Polar Paranoia and Generic Invention: The Thing (From Another World) (1951)

Directors: Christian Nyby Jr. and Howard Hawks

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By Roderick Heath

Christian Nyby’s The Thing (From Another World), which portrays a battle with an alien life form in an isolated and besieged setting, became an early and vital foundation for the way the science fiction genre developed on screen in the 1950s. The film’s iconography, Cold War atmosphere, and themes of science clashing with militarism and humanism pitted against technocracy lay out significant aspects of the developing genre’s concerns. Arriving in the same year as Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, the two films represent distinct strands of the subgenre of the alien invasion tale: evil and benign intrusions.

The Thing was produced and as has been suggested by many, including cast member Kenneth Tobey, actually directed by Howard Hawks, whose aesthetic influence is, at any rate, noticeable. The story was adapted from the novella “Who Goes There?” by Astounding magazine editor and signal scifi author John W. Campbell. Nyby’s adaptation, unlike John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same material, altered the alien’s nature so that it was no longer a xenomorphic alien, but an “intellectual carrot” from space. The novella’s protagonists find battling the beast difficult not merely because of its malevolence, but also because the heroes cannot discern if one or more of their fellows is the alien and, therefore, who can be trusted. Yet the film’s tone is one of vibrant tension and paranoia, and the idea of an “enemy within” is still present in the clash of the core human protagonists, Captain Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite).

The Thing enshrines two core icons scholar Rick Altman called “blueprint” elements of the science fiction genre—the unidentified flying object and the invader from outer space. Just as central to the 1950s scifi genre, the threat of apocalypse, alien invasion and possession, the atom bomb and radiation are all present in The Thing. Other aspects of the film can just as easily appear in films from other genres, and yet are also common in this subgenre: the heroic military leader; the super-intelligent scientist, and the band of select character types; the isolated setting and siege situation; the steady whittling down of the cast; ambiguity of threat and the process of explicating it through scientific detection; the threat of nascent apocalypse; and final defeat of the monster. Stick in Sigourney Weaver and you have Aliens.

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The film is less about establishing a semi-mystical credulity, an aspect scholar Patrick Luciano insisted was a constant in most later alien-intruder tales, and more purely about discerning and dealing with threat. Perhaps the film’s greatest importance as an early entrant in the genre is its treatment of the science/military schism as not merely procedural but philosophic. Hendry and Carrington, embodying the human/science debate, are replicated variously throughout the genre, perhaps most idealistically in the Kirk-Spock relationship of the Star Trek series, where heart and head balance each ther. Carrington’s cool, logical need to learn is optimistic, but disturbingly conceives of individual lives as expedient. Hendry’s instinct to destroy the alien is barbarian and human. The clash between hubris and conscientiousness was already a feature of the genre before World War II, acted out, for example, between Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) and Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton) in Dr. Cyclops (1939). Carrington not only is opposed by Hendry, but also by Dr. Chapman (John Dierkes), representative of a more engaged scientific cadre. What is new in the picture is the atomic bomb, which makes the idea of progress run amok less ethereal; now, a larger sense of social purpose, represented by militarism, is keeping the old wicked alchemist fantasy contained.

Hendry sets out to defend the base personnel from the alien, whilst Carrington’s philosophy contains coded notions that endanger the personnel: that scientific knowledge is a godhead to which anything can be sacrificed, and which contains no preexisting moral precepts outside its own logic. He becomes a kind of general, insisting that casualties will be necessary in capturing the alien’s knowledge. Yet his motives are altruistic, even utopian: it’s his species as a whole he imagines as benefiting. This echoes, perhaps deliberately, the utopian, anti-individual prerogatives of Communism. Carrington’s fascination is dismissed as like a child playing with a new toy, and Hendry’s sense of responsibility is held as inherently adult.

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The Thing is also a film made in, and about, an age of expectation: expectation of war and of new discovery. The relative proximity of both the first A-bomb blast and reports of UFOs (Kenneth Arnold’s sighting and the Roswell incident, both in 1947) put them on an conceptual par. “We finally got one!” Scotty (Douglas Spencer) exclaims at the UFO crash site, as if it were only a matter of time. Peter Biskind calls The Thing’s perspective exemplary of a right-wing subgenre, celebrating a military man’s moral triumph over a scientist’s in dealing with nascent threat.

Political context is important as another formative aspect of the ’50s genre. Constantly reiterated in the film is its relative proximity to World War II. Even nonmilitary men have experience in war, like Scotty, the journalist and everyman in the narrative: he describes the edgy atmosphere as “just like the old days”. But this is not merely a metaphor for the values of social regimentation. Hendry sets himself both against Carrington and his own superiors in his actions: rather than being a passive tool of power, his ethos requires him to act for the people around him. There is a fundamental distrust of elitism: both Carrington’s Nobel Prize and the distance-muffled rank of Hendry’s commander, General Fogarty (David McMahon), dissociates both from understanding the travails of mere humans. More than this, the struggle between men, and not merely with an alien, is crucial. Although Carrington explores the Thing’s biology, including how it might cause apocalypse with its reproductive method, it’s Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), his secretary, who suggests how to deal with it and lesser scientists and soldiers who turn this into a battle plan.

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When Carrington employs the atomic bomb as an example of scientific progress, one soldier sneers, “That sure made everybody happy.” The Thing itself is radioactive, further condensing the atom bomb, the unknown monster, and out-of-control science into a single entity. The alien’s reversal of the assumed relationship of man to plant and thus to nature, further feeds the anxiety that the human relationship with the world has been distorted. Carrington explicitly admires the Thing, which has “no pains or pleasures as we know them…no emotions…no heart…superior – far superior in every way…” This desire in science to discover or create something lacking human weakness, with its fascistic yearning toward perfection, casts a long shadow in the genre—cyborg Ash in Alien (1979) admiring the creature’s “purity”, or Tyrell’s celebration of übermensch Roy in Blade Runner (1982) as “perfect as we could make you,” designed with a short enough life span to curtail emotional responses. As in the conflict of Adams and Morbius in Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956), the super genius needs the ordinary man to reveal a basic fact about humanity. Carrington’s relationship to the Thing resembles a reframing of Dr. Frankenstein, in Curse of Frankenstein (1957), as a sociopathic seeker of supermen blind to common human considerations.

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The alien is savagely inimical to other life forms, and yet characterised as possessing vastly superior technology and intellect. Being a vegetable, it reproduces asexually and lives by draining blood directly from other creatures. Its intelligence then is not linked to any sense of emotion or ethical consequence: it has no empathy, only parasitic self-interest. Whilst the Thing possesses raw intellect without passion or empathy, the red-blooded Hendry romances Nikki with such out-of-control fervor that she insists on his being tied up when giving him liquor. The necessary self-control that is part of being human—that irrational and imperfect creature—is absent in the Thing. The alien, and by implication science in general, is seen as more—not less—barbarian for eliminating human concerns like reproduction and community. The title confirms the prejudice: it’s a thing from another world, not a man, woman, or even animal—as Carrington puts it, “as different from us as one pole from another.”

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That the Cold War is on the film’s mind is acknowledged when Hendry mentions that the Russians are “all over the pole like flies.” The film exploits the frigid setting for both symbolic and strategic relevance with the paranoid notion that the Soviets have access to the American continent via the polar ice. The image of fraught confrontation between East and West in the polar zone is shared with movies like The Bedford Incident (1965), Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Ice Station Zebra (1968), pseudo-realistic thrillers on the fringes of scifi. The base is, then, no mere research station, but a frontier outpost in Indian country, like those in the many westerns Hawks and Nyby made. When the team locates the UFO, the weather is clear, befitting a moment of illumination. Once the Thing escapes, a blizzard rolls in. Beyond the safe confines of the base’s living quarters is threatening, shadowy, and stalked by unseen threat. It is made clear that it is necessary to contain the Thing’s threat here, or see the world overrun. Here are the essentials of paranoia, placed in a specific political milieu, but with a timeless element of dread. The Thing portrays a society gearing itself up for another confrontation, one war recently passed with a new one on the polar horizon.

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The respect for stolidity over theoretical genius can be seen as a reflection of Hawks’ influence on the film, with his admiration for hard-bitten dutifulness and the necessity of teamwork amongst professionals and his distaste for amateurism, both of which characterize Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Rio Bravo (1959). In The Thing, the businesslike characters know when to get to the point and shut up. Constant, friendly chat changes to terse “I see what you mean” or “you’re right” once the situation demands it. Other familiar elements of the Hawks oeuvre include the tough, level-headed woman (Nikki, who can drink Hendry under the table), the far-flung setting and mounting death toll amidst a group of professionals; the rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue; and the complex relationships of actors within frames composed at eye level.

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More distinctly Hawksian than generic is the mature approach The Thing takes to a morally dubious, conflicted character. Usually in a scifi melodrama, a character that creates or exacerbates a dangerous situation will be killed off in ultimate retribution. The Hawksian template here twists a once and future cliché into a more complex conclusion. Although Carrington endangers everyone, he earns readmission into the circle (cited by Scotty as recovering “from injuries sustained in the battle”) by putting his own neck on the line in trying to talk with the Thing, testing and receiving a blunt answer to his hypotheses. In this, Carrington resembles the redeemed Bat McPherson (Richard Barthelmess) in Only Angels Have Wings.

The last stage of the monster movie involves a humbling of humankind, as we gain a new awareness of our place in the universe. Scotty’s admonition to “watch the skies” signals a new era of fearful awareness of the heavens from which it is entirely possible that doom will come. Luciano’s mystical element is important here, for in The Thing, both prophet and alien have more of the demonic than the angelic in what they augur. Scotty’s line also closes the circle on the Cold War theme, as the world of 1951 is only just becoming used to nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and stratospheric aircraft. The world has, to quote Edmund Gwenn’s Dr. Bedford at the end of Them! (1954), stepped through a door into a new world. There is a sense of the enemy and a readiness to fight, but there will be no relaxation or relief in this new world.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/05/2009 to 10:26 pm

    I did not realize that Hawks had a large hand (or even a small one) in this. It has been several years since I saw it, but I want to rewatch it now with your thoughts about Hawks in mind.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/05/2009 to 5:24 am

    There’s disputation over the part Hawks played. Kenneth Tobey and some other cast members say he in all essentials directed it, and gave Nyby credit as a favour, as Nyby wanted a directing career and (I suspect) sci-fi was such a lowly genre that Hawks considered it no loss. The fact that Nyby never made another of film of such standing would seem to back this up. But James Arness said that Nyby directed and the Hawks was rarely on set. I’d say regardless of who told the actors and cameramen what to do on set, it’s plainly a project Hawks had a tremendous creative interest in and influence on.

  • Eric spoke:
    27th/05/2009 to 5:43 pm

    @Rod, Yes, I’ve heard that about Hawks and Nyby. Very interesting. Either Nyby had an insane spat of luck, or more likely, Hawks did all the work.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/05/2009 to 9:20 pm

    There’s certainly precedent. Bretaigne WIndust has credit for The Enforcer but as he was very green in cinema and couldn’t shoot at all fast enough, so Raoul Walsh actually directed it. And it really looks and feels like Walsh behind the camera.

  • Mr. Joseph Young spoke:
    8th/03/2012 to 11:43 am

    While this is a comprehensive and “heady” analysis of “The Thing From Another World”… He completely misses a very important aspect and synergy that allows the audience to feel victorious and vindicated that our “human” sense of survival hones our problem solving skills and in the end, it is THESE traits that make for a most satisfying ending. What is missed in all of this breakdown is that fact that unlike “Real Life”. where most major decisions are more or less “Top Down”… all of the major ideas that provoke or lead to the death of the Alien Thing arise from either “Nikki” … a mere secretary/stenographer or “Bob”, the enlisted man who always seems to make the right suggestion at the right time… and is clever enough to make Captain Hendry feel like it was his idea by suggesting on more than one occasion, “I think you’re RIGHT Sir” when in fact, Hendry’s wan smile lest us all know that “Bob” was the one who came up with these solutions.

    These include the very tense but timely solutions that kept as many people as possible from being killed by “The Thing” such as, “Say Captain…I’ve got a crazy idea..” and that segues into either dousing the Plant Man with Kerosene and setting it on fire…or rigging an electric Fly Trap to finally capture, hold and incinerate the creature. The fact that at its best, this film shows “The Common Man” working together with other common folk and coming together under the worst of circumstances …and winning. If you doubt that this is part of Howard Hawks “autuerism” …have a look at the hospital bed death scene of the pilot in his movie, “Air Force”, where all of the lowly plane personnel help the man die with dignity doing what he loved best. It main not be a commonly well understood reason for why this film gets looked at an appreciated hundreds of times in a persons life… but just think about my suggestion and consider what we all want to feel like, regardless of race, creed, colour or gender when faced with an impossible danger… in the end we sink or swim…together!

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