Director: Gordon Douglas
By Roderick Heath
The New Mexico desert, a vast, flat, seemingly sterile and vacant zone of the Earth, where it seems like nothing can hide for long in the glare of the sun. A police spotter plane contacts two cops in a patrol car, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), and guides them in tracking down a small figure wandering in the gruelling landscape. This proves to be a young girl (Sandy Descher), clutching a doll, walking with a glazed and staring expression in a state of deep trauma. Heading to a car and caravan parked nearby hoping to return her to her parents, they instead find the caravan has been violently torn open by some great force, with no sign of the owners, later identified as a couple named Ellinson. Only a weird, unrecognisable animal is print left in sand nearby, and sugar cubes are scattered all over. Ambulance men and lab investigators arrive, take a cast of the print, and load the girl to be taken to hospital. For a moment Ben and a medic are distracted and puzzled by a strange, trilling sound that arises out of the swirling sands near the site – a sound that momentarily stirs the girl. Ben and Ed head to a nearby general store owned by ‘Gramps’ Johnson as a dust storm rises and night falls, and find the store has also been broken into and trashed with incredible ferocity, with a buckled Winchester rifle on the floor and Gramps’ corpse discovered at the foot of steps into the cellar, mangled and bloodied. Ben heads off to bring the investigators over from the caravan, leaving Ed alone. Just as the sound of the car disappears into the night, Ed hears the same trilling call, and heads outside to look for the source. We hear his gun fire and his terrible scream as something launches on him from the dark.
Them! is the greatest atomic monster movie. Made with machine-like skill and chitinous beauty, it’s one of the very few sci-fi classics of the 1950s that feels scarcely dated. Part of its rare value and specific force stems from adopting what was then a radical idea, starting off in a different genre altogether, and proceeding with remarkable swerves of story and expectation. Them! unfolds essentially as a police procedural. Early scenes carefully posit signs of something incredible and far beyond the ordinary, violent death and carnage falling under the provenance of professional lawmen, whose method is linked with that of scientific enquirers, sifting facts and winnowing out inescapable conclusions. Slender threads and long shots are followed, ridiculous suppositions and apparently lunatic stories taken seriously. Director Gordon Douglas only made this single foray into fantastic cinema. Most of the time he made rock-solid westerns and crime flicks. This armed him perfectly to approach this story, however. Them! has familiar elements of both horror and sci-fi, but leads stylistically with a tone of sunstroke noir, like Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Dick Powell’s Split Second (1953), before segueing into the nightmarish scene at the store. Jack Arnold had tackled the desert as a setting of atmosphere and surrealist destabilisation in It Came From Outer Space a year earlier, and Douglas went one better. Here the wind howls through gutted walls and sets the overhead lights dancing, littered with broken bodies and signs of forceful intent at once superhuman in ripping out a wall and finicky in pausing again to steal sugar. The ripped bags and pooled grains are infested with tiny black ants, a coldly witty foreshadowing of where all this is going. White Sands, site of the first atomic bomb test less than a decade earlier, is not far away.
Douglas confronts the once-open American landscape as a place suddenly turned septic and deadly, riddled with monsters, and its taciturn, self-reliant inhabitants with their expert marksman eyes suddenly outmatched and their bones left strewn about, bleaching in the sun. Investigative method is at first is left utterly bemused, noting the damage done to Gramps, including shattered bones, pulverised flesh, and “the one for Sherlock Holmes – there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.” FBI Agent Bob Graham (James Arness) is just as clueless in the face of the details. Wiser, more rarefied intelligences are called for. Soon an unlikely pair of big brains are flown in, chasing a suspicion based on the plaster print: Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, fellow scientist Dr Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon). Bob and Ben smirk and gawk at the site of a good-looking female scientist and a cuddly, absent-minded old professor, but soon find themselves scrambling to keep up with their businesslike attitudes and cryptic suggestions of imminent disaster. Medford uses the scent of formic acid to stir the young girl from her catatonic state: suddenly the girl launches herself from her chair, screaming “Them!” as she cowers in the corner. Medford grows all the grimmer as he makes the lawmen take him and Pat out to see where the print was found, scouring for new prints. Pat finds one, just in time to have the thing that made it come up behind her: an ant, big as an elephant. Medford shouts for the cops to shoot at the creature’s antennae to render it senseless, but it’s not until Ben fetches a machine gun that they bring down this unholy terror.
Medford pronounces his worst suspicion confirmed: lingering radiation from the first atom bomb test has sparked mutation. The ant is the worst possible species to face blown up to hundreds of times its normal size, an animal with great strength, social organisation, martial intelligence, and “savagery that makes Man look feeble by comparison.” If Godzilla (1954) articulated Japan’s sense of being on the receiving end of the atom age’s horrible birth, full of images of soaring, impersonal destruction, Them! is the more paranoid companion piece from the victors. The towering, singular, city-flattening monsters of most atomic monster movies here are exchanged with large and threatening but more immediate and pervading enemies. Manny Farber’s metaphor of termite art never felt more appropriate. The fear articulated in Them! is less of the destructive force of the Bomb itself than of the more insidious threat of radiation. Soldiers were being marched through atomic bomb test sites even as Them! was produced, many later to fall ill. The giAnts could also be seen as a twist on a popular caricature of Communists – monsters with a warlike attitude and perfect, communal organisation, spreading out and infesting the nation. Douglas had already done his best for Cold War acclimatising on I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951).
As Ben and Blackburn explore Gramps’ shattered store, a droning radio in the story broadcasts news from around the world. Reports on diplomatic entreaties and success of vaccination programs, the instability of modern politics and the genius of modern science reported in close succession, investing the scene confront the cops with a portentous mood of diagnosis. Them! depicts the essential conflict between the Janus faces of the atomic age, the forces that created the evil – science and militarism – called in to clean up their own mess, with the moral leadership provided by civil guardians Ben and Bob. “This is the first time I’ve ever given orders to a General,” Ben quips to General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) as they’re required to work together, because Medford insists on keeping the existence of the giAnts secret as long as possible. With the nature of the beast finally revealed, the job of tracking down the monsters requires searching the desert by helicopter, and Medford calls in O’Brien and aide Major Kibbee (Sean McClory). Finally they glimpse one of the great black beasts standing astride the entrance to the nest, a ribcage in in its mandibles. Medford counsels the need to both exterminate the nest but also to keep it intact and make sure every creature is killed. He comes up with a plan that the two lawmen and two soldiers carry out, firing phosphorous charges at the nest with bazookas to keep the giAnts at bay, and then gas their hive with cyanide.
Bob momentarily balks at having Pat, who needs to do what her elderly father can’t, descend with him and Ben into the nest to survey the damage, but she quickly dismisses his concerns: “There isn’t time to give you a fast lesson in insect pathology.” Pat’s introduction echoes that of Bella Darvi’s similar prodigal daughter of the savant in Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954): the first sight of her is a sliver of leg in a pump, descending a ladder, astounding the meatheads before quickly and simply laying claim to her place on the team. Fuller’s tone was satiric where Douglas is businesslike, for like Pat he can’t stand distractions and pointless arguments. It could be one of the most significant early rumbles of feminism on film: Pat does scream queen duty early on but after that is a model of cool and purpose, and as much as it makes Bob look gassy, he’s forced to concede Pat’s point. After that it’s never mentioned again. This aspect is perfectly contiguous with the film’s survey of a new landscape where the pace of change, and evolution itself, is outpacing comprehension. George Worthing Yates, who wrote the original story for Them!, would return to the same feminist slant, if more awkwardly, on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955).
Descent into the ant nest sees the nightmarish tint of the store sequence shift into the realm of the truly strange and mythic as Ben, Bob, and Pat roam the labyrinth, where gas clouds swirl and demonic forms lie slumped and twisted. Two ants from a walled-up section of nest break out and attack, but Ben manages to cook both with his flame thrower, that great catch-all weapon of any self-respecting monster hunter. But the most disturbing and threatening discovery in the nest is an absence, as Pat recognises the importance of some large, empty egg shells. New queen ants and male consorts have hatched and left the nest, meaning that new colonies will be founded someplace else, and the cycle will start again. The film’s lengthy mid-section returns to the investigative theme as our small band of heroes rustle up government support, but still keep their operation small and low-key as they sift through leads extracted from an avalanche of reports encompassing weird and unusual events. In this situation, the more bizarre and lunatic-sounding the story, the more meaningful it is, one of the cleverest conceits of the script (by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes). The team get their best clue from a shaky Texan aviator, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker, pre-Davy Crockett), who’s been shut up in a loony bin because of his report of nearly flying into UFOs shaped like ants. More crucial leads come from a theft of a load of sugar from a parked railway car, and from a loopy alcoholic, Jensen (Olin Howlin), whose reports of seeing giant ants crawling about the LA River bed and flying about in model aeroplanes would be dismissed as DTs by most but set the hairs on our heroes’ necks standing.
Them! stands tall not just in the annals of monster movies but in movie history in general for the way it balances two qualities required for great storytelling which can seem contradictory: the concision of its storytelling, both visually and in its writing, with lean ferocity to the plot and pacing, coexisting with enriching distractions – comic asides, incidental vignettes, and moments of human intensity. The comedy is good: the railway security man who’s been arrested because he employers believe he must have been complicit in the sugar theft scoffing, “You ever hear of a fence for hot sugar?”, Crotty bleating that the staff in the hospital won’t even give him “anything to hold up my pants!” two old souses arguing the ethics of evening wear, or Jensen chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!” when he thinks Kibbee wants to draft him. The heroes and their motives are straightforward, with only Ben’s tight-wound desire to settle a score against the things that killed his partner and turned his beat into a war zone offered as an aside to the general business of social dedication, whilst romance between Bob and Pat is noted but not belaboured. Otherwise they get along with their jobs with the dedication of experts. Even with this terse attitude, though, Them! manages to be revealing, as with Medford’s habitual insistence on calling his daughter doctor when they’re discussing business, and Pat’s concern for the old man’s health. Gwenn, long a scene-stealing actor, delivers a peach of a performance, at once a source of frail but plucky humanity, as when he splutters irascibly at being lectured on how to use a two-way radio, and then delivers the regulation voice of pseudo-poetic wisdom beholding the terrors of a new age.
The necessity of the heroes doing that job is illustrated and made urgent by the repeated motif of interrupted lives, and children left endangered by the deaths of parents – the Ellinsons at first and then the two sons of Mrs Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson). The hunt for the ants comes to Los Angeles in probing the sugar theft, and quickly a new ant colony in the storm drain system under the city is identified, in part because of an even more random lead, when Ben and Bob check out the body of a man who crashed his car but had clearly been violently mutilated beforehand. This man, Lodge, was a working man who took his children out on Sunday mornings, the only time he had for them, and it’s clear that this time it ended in violent tragedy. Finding what happened to Lodge’s children and where proves to the key to mystery and the stake for the finale. This aspect of the story does more than serve a plot function: it situated Them! in a real world that many such films never even graze, particularly in today’s genre film. The most powerful images here aren’t of battle and monstrosity but of human reaction. The first, of the Ellinson girl stirred from her traumatic bubble to jump up, face distorted by terror and proximity to the camera and screaming the title, is designed and executed as a perfectly iconic moment, capturing the leap from rigid anxiety to explosive, cathartic hysteria – the essence of the atom age conflated into a child’s face. Another moment, bordering on arch and yet remaining starkly serious, comes after the first giAnt is killed, with the sound of its fellows ringing eerily out of the dust storm, and Medford speaks a faux-Biblical quote that underline the mood of imminent apocalypse and primal threat: “And there shall be destruction and darkness come over Creation – and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” The rhyme to the Ellinson girl’s violent display comes towards the end when Mrs Lodge hears her boys are alive, with Douglas cutting to a close-up as she buckles in sudden relief, a moment that packs emotional wallop no matter how many times I watch the film.
No monster movie is better than its monster, of course. As Steven Spielberg would to great effect years later with Jaws (1975), Them! keeps its beasties off screen for a long time – nearly a third of the film. The first appearance is a piece of brilliant mischief on Douglas’ part, as Pat kneels by a print she finds and scans her surrounds, unaware that a colossal monster is rising up over the sand dune just behind her, a giant something seeming to crawl out of infinite nothing, before fixing on the small, juicy human with beady eyes. I remember the first time I ever saw the film as a kid and being utterly bewildered as to what kind of threat was going to turn up until that most memorable reveal. The effects used to animate the giAnts aren’t always convincing, and aren’t as artful as the stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. But the decision to eschew miniatures and use puppets and large-mock-ups gives them a sense of size and imminence, bristling threat and an aura of brutish savagery. When the ants do show up, just as importantly, they don’t shrink as threats – rather the opposite. Even when not seen that eerily memorable sound effect of their call (actually the massed sound of a species of tree frog) signals their presence and builds atmosphere. One of my favourite moments in the film, which feels to me again like an encapsulation of the era’s taut nerves and sense of dark wonder at the newly threatening frontiers of existence, is when a report comes through to the government about another ant nest having hatched out on a ship at sea. Medford cranes over the shoulder of a signalman typing up a furiously tapped Morse code message. Douglas zooms in on the signalman’s headphones, dissolves to a shot of the ship at sea, then to the hand tapping out the message – a hapless sailor trying to get out his message as the giAnts careen through the ship consuming men and bashing through walls.
Them! as an artefact vibrates with intimations of a novel and alien age, Douglas and Hickox seeking out odd visual textures to underline a headlong rush into an enclosing modernity and pestilential menace. When the first giAnt appears, the humans in the scene are dehumanised by the goggles they wear against the sand, making them look a bit ant-like themselves (whilst Weldon’s tightly cinched waist is insectoid as anything in the film), whilst the irradiated desert anticipates a post-apocalyptic world. LA’s vaulted roadways and cemented rivers, and the storm drains where the army ventures on the hunt for the ants, becomes a maze of blank and glistening concrete, like a rough draft for some futuristic city, the kinds seen on a hundred scifi pulp novel covers. Bronislau Kaper’s scoring mimics the churn of radio signals and the pulse of Morse code and singing telephone lines as the action plays out on arrays of communication that suck in all the information of the world in a new network to be disseminated by our heroes.
Them! benefits from its relative privilege, a long time before Star Wars (1977), as a film from a genre usually relegated to cramped budgets and expedient filmmaking in those days, made with something like the care and production heft of a top-line movie, apparent not just in the special effects but also the technical elements including Sidney Hickox’s photography and especially Bronislau Kaper’s thunderous music score. Whitmore’s performance as Ben anchors the film with his restrained humanity and everyman quality, a quality that makes him seem like a prototype for a brand of movie hero who was still to have his day in the future, whereas Arness’s jut-jawed company man feels more like a familiar type of the day, especially as he gets befuddled around Pat’s aura of competence. Ben is also a tragic hero, dying whilst saving the Lodge kids from an army of the ants in the storm sewer, managing to hoist the two lads to safety only to finish up mangled between two massive mandibles – a bloodcurdling moment remarkable not just in its cruel verve but in carrying through on the violent threat to its hero with a gutsiness still few films can claim. When, a few minutes later, Bob gets trapped by a collapsed roof in a section of tunnel with more of the beasts, the narrative’s rude and declared disinterest in the usual niceties makes the moment all the more thrilling, with Bob becoming the image of a frontline warrior with machine gun blazing in desperate last stand against the ultimate enemy – monsters of the id turned flesh.
Though the two films belong technically to the same subgenre, if Godzilla, released in Japan less than four months later, defined the giant monster movie forever, Them! has surely had as permanent effect on a smaller-scaled brand of man-versus-whatever drama – there’s something of its mutant DNA in films as diverse as Jaws and its many rip-offs, The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Aliens (1986), and the Jurassic Park films, both on the level of narrative patterning and on the crudely but effectively phobic level of exploiting the dread of being eaten by something with a lot of teeth and legs. But there are also the seeds of concerns filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), John Boorman, with Point Blank (1967), up to and including Michael Mann, would later enlarge upon, surveying the wilderness of the new with anxiety rather than triumph. The enemy is defeated and exterminated in the very last moments of Them!, but not without a sense of both regret, as the human protagonists look down upon the last of a new species writhing in streams of fire, and also, vitally, a sense of menace contained but not quelled. As Medford’s hokey but effective last speech states and Douglas’ bleakly revelling images convey, it won’t be the last horror the brave new world will have to stare down.