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Posts Tagged ‘James Arness’

Come back with me now to the Earth Year 1987 and a place on the South Coast called Littlehampton. We had gone on holiday there for a fortnight (‘we’ being my parents, my sister and I) and were having a fairly pleasant time. One particular evening lingers in my memory, though: I had been left in on my own for reasons I can no longer recall. It may be simply because I wanted to watch the film that this post is about, which even then was 36 years old.

It was, as you may not be surprised to learn, an old SF movie: The Thing From Another World, to be exact. I had seen many examples of 50s SF even by that age and found them either amusing or interesting, but The Thing… there’s a scene about half-way through this movie where the characters have learned that the monster is on the loose somewhere in the camp and set out to look for it, and I found myself suddenly very conscious of being alone in a cottage on a very dark night. Even back then, only very rarely did a movie genuinely scare or unsettle me, and this 36-year-old ‘antique’ managed it (the startling shot in which the creature first appears also made me jump and make embarrassing yelping noises).

The original 1951 Thing has really been eclipsed in the popular imagination by John Carpenter’s visceral 1982 remake (in turn, a prequel/remake is due this autumn), and while I’ve seen and admire both films my loyalty will always be with the older one, simply because I think it takes more skill to frighten than to nauseate.

The plot of the original movie has been hugely influential (and while John Campbell’s short story Who Goes There? is credited as the source, it seems to me to be ultimately derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness, but that’s by the by). Reports of a crashing plane or impacting meteorite draws an Air Force crew to a scientific outpost at the North Pole. Working with the scientists there, they discover an alien craft buried under the ice – attempts to retrieve it fail (the manner in which the ship is destroyed, as presented on screen at least, doesn’t really make sense: one of the few holes in The Thing‘s plot) but they do get second prize: one of the ship’s occupants is discovered buried in the ice, and transported back to their base.

Needless to say the resilience of the alien is grossly underestimated and a mishap leads to the creature being freed from its icy prison. The true nature of the being becomes apparent: it’s a carnivorous humanoid plant, which has come to Earth intent on propagating itself…

James Arness plays the Thing itself. He plays it as a brutal snarling monster, which is a little at odds with the script’s depiction of it as a dangerously intelligent being – he doesn’t look much like a plant-man, either – but the truth of the matter is that he only gets about five minutes on-screen. The Thing From Another World isn’t a traditional monster movie, in that it isn’t particularly interested in its monster, and one of the reasons it’s so effective is that it isn’t afraid to strictly ration the creature’s screen-time.

What this movie does seem to be interested in, to me, is the relationships of a group of guys in a very tight spot. Kenneth Tobey is the ostensible leading man, Margaret Sheridan his love interest, but The Thing is really an ensemble piece: scene after scene is packed with characters, mostly painted in broad strokes, but all still recognizable human beings. And, compared to the stilted and often crummy and/or pretentious dialogue bedevilling so many genre films of this decade, The Thing‘s script zips and crackles along, and it’s genuinely funny in a laconic sort of way: you could argue that this is The West Wing of classic SF films.

More traditional genre elements make an appearance in the nature of the monster – which is pleasingly bizarre – and in the tension between the Air Force characters and the scientists as to how they should handle the creature. Needless to say, the chief scientist (Robert Cornthwaite) is a rum cove, wont to produce such dubious utterances as ‘Knowledge is more important than life… [The Thing’s] development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors… we owe it to the brain of our species to stand here and die without destroying a source of wisdom‘ and overlook the Thing’s innate blood-lust. 50s SF was certainly often ambivalent towards science, but on the other hand there are so many movies featuring scientist heroes and wise old boffins – The Thing From Another World is unusual in that it comes out and depicts scientists as out of touch with common values and Not To Be Trusted.

On the other hand, if this is a piece of anti-communist propaganda, as many have argued, then it’s one which operates on an almost subliminal level. I suppose you could say that the depiction of the Thing as a product of a totally alien way of life is an attempt at political allegory (plant vs animal = communism vs capitalism) but to me this is stretching a little: the Thing simply isn’t interested in political or conventional military conquest.

Subtext is only really of interest in hindsight, anyway. The Thing From Another World has a well-deserved reputation as one of the very first truly great SF movies – but this is a case of film-makers shaping genre conventions to suit themselves, rather than feeling beholden to the constraints of the form. There’s a solid core of human drama and emotion to this movie, which is what provides it with such vitality and tension, and gives the genre elements their bite. As a piece of SF, The Thing From Another World proves that less can definitely be more.

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Modern SF and fantasy films tend to get judged largely on the strength of their special effects, rather than the quality of scripting, direction, or performance. Perhaps I should modify that to say that bad special effects are more likely to torpedo a modern SFF movie than other shortfall in the production.
Technology progresses with time, of course, and one consequence of improvements in this field is that it can be tempting to dismiss older films on the grounds that they have ‘bad effects’, even when the effects in question were state of the art at the time. If you think about it, this means that every SFF film has gradually somehow got worse with the passage of time, without materially changing at all. Possibly it’s a result of being a Doctor Who fan of three decades’ standing, but dubious special effects have never troubled me unduly, anyway – it’s the quality of the scripting and other creative factors that usually determines whether or not I like a film.

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.

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