn’s transformations when the camera was rolling. At the time, Gwenn was crippled by arthritis, but he would go full steam during the scenes, and according to Weldon, when the camera was off ”he would just crumble”. It seems as if though Weldon herself didn’t quite appreciate the unusually strong female portrait she was handed, as she says she was hoping for ”some romance or a love interest. But Gordon Douglas didn’t want to refer to any kind of love interest whatsoever.” And thank God for that, since the film is refreshingly devoid of any tacked-on love affair. For once, the leading woman can just be her own character in the film without being reduced to a romantic interest. Weldon does her part with honours, but I find myself wishing the part would have been played by someone who could have brought just a little more personality to it. Some reviewers have called sexism because of the way the two leads speak about her sometimes, but that’s not something I would hold over the film, as it is simply a reflection of the prevailing gender attitudes at the time. In this case the film mirrors these attitudes in the way the males speak about her, but the film itself does more to break the stereotypes than enforce them.
In Screen Sirens Scream! Sandy Descher has an interesting story about how she got started in acting. She tells the interviewer that she and her parents had seen a show on Broadway shen she was about five, and then and there decided she wanted to be an actress. On their way home to California they stopped in Wyoming, where Gordon Douglas happened to be shooting a film, and stayed at the same lodging house. Douglas spotted her in the diner, and asked her parents if they thought their daughter might want to appear in the film. Unfortunately they were on their way home, but gave Douglas their phone number, and he promised to get in touch for some other project. And six months later, in 1952, he called, and Descher made her first film role in his movie It Grows on Trees. The film led to more appearances, and by 1966, Descher had been in over 50 films or TV series.
Descher recalls the shooting of Them! as difficult, especially the scenes in the desert, because she had to keep her eyes open, and kept getting sand in them. Some of her scenes were done by her adult but short double Luce Potter, a screen veteran who rarely got credited for her work, like so many short actors and other body doubles. According to Descher, Potter doubled for her in multiple features, before Descher outgrew her. Potter also played the Martian intelligence in Invaders from Mars (1953, review), and appeared in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Descher recalls a funny incident in the desert where Douglas was directing her, and as he walked backwards he fell over and sat on a cactus. But to Douglas credit, he professionally continued directing and didn’t cry out until the scene was filmed: ”He wound up with a couple of stickers in his rump, and he had to have them pulled out with tweezers by the make-up man. So that was a memorable moment.”
The sound of the movie is wonderful, from the howling wind to fat, massive gunshot sounds, the rich roar of flame throwers and burning ants, and of course the eerie chirping of the ants themselves, which was made up from the mating call of a particular frog, mixed in with a number of birds. The sound supervisor was Francis J. Scheid, who in his career worked on a number of big movies, from Casablanca (1942) to My Fair Lady (1964). Sound effects creator William A. Mueller was twice nominated for Oscars. Wardrobe head Moss Mabry was a four-time Oscar nominee.
The orchestral score by Bronisław Kaper (misspelled by US immigration authorities as Bronislau Kaper) does much to heighten the tension, especially with its dissonant strings and booming horns in moments of danger and suspense. Polish-born Kaper made music for film in Germany before the rise of Hitler, then relocated to Paris, and onward to Hollywood. Equally at home with classical music and jazz, he is best remembered today for his jazzy songs from Green Dolphin Street (1947) and Invitation (1952). He won an Oscar for his music for the musical Lili (1953) and was nominated for The Chocolate Soldier (1941) and the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty.
Along with It Came from Outer Space, Them! established the South-Western desert as a standard area for giant monsters, aliens and other strange phenomena to take place. But that wasn’t the film’s only legacy, far from it. It gave rise to a whole subgenre of giant bug films, especially popular in the late fifties and early sixties, but one which carried over into the seventies and even to modern days. However, the genre quickly plummeted into low-budget exploitation territory, and stayed there firmly more or less until James Cameron released Aliens in 1986 (I’m not counting Ridley Scott’s Alien , because that was of a different genre, despite dealing with the same monster). In some ways, one could almost view Aliens as a remake of Them! Tough scientist Patricia Medford carries many similarities with Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, and the scenes of her and the heroes chasing giant bugs in dark tunnels and hallways – not to mention the egg chamber, the confrontation with the queen and the burning of the eggs – were almost completely lifted by Cameron. Both movies also open with the finding of a catatonic girl who has survived the onslaught of the monsters – and they both even have a doll. I’m not dissing Cameron by the way – all the great filmmakers have been acutely aware of film history, and have always borrowed, stolen and been inspired by what has come before.
Them was a smash hit upon its release, and went on to become one of Warners’ most successful films of 1954. Critics were mostly positive. At the New York Times, critic A.H. Weiler wrote: “It’s fascinating to watch. Since it is difficult to assign specific credit, suffice it to say that the combination of three writers, director Gordon Douglas, producer David Weisbart and a cooperative cast have helped make the proceedings tense, absorbing and, surprisingly enough, somewhat convincing. Perhaps it is the film’s unadorned and seemingly factual approach which is its top attribute. […] Them! is taut science-fiction.” The Monthly Film Bulletin called the film a “well-built example of the neo-monstrous” sub-genre of SF, and “less absurdly sensational than most”. The review called the titular monsters “reasonably horrible”, the cast “serviceable”, the direction “smoothly machined” and the writing “decent”. Variety called it a “top-notch science fiction shocker. It has a well-plotted story, expertly directed and acted in a matter-of-fact style to rate a chiller payoff and thoroughly satisfy the fans of hackle-raising melodrama”. And John McCarten wrote in The New Yorker: “If you’re willing to let your imagination off its leash, you may have a fairly good time at Them!“. Arthur Knight at The Saturday Review gave Them! a standing ovation, calling it “a crisply satisfying pseudo-scientific thriller”; “Them! is as persuasively realistic a horror story as one could comfortably imagine. They unfold it documentary fashion, drily, factually, and with amazingly little time out for love talk. […] Kid stuff, perhaps, but the narrative maintains a high level of plausibility, the ant
models are ingenious and effective, while the weird whirring that indicates their presence on the sound track is both ear-splitting and bloodchilling.”
Them! has a respectable 7.2/10 rating on IMDb based on over 20,000 reviews, and a 93% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. WatchMojo ranks the titular menace as the “Scariest Giant Movie Bug” of all time: “There may have been movies featuring giant insects of a larger sort, but when it comes to cinema history, they’re as big as it gets”. Screen Rant ranks the film as the third best bug movie ever made, beat out by David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and the 1996 documentary Microcosmos. Entertainment Weekly gives Them! an A rating, including it in its list of the 6 greatest bug movies of all time: “The movie’s then-state-of-the-art mechanical beasties aren’t entirely convincing, but this archetypal ’50s monsters-on-the-loose flick can still tingle your carapace, thanks to taut direction, an intelligent script, a believable cast, and a nail-bitingly effective climax”.
AllMovie gives Them! 4/5 stars, with critic Mark Deming writing: “Them! remains a compelling and entertaining thriller with an unusually intelligent script, strong performances from a fine cast, and tense, well-paced direction that knows how to play this material seriously. […] Them! blends the lean and efficient construction of a B-picture with the craft that studios usually reserved for more expensive efforts, and the result is one of the best sci-fi films of its era.” In its 3.5/4 star review, TV Guide calls the movie “one of the best of a 1950s spate of monster movies rooted in nuclear paranoia”; “The giant ants do look a bit phony, but they are never on screen long enough to become bothersome. In fact, the image of dozens of giant ants in their underground nest is unforgettable. […] The film is produced and performed with such seriousness that one becomes engrossed in the logistics of dealing with such creatures and forgets about plausibility.” Time Out calls it “by far the best of the ’50s cycle of ‘creature features'”.
Youtube critic Steve Shives calls Them! “quite possibly the best of the creature features, and certainly the best example of what I mean when I say ‘creature feature'”. According to Shives, the movie deals with issues like “hubris, human arrogance, the unforeseen consequences of human advancement, atomic paranoia”, without ever being pretentious or hitting you over the head with the message. The special effects “don’t really hold up to modern scrutiny […] but they do look good, they don’t look so bad that they take you out of the movie.” Shives concludes: “It’s much, much better than what you’d expect a giant ant movie from the 1950’s to be”.
Them! is a classic. It is also one of the best SF movies of the fifties, placing somewhere between the top pictures of the decade, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review) and The Thing from Outer Space (1951, review) — and financially challenged cult classics like It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) and Invaders from Mars (1953, review). It isn’t quite as sophisticated as the former two, the characters aren’t as well-rounded — it’s extremely plot-driven — and the script lacks some of the complexities and nuances of said movies. The script is more of a straight-forward monster hunt format: the first part a mystery play, the second exposition on the monster at hand and the third focusing on the final hunt for/battle with the monster. But as has been pointed out by many of the critics above, it is all done with unusual intelligence, seriousness and earnestness. It’s a more adult film than for example It Came from Outer Space, and although the giant ants don’t quite hold up to modern viewing standards, they are in a different class altogether from the Martians’ baggy velour suits in Invaders from Mars. The props, while not convincing in the way modern special effects are, are good enough to not sink the movie, and heightened by the music, sound effects and taut, atmospheric cinematography, even incite moments of actual tension even with a modern viewer. That said, the script sags a bit in the middle, and trimming down the movie’s 90-minute length even to 80 minutes would have done it good.
Ted Sherdeman was the only writer on the team that had actually worked with sci-fi before. When he was a writer for radio, he made the very successful series Latitude Zero, about a Captain Nemo-like hero working from a base at the equator. The story was turned into a TV pilot in 1957, and finally into a feature film in 1969, co-produced by a few small American companies and Japanese Toho. The film was made in Japan with American lead actors, and directed by the legendary Ishirô Honda. Sherdeman was mostly known for writing high-quality kiddie films.
This was Yates’ first science fiction script, but he continued to work almost exclusively in the genre after this. He worked on the script for George Pal’s Conquest of Space (1955), the Ray Harryhausen films It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Flame Barrier (1958), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Space Master X-7 (1958), Frankenstein 1970 (1958) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958), making him perhaps the most prolific sci-fi screenwriter of the late fifties.
Gordon Douglas was a prolific director, who was the first to admit that most of his films were of lesser quality. In his own words, ”I have a large family to support, and I work on interesting projects only occasionally.” In 1954, Douglas was a seasoned director who had worked in most conceivable genres. He started out as a teen actor in the late twenties and worked himself up the ladder at the small Hal Roach studios, to become assistant director for the short film series Our Gang in the mid-thirties, a series he then became principal director for. Douglas secured his reputation as a comedy director with the last high-quality Laurel and Hardy film Saps at Sea in 1940. He did a short tour at MGM beforer moving to RKO when he continued to work on comedies, such as the Gildersleeve films and detective stories featuring Dick Tracy. But through Columbia and finally at Warner in 1950, he also proved himself a capable player in other genres, such as adventures, crime films and westerns.
You may know Edmund Gwenn best from his turn as Kris Kringle in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), but also as Captain Albert Wiles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), or as Rowley in the same director’s The Foreign Correspondent (1940). The British thespian was one of the most respected character actors in Hollywood from the thirties onward, and rose to a stardom that would never quite diminish with his famous role as Santa Claus. His role in Them! is clearly modelled on Cecil Kellaway’s professor in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Both scientist are British, rotund, lovable, kind and funny, and slightly absent-minded without being fuddy-duddy. Both have beautiful and intelligent daughters that take care of them and both are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Originally it was Cecil Kellaway that was offered the role as Kris Kringle, but he turned it down. Gwenn relished it, and it brought him an Oscar win. Incidentally, Gwenn was born as Edmund Kellaway, and was the cousin of Cecil Kellaway. One of the most wonderful scenes in the movie is during a plane ride, as Dr. Medford Sr. communicates with his daughter through radio and struggles to understand radio protocol – it’s one of those scenes that are so funny because they are realistic enough to be recognisable. Gwenn had previously appeared in the Boris Karloff horror sci-fi film The Walking Dead (1936, review), and made two memorable appearances on Ivan Tors’ TV series Science Fiction Theatre.
James Whitmore is one of those actors that most people probably can’t place immediately, but will recognise when they see him. Whitmore had a very long and very distinguished career over six decades in both film, stage and TV. He started out as not much more than a ”poor man’s Spencer Tracy”, because of his resemblance to the star actor. He first made something of a name for himself as a supporting character in Battleground (1949), and in the lead of The Next Voice You Hear (1950), a Christian film about one of many Americans who start hearing God speak through the radio. Them! was something of a breakthrough role, and some say his best. Others would claim that was in his monologue role as Harry Truman in Give ’em Hell, Harry! (1975). Some would mention the lead in the TV series The Law and Mr. Jones (1960-1962), and modern viewers might remember him from his role as a librarian in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), or perhaps as Dr. Albert Frock in the sci-fi thriller The Relic (1997). He played the head of the simian council in Planet of the Apes (1968) and voiced the title character in the animation The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), and appeared in the forgotten film Zoo Ship (1985), as well as in a couple of sci-fi anthology series. Whitmore was nominated for Oscars twice, and won an Emmy, and Golden Globe and a Grammy (for best spoken album). In later years Whitmore married Noreen Nash, the starlet from Phantom from Space. His last role was a bit-part in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2007). He passed away in 2009.
Another actor worthy of mention, even though he only appears in one scene, is Fess Parker. Parker plays the air force pilot who is locked in the loony bin after he tells his superiors that he’s seen a flying saucer shaped as a giant ant. Parker is hilarious in the role, and has a number of great lines, perhaps because he is so believable – again, the casting director hasn’t chosen an actor for a comic relief, but a serious actor to do as serious role under bizarre circumstances. Parker was a young actor who in the summer of 1951 gave himself 36 months to make it as a Hollywood actor. In an interview with Tom Weaver in the book A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde he says that his first chance at a lead role came when Warner Bros. asked him to come in and test for a movie called The Winning Team (1952). Later, however, the studio called and cancelled the test shoot, as they had decided to give the role to one of their contract players, a guy named Ronald Reagan. He further says that the role in Them! came through his agent, who thought the small one-day role would be good for his career. He met the director and the producer, and they liked what they saw. The scene was shot in a single day, and then the film premiered, received good reviews from The New York Times, which singled out Parker in their article. It also just so happened that at one of the screenings of the film, representatives of Disney were present to look at James Arness for a role. But instead, the agents were enthralled by Fess Parker’s performance, and called him over to meet Walt Disney himself, for an audition for a part in the TV series Disneyland (1954-1956). The part was the one of Davy Crocket, which made Parker a national celebrity. He more or less reprised the role in the later series Daniel Boone (1964-1970).
Child actress Sandy Descher became something of a minor celebrity in her following career, after appearing in films like The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), 3 Ring Circus (1954) and The Prodigal (1955). She got an even wider audience in her late teens when she landed a steady role on The New Loretta Young Show (1962-1963), after years of doing small parts in different TV series. However, as she got older her roles started getting sparser, and she dropped out of acting at 21. Descher was one of those ”bratty” child actors that Hollywood seems to love, and the audience often hates, and judging from her interview, she seemed to clash a bit with her co-stars, what I’m reading between the lines is a juvenile case of inflated ego, but I could be misinterpreting things. But she also had a bit of a rough time with death threats and stalkers, as many child stars do. For whatever reason, she is perfect in the role as the girl in Them!, as she is very apt at portraying the shocked catatonia victim, and her grimace when she awakes from her stupor and screams ”THEM! THEM!” is absolutely priceless.
The film is riddled with A-class actors, some who were at the time unknown, but would go on to successful careers. Beside Fess Parker, James Whitmore and James Arness, there’s Onslow Stevens in a large role as the brigadier general – perhaps not a big movie star, but a very respected B movie character actor. The same goes for Mary Alan Hokanson, who had a steady career as guest star on TV shows up until the eighties. Olin Howland, playing a drunk who’s seen a giant ant, was a staple character actor in film and TV, often in westerns and crime dramas, from the twenties onward. He played the undertaker in the 1939 sci-fi horror film The Return of Doctor X, starring none other than Humphrey Bogart, and had a central role in The Blob (1958) as ”Old Man”. Sean McClory played one of the leads in the sci-fi film Valley of the Dragons (1961).
The most talked-about bit-part is the one played by an uncredited Leonard Nimoy of later Star Trek fame. Nimoy has a couple of lines as a military communications worker, gathering strange news from the wires. Blink and you’ll miss him. As mentioned before, there’s also sci-fi stalwart William Schallert as the ambulance driver. Then there’s Emmy-winning composer Richard Bellis as one of Hokanson’s sons, master stuntman Roydon Clark as a stunt jeep driver. There’s Jack Perrin, a prolific bit-part player who once was one of the pioneers of Hollywood when he made his film debut in 1915. Slated as a cowboy star, he nevertheless got dropped by Universal in the mid-twenties and made a living through the twenties and thirties playing leads in Poverty Row westerns and Canadian mountie films. From the late thirties to the early sixties he ostensibly worked as an extra, almost never credited. Then there’s character actor Willis Bouchey, who played the president of the United States in Red Planet Mars (1952, review), and appeared in Panic in Year Zero! (1962). Bouchey was a favourite character actor for John Ford, and appeared in close to 200 films.
Other walk-ons worthy of mention are Richard Deacon (Invaders from Mars, This Island Earth, 1955 (review), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956, Piranha, 1978), Ann Doran (The Man They Could Not Hang, 1939, review, The Man Who Turned to Stone, 1957, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, 1958), Kenner G. Kemp (The Man They Could Not Hang, Destination Moon, 1950, review, The Maze, 1953, review, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Brain from Planet Arous, 1957, The Land Unknown, 1957, The Lost Missile, 1958, The Lost World, 1960, Moon Pilot, 1962, Way… Way Out, 1966, The Power, 1968, Marooned, 1969, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t 1972), Dub Taylor (Back to the Future Part III, 1990), Harry Tyler (The Deadly Mantis, 1957) and Harry Wilson (Flash Gordon, 1936, review, The Phantom Creeps, 1939, One Million B.C., 1940, Batman, 1943, Unknown Island, 1948, Killer Ape, 1953, Frankenstein’s Daughter, 1958).
The makeup of the film isn’t in any way out of the ordinary; it’s basic movie makeup all the way through. Credited for this is Warner’s head of makeup, Gordon Bau. Bau had started out as a worker at a rubber manufactory along with his brother George, where they soon started freelancing in film makeup – George later became the head of Warner’s makeup lab. The brothers’ main claim to fame is that they enabled the racism of Hollywood by inventing rubber prosthetics that allowed white actors to appear Asian. Gordon worked (or was at least credited for) the science fiction films The Story of Mankind (1957), Frankenstein 1970 (1958), Countdown (1967), The Illustrated Man (1968) and The Omega Man (1969). Henry Vilardo also worked on makeup on the movie, along with hairdresser Agnes Flanagan. Dick Smith who built the ants was a Warner Brothers studio technician who was never credited for anything, and not to be confused with the later makeup artist of the same name.
A couple of bits of trivia: When the film was released in Sweden, the importer clearly hadn’t watched the film, since its title was translated to Spindlarna, which means ”the spiders”. The Wilhelm scream is used four times in the movie.
Them! 1954, USA. Directed by Gordon Douglas. Written by George Worthing Yates, Russell S. Hughes, Ted Sherdeman. Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Chris Drake, Sandy Descher, Mary Alan Hokanson, Don Shelton, Fess Parker, Olin Howland, Richard Bellis, Willis Bouchey, Richard Deacon, Ann Doran, Kenner G. Kemp, Leonard Nimoy, Jack Perrin, William Schallert, Luce Potter. Cinematography: Sidney Hickox. Music: Bronislau Kaper. Editing: Thomas Reilly. Art direction: Stanley Fleischer. Makeup: Gordon Bau. Prop construction manager (ant builder): Dick Smith. Sound: Francis J. Sheid. Stunts: Roydon Clark. Pyroeffects supervisor: Ardell Lytle. Wardrobe: Moss Mabry. Produced by David Weisbart for Warner Bros.