Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"A horror-horde of crawl-and-crush ants clawing out of the Earth from mile-deep catacombs!"
Them! is a key science fiction film that transcends its reputation as television fodder. It's hard to believe that younger people haven't grown up with it on TV as we did. The nicely budgeted thriller was made at Warner Brothers at a time when each studio still had a house style: Them! has the crisp photography of Sid Hickox (White Heat), great montages, a typically brassy and aggressive Warners music score and a trim script that moves like a coiled snake. It's been described as a film noir, which is only partially true: The look is there but the world has been transformed into a bold new battleground for a struggle against a totalitarian enemy -- one with which détente is impossible.
The tiny daughter of an FBI agent on vacation is found in the desert by New Mexico State Policeman Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), who discovers that both of her parents and a general store owner have been murdered under baffling circumstances. An odd footprint sent to Washington brings FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and two entomologists, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon). Together they discover that a nest of mutated ants has broken out, and the world is in danger of being overrun by hordes of killer monster insects.
In 1954, science fiction filmmaking was actually on the wane; RKO, Fox and Paramount had made a few successful A pictures but the genre was already starting to be dominated by cheaper independent product. Universal and Warners tried their hand with outer space stories and monster movies but the overall trend was to scale back production: If the market rushed to see a no-budget show like Target: Earth!, stars and real spectacle weren't required. Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to earn what Herman Cohen or Lippert were getting by spending fifty or sixty?
Warners had resisted the new fantastic genre until 1953's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which I believe was an independent film lured 'in-house' just before or during production. Warners' big in-house efforts were expensive 3D horror films like House of Wax. According to film historian Steve Rubin, 1 Them! was preproduced as a slick, expensive 'A' picture in color and 3-D. The studio had already pared down an original story that involved impossibly expensive battles in the NYC subways on the scale of The War of the Worlds. Instead of phoning then still-unknown effects man Ray Harryhausen, Warners gave the job of creating an ant army to its studio craftsmen, who were eager for the challenge.
The whole point of doing the ants live-action instead of with optical animation was because Them! was to be shot in 3-D, which made mattes and other effects difficult if not impossible. Several functioning ant models were made: Articulated whole animals that moved on the front of fork lifts, hydraulic and electric models whose heads, antennae and mandibles worked, and simple 'wobbly' heads that balanced and waved their antennae when agitated by wind machines. The cleverness extended to the eyes, which were plastic bubbles filled with multicolored soapy oils and glitter. Animated by washing-machine agitators, the sparkly liquid slooshed around inside and made the inexpressive ant faces seem alive.
Jack Warner hit the brakes twice during preproduction. The 3-D was abandoned first, and then just two days before shooting Warner decreed that the show not be shot in color either. Apparently he thought the whole project was just junk. His opinion remained the same after Them! became the studio's biggest moneymaker of the year. No Son of Them! ever had a chance of happening.
Even though director Gordon Douglas was incensed to have his solid-A picture reduced to uppity B status, 3 it didn't dampen his enthusiasm, and Them! is possibly his best-directed action feature. The
story builds logically with an investigation in the desert, creating characters we care deeply about. Nowhere is the show treated as if it were a down-market 'monster movie', a fault shared by most all of the fantasies over at Universal. A believable noir world is sketched around the fantastic content. The cops and soldiers are doing their jobs, including mundane police work. The victims have families who care about them and the survival of individuals is always kept at the highest level of importance -- one advisor who suggests that two young boys be sacrificed in order to guarantee a 'sanitary' means of disposing of the ants is usually booed in theaters. It's one of the few monster movies with a big emotional appeal.
Douglas marshaled a perfect production to give Them! a high degree of credibility. His New Mexico desert is very real -- gritty, dusty, and bleak -- and no place for a casual stroll as in Tarantula. Little Sandy Descher's lost girl starts the picture off with a different kind of poetry -- the absolute innocent alone in a hostile and increasingly alien world. Forget the singing cowboys ... there's radioactivity out there.
The midnight visit to Gramp's store is atmospheric, tense and truly frightening when seen for the first time. Sgt. Peterson and his buddy Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) move through the windblown wreck with guns drawn, listening to the vaguely threatening news on the radio. Obviously ex-soldiers, they are warriors in a new kind of war against a new kind of army that invades from within. 4
The emotional center of the film is James Whitmore's Sgt. Peterson. Whitmore had started over at MGM, where he personified a rather condescending image of the average American Joe in producer Dore Schary's The Next Voice You Hear, a mish-mosh of humanistic and religious ideas. Moving between studios, Whitmore got a variety of roles
(Kiss Me Kate) but made his strongest impression when playing soldiers and cops. His trooper here is a humanistic everyman, the perfect WW2 veteran dedicated to keeping the peace and saving children. He's how we baby boomers like to remember our fathers, gentle men who had once been to war and now wanted something different.
James Arness at this time was a bona fide protégé of John Wayne doing his darndest to elbow his way
into a career. His delivery, mannerisms etc., are almost laughably patterned on Wayne's style. Arness starts as a handsome FBI man and like most everyone else becomes a soldier by the last reel. The terrifying finale of Them! places Arness as John Wayne in the dark, with clicking monsters closing in from all sides. Prescription? Open up in all directions at once with your Tommy gun, and hope for the best.
Edmund Gwenn balances his fuddy-duddy House on 34th Street persona with grim, oracle-like predictions of a world poised on the brink of a strange new age. Unlike the bona fide philosophical split between soldiers and scientists in the Hawks/Nyby The Thing from Another World, the warriors and eggheads (and politicians, too) of Them! have achieved total solidarity. It takes some convincing to get the moronic Washingtonians in with the program, but once they're on board America becomes an efficient self-healing machine -- the military-industrial-political complex Eisenhower warned about. Unlike the real Oppenheimers in 50s America, Gwenn's Dr. Medford isn't sidelined as a dissident: The generals don't make a move without his okay. It takes a pro like Gwenn to make the character both serious and comic, as almost every scene ends with him fielding another zinger: "Man, as the dominant life form on Earth, may be extinct."
Joan Weldon's stock scientist's daughter character predicts another unsettling post-nuke change taking place, a Cold War version of women's liberation. You'd think that Weldon's scientific expertise would enhance her social mobility. Instead it frees her to don a uniform and step into line alongside the he-men to help fight America's enemies. Pat is plenty eager for the job, the least emotional and easily the most bloodthirsty of the bunch, as evinced by her callous order: "Burn everything in here! Burn it all!"
Them!'s visuals suggest that to survive in the new Atomic Age of Terror, man will have to become more like savage ants. By show's end, all the major characters have converted into soldiers. The heroes wear bug-like goggle eyes and creep through tunnels to locate and destroy the enemy. The utter kill-worthiness of the giant ants is never questioned, as it is indeed 'Them' or 'Us.'
Two latter day Sci-Fi films with giant insects are obviously influenced by Them! Starship Troopers poses soldiers against militant bugs but ironically demands that we understand that the war being waged is totally
hypocritical. Aliens has often been compared to Them!. Sigourney Weaver's character combines the ruthless take-charge aggression of Pat Medford with the humanism of Sgt. Peterson. Both films stress sensitive sequences involving children traumatized or threatened by the insect monsters. Sgt. Peterson even discovers little Sandy Descher hiding from the monsters in a cabinet, much like Newt in Aliens. 5
Them! is packed with colorful character actors. Fess Parker jumped from unknown to media hero in one stroke, when Walt Disney caught his animated performance here and signed him to play Davy Crockett. The bit player list is a who's who of interesting folk like William Schallert, Leonard Nimoy, Richard Deacon, Dub Taylor, Olin Howland, and Walter Coy (Aaron Edwards in The Searchers). The very capable Mary Alan
Hokanson should have gotten a career from her role as the distraught mother.
The exciting score by Bronislau Kaper was recorded a few years back as one of the first entries in the Monstrous Movie Music CD series. It included not only a 'suite' to accompany
Edmund Gwenn's 16mm speech about 'our enemy, the ant' but also the uncut ending, which builds to a
powerful finale. Like many Warners films of the time the editing is very tight, and it looks as though the last shot was faded early to hurry to the The End card and get those house lights up. When the film is compared with the CD, it's immediately clear how the music editors radically up-cut the original ending fanfare.
Warner's DVD of Them! is a pleasant surprise. It is so clean, it feels like a new transfer. Judging by the shape of the title blocks the correct aspect ratio is probably 1:66, and cropping off the flat full-frame transfer in a 16:9 television looks best, even though it's a bit too tight on the bottom. In the drain tunnel sequence, diffusion was used to soften the image. A couple of shots look as though a texture has been applied to the screen, but I can't tell if this is from the original photography or something that occurred during encoding.
The presentation is very appealing. Some colorful and cute comic-book menus are hard to navigate but do the job. One of the text extras is a cursory history of big bug movies. The terrific trailer is here too. It communicates that desired 'gotta see' quality and ends with a boffo graphic gag where the four letters of the title spell out words like Terror! and Horror!.
The best extra by far is a selection of outtakes that allow us a clear look at the giant ant props. Critics of the props can complain that they're too slow and creep too mechanically. Stop-motion animation would have had a feel totally different to the 'in your face' chompers seen here. The outtakes force an appreciation of the superior editing used to keep the ants looking good: Individual shots are kept brief and often impart extra motion to the models via pans and tilts. A couple of wide unused takes on a static ant show how bad it could have been. As soon as the ants are motionless they look ridiculous, like the gorilla robot in the 1976 King Kong. Carefully edited and augmented with sound effects, windblown sand, explosions, falling timbers and flames, they're a knockout.
The box art is not the terrible graphic we've been looking at for about 15 years on VHS and laserdisc packaging but a faithful collage from the original posters that featured impossibly cartoonish bug-eyed bug monsters. A 'scrambling citizen' motif is repeated from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms' key art. Screams a blonde: "Kill one and two take its place!" The DVD liner copy hits the nail on the head when it suggests that Them! gets better with age -- this is the 1950s radioactive monster movie, and it's just as exciting now as it was back then.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Trailer, text files, effects outtakes
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 11, 2002
1. Almost all the production facts in this review are from a 1974
Cinefantastique article on Them! by Steve Rubin (Volume 3, Number 4). Cinefantastique's
essays on key early science fiction films were some of the first decently researched and authoritative
critical writing on Science Fiction, and Rubin's pieces on Them!,
Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds and The Incredible Shrinking Man have still not been bettered.
2. Effects men were utterly invisible in the industry before Douglas Trumbull and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only people who cared a nit who someone like Willis O'Brien was were other technicians and a few fans. The Beast should have given every studio head the idea of signing Harryhausen to a big contract with his own shop but the industry just didn't work that way. Technicians were like carpenters -- anybody below the level of a Director of Photography was treated like day labor. It took magazines like Famous Monsters to make anyone aware of effects wizards, and not until Star Wars was there an explosion in effects superstardom. Many of the Children of Ray Harryhausen who had been
scraping around making a living from television commercials then became the hottest tickets in Hollywood.
3. I can't find a source to attribute but I've heard the story that director Douglas had the main title card of several original prints brightly colored at his own expense, so as to thumb his nose at Jack Warner for canceling the color for the movie. Douglas continued as a front-running Warners director for films and TV for years thereafter, so the slight couldn't have been a serious one. The laser disc and DVD of Them! depict the title in
bright red and blue, the color of the oils that sloshed about in the ants' eyes. Whether the title is an original transfer of a color element or a latterday revision by a thoughtful soul in the Warner Home Video department is unclear. Note 8/12/02: Bill Shaffer tells me that he's seen a collectors'
original 35mm print that has the color title, indicating that perhaps whole runs of prints had it, and
not just the few.
4. A French film critic in the 1950s made a blunt case that Them! was a right-wing tract endorsing the eradication of Communists, symbolized by the giant ants. They're considered so dangerous that the campaign against them is hidden from the public. The FBI agent orders the covert arrest of a citizen in the interests of national security. The investigation overrides local jurisdictions and even involves declaring martial law in LA -- essentially the military taking over an entire city for its own protection. The hysterical Cold War view of Communists is that their ideology makes them implacable, inhuman and alien, and flamethrowers are too good for 'em. The only 50s science fiction film more politicized in print was Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was
simultaneously interpreted as both a liberal, and a reactionary allegory.
5. Of course, Aliens inverts Them!'s politics. By the 80s America is so militaristically aggressive that it is the Army and Big Business that promote the terror of the insect monsters, which are desired as a weapon.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson