I say all this now because – well, it’s something which is relevant to any look at old SF movies, and it somehow seems particularly pertinent to Gordon Douglas’ 1954 movie Them! – not that Them! has especially bad effects-work, but it takes an approach to them very rarely used in movies, especially today.
Anyway – New Mexico, 1954, and strange events pile up upon one another, out in the desert. A little girl is found wandering, almost catatonic with shock; a mobile home is found ripped apart, its inhabitants missing; a local store is similarly destroyed and the proprietor savagely killed, along with a local cop investigating the scene. Police sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) is baffled, as is FBI man Robert Graham (James Arness), who’s also on the case. However, an odd footprint found on one of the crime scenes attracts the attention of Washington boffin Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter (Joan Weldon) – she’s also a boffin, but mostly a decorative one.
Medford has a terrible suspicion about what is actually happening, and his worst fears are soon confirmed – lingering radiation from the first atom bomb tests in 1945 has caused the local wildlife to mutate, and the desert is now home to voracious nine-foot-long ants. If the menace can’t be contained, and quickly, all of civilisation may be in danger – or, as Medford himself puts it, striking the semi-obligatory note of religious doominess, ‘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.”
There’s a nice story about the making of Them!, which has producer David Weisbart phoning up Gordon Douglas to see how things were going. Not bad, Douglas replied. ‘But does the movie look honest?’ Weisbart asked. ‘About as honest as a movie about nine-foot ants can look,’ Douglas is reported to have replied.
You can kind of see that the makers of this film were concerned about keeping it honest, or grounded in reality, because it really is – in a way that, for example, Jack Arnold’s movies usually aren’t. Them! doesn’t have an introductory voice-over and opens like a mystery thriller. Performances are low-key and restrained, and in places the film has a laconic sense of humour that’s pleasing and effective. To paraphrase the director, there’s a limit to how grittily realistic a film like this can be, but Douglas isn’t afraid to approach it, and Them! benefits greatly as a result.
The mutant ants are the big draw of the movie, and they’re pretty well done even by modern standards. The movie doesn’t use stop-frame animation or trick photography, or even monster suits, but opts for full-scale ant puppets. They’re used sparingly but effectively, and at the end you come away thinking they get more screen time than is really the case.
Instead, the majority of the film is made up of two main sections: the eerie ‘mystery in the desert’ section, which opens the film and is still remarkably effective even though everyone watching knows giant mutant ants are to blame, and the ‘hunt for the ants’ section, in which the characters try to locate two further nests without causing a national panic. It’s less atmospheric, but tautly done and convincing. The focus is firmly on the main plot, with the subtext left entirely to the audience to work out for themselves – as a result the film is much less obviously didactic or preachy than many of its contemporaries.
Arness and Whitmire are effective leading men, but the acting honours go to Edmund Gwenn (Weldon really doesn’t get much to do). Gwenn gets all the best dialogue and character bits, and when the film finally focuses on its atom-scare subtext, it’s Gwenn who gets the classic closing lines – ‘When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What he will eventually find in that world, no-one can predict.’
The contents of the post-atomic world may have been impossible to predict, but the post-Them! world was filled with big bug movies of various kinds – giant spiders, giant scorpions, giant preying mantises and so on (Eight Legged Freaks openly acknowledges its debt to Them!). None of them is quite as effective, either as a drama or as a fable, mainly due to weak scripts or budgetary constraints (Them! is quite a lavish movie in its way).
But it also seems to me that Them!‘s influence extends beyond the big bug genre to more celebrated SF movies. In the image of the traumatised girl survivor, a twitchy expedition into the gas-shrouded depths of the ants’ nest, and above all in the final desperate conflict between the machineguns and flamethrowers of the army and the clacking mandibles of the ants in a maze of tunnels under Los Angeles, it seems to me that Them! is the obvious inspiration for many of the key elements of Aliens.
Whether you buy the idea that seeing Them! was a defining moment for a young Jim Cameron or not, it remain a defining moment in the history of SF movie-making, not just for the 50s but for all time. You couldn’t make a movie like this now, for so many different reasons – but they could in 1954, and did it very nearly to perfection.