THEM! (1954)

Last week I saw a stray cat lying on the grass beyond my terrace,  It was skin and bones so I immediately wanted to feed it.  I grabbed a handful of dry cat food pellets and placed them on the short, brick wall that separates my porch from the grass beyond and made sure the cat saw me doing it so it would know there was food waiting to be eaten.  I went back inside for about a half hour after which I checked on the progress of the food and the cat.  Neither had changed positions.  I then decided to grab the pellets to toss them over to where the cat lay unmoved, but when I looked down there were ants now covering the pellets and a few were on my fingers.  I instantly dropped the pellets I’d grabbed, did that distinct dance one does when a bug gets on you and rushed inside to wash my hands.  As I dried them I shuddered to get rid of the residual heebee-jeebees and sat to continue watching the bluray I’d paused to go check on the cat – Gordon Douglas’ Them!

Cue the shrill ant sounds.

Them!

Them! is a movie of distinction whether your hand just happened to be covered in ants or no matter how much anyone out there wants to discount it as just another campy 1950s monster movie.  I’ll note just a few of my favorite reasons why Them! is worth your time.

Them! was one of the first films to deal with the atomic age fears and to feature monsters that came about due to nuclear activity.  It tackles its subject seriously, taking its time to explain the hows, the whys and the menace. The explanations come from the primary scientist in the movie, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), a myrmecologist who along with his equally scientific daughter Patricia (Joan Weldon) are flown in to New Mexico from Washington after a series of strange attacks in the desert.  Upon arrival Dr. Medford already has a partially formulated theory about what is responsible for the attacks and simply gathers details that prove his theory correct.  The final confirmation comes by way of the little girl who was found wandering in the desert in a catatonic state at the onset of the movie by Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake).  

After discovering the little girl the police officers took her to the hospital for care.  There she sits still in shock when visited by Dr. Medford who puts formic acid fumes close to her nose and revives her.  Upon regaining consciousness the girl recoils screaming “Them! Them!” validating the Doctor’s suspicions and in the process allowing for the connection to the film’s terrific title.

Them

The little girl’s “Them!” turns out to be a colony of giant ants, mutated by radiation from the first atomic bomb test near Alamogordo., New Mexico.  To put things in perspective and to prepare government officials for the fight that lies ahead Dr. Medford presents a briefing on ants.  As he describes the usually small, eusocial insects we see every day in our back yards and picnics – like the ones on my hand! – have singular attention spans and preternatural strength, which accounts for why the coroner’s reports included near compete fractured bodies for every mysterious death in the movie.

“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.'” – Dr. Harold Medford

Isn’t it interesting that it’s the scientist in this movie who quotes the Bible?  Anyway, another standout for Them! is that it was the first big bug feature, which was so popular it spawned such classics as Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Black Scorpion (1957) and Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959).  I haven’t seen those others, but can certainly offer steady praise of Them! which stands strong in the science fiction thriller arena particularly true during the desert scenes in the first half of the movie. although the film’s final battle, which takes place in the sewers is pretty darn good.  The ants themselves are a bit clunky perhaps, but still preferable to CGI monsters and the movie is shot beautifully for its genre and time.

them1

Another reason to watch Them! is for the cast, a solid lot of players that believably save the world from total annihilation.  I already mentioned Edmund Gwenn who soberly dictates the ant terms of the movie and Joan Weldon who follows in her father’s footsteps and gives one of our heroes a much needed romantic respite.   In addition,  James Whitmore is terrific, a presence that adds gravitas to the proceedings alongside the affecting James Arness as FBI Special Agent Robert Graham who accompanied the two doctors to New Mexico.  Finally a deserving shout out must go to Sandy Descher who is unforgettable as the little girl despite her relatively few moments on screen.  You can take look at the movie’s full cast and crew list here, but know that even if you’re not partial to ants you’ll still enjoy finding some familiar faces in uncredited cameos.  These include Leonard Nimoy, Fess Parker, Ann Doran, Richard Deacon and William Schallert.

  • Arness et al
    Arness, Weldon, Whitmore and Gwenn doing serious investigating
Girl
Sandy Descher is more than a little believable as a little girl in shock after having witnessed terrible things

Lastly, and my favorite thing about Them! is the great script by Ted Sherdeman based on a story by George Worthing Yates.  The fact that I so enjoy a movie about giant ants may surprise you, but this is a police procedural that turns into a science fiction classic that gets me every time I watch it. The best of two worlds are served here with a message of responsibility in the face of a new world order that is both clearly and imaginatively conveyed.

  • Agent Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?

    Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

This post is my entry to the Nature’s Fury Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis., which you must visit to be blown away.  Get it?  Anyway, I admit that when I hear the term, “nature’s fury” I think of natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes and the like and not giant, mutated creatures that are out to get us.  But I should.  When nature’s fury rears its ugly head we are reminded of how small and vulnerable we are. Sometimes we’re reminded that we have to pay for what we do to the planet on which we live.  There are perhaps no better examples of the latter than the wave of giant creatures that appeared on the silver screen in the 1950s, which are on some level the most satisfying of nature run amok movies because the collective we get what we deserve.  And if we are to get what we deserve, if nature’s fury is to fall upon us then why not make it insects who’ve been around for 50 million years in glorious B-movie fare?  That is, until the next menace surfaces.

GO to the The Nature’s Fury Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis.

Fury

9 thoughts

  1. Love this post! Not only is THEM! still one of the best sci-fi films to date (and wow, does it hold up well today against more modern and technically better-looking movies), it definitely inspired a wide range of entertainment that includes one of my favorite game series that takes the concept and multiplies it a few hundredfold (http://www.theedfdeploys.com/)

  2. An old favorite of mine, still watch it once or twice a year. When I was a kid, I loved the idea that Santa Claus had become a scientist in the fifties. I also love the drunk singing about enlisting if they buy him booze. But it all comes down to giant ants vs. flamethrowers in dark tunnels, any kid’s idea of a good time.

  3. Terrific review of the greatest giant bug movie ever! I’m so glad you were able to join the party. I agree with you about practical effects vs. CGI. At least with practical effects, there’s something to physically act against. I also think modern filmmakers could learn a thing or two from the slow-burn aspect of the movie, which helps build the suspense.

    Thanks so much for joining the Nature’s Fury Blogathon!

  4. Haha! I have been putting off watching this movie, but now I will. I saw it as a child and now in my 60s I really only remember the little girl screaming Them! Them! I didn’t even realize They were ants. Thanks for the post, it was very funny.

  5. “THEM!” Aurora, you tackled this towering classic in your usual way…with humor and good writing. I loved this line of yours: “The best of two worlds are served here with a message of responsibility in the face of a new world order that is both clearly and imaginatively conveyed.” “THEM!” is one of the seminal visceral experiences of my childhood movie watching. Scientists and the Bible…interesting. I do have one question for you…

    …what was the outcome with the cat in your backyard?

    1. Thanks, Theresa. These are always fun to do. Well, I didn’t notice whether the cat ate the food pellets I managed to toss before I noticed the ants. She/he has been around and has had several stare downs with Kiki.

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