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Saturday, February 16, 2008


This is the movie that started the giant bug sub-genre within sci-fi. Sure, cheap B-grade sci- fi would later become typified by radiation-spawned giant tarantulas, grasshoppers, praying mantises, wasps, etc. But when Warner Brothers released Them!, it was the first time audiences had faced giant carnivorous insects. Others would repeat the premise, but never matched the power of Them! and the giant ants. It pays to be first.

Them! is in black and white, but not because it was done by one of the usual B-grade studios. Warner Brothers, an "A" studio" got cold feet just prior to shooting and scaled back the budget. Plans to shoot color were scrapped. In many ways, this not only didn't hurt Them!, but actually helped. Them! was Warner Bros. top grossing movie of 1954, which included Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, a variant of the Edgar Allan Poe story, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, and a Doris Day / Frank Sinatra romance, Young at Heart. Given the context, Them! was more of a solid successful A film than B-cheapy.

Quick Plot Synopsis
State Police troopers find a little girl walking through the New Mexico desert. She's in shock. Her parents are missing and their travel trailer is wrecked. A few miles away, a local store owner is found dead in his wrecked store. A trooper is also missing and presumed dead. A father-daughter pair of scientists join trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) in looking for the answer. They find a giant nest out in the desert. Even though they kill all the ants within, three young queens have hatched and flown away to establish new nests. Two of the new nests ultimately fail, but one succeeds in the sewer tunnels beneath Los Angelos. Strange sights and bizarre deaths alert the authorities that the ants have a new home. Ben, Robert, the two Doctors and good ol' US Army troops comb the storm drain tunnels for the ants and two lost boys. Ben finds the boys, rescues them, but is crushed by the jaws of a giant ant. Robert leads the army in to killed the ants in the egg chamber before three new queens can fly and spread new nests. The world is saved.

Why is this movie fun?
There's much to enjoy in Them!. The acting is A-level, neither wooden nor over-the-top. The format is part murder mystery, part monster film. The direction is tight, with a variety of shots employed, (long shots, close-ups, cuts, etc.) that keep the pace brisk. The director and cinematographer showed great skill in getting rich tones and textures out of black and white. Note, especially, the night scene in the floodway basin.

Oh sure, the giant ants are just big articulated props and look a little silly after decades of special effects refinements and CGI. They do, however, benefit from being "full size" rather than superimposed (close-up) real bugs or stop-motion models laced in via green-screen. The actors have the benefit of actually seeing a giant ant head to react to.

Cold War Angle
Them! is mostly the radiation fear sub-genre, giant critter variant. Atomic testing, imprudent introduction of radiation, caused the humble ants to mutate. To paraphrase Ishiro Honda (creator of Godzilla) the giant ants become radiation made flesh. They kill innocents. They spread far and wide on the wind to bring new destruction far from the original site.

Actor Spotting -- Look for William Schallert as the ambulance driver. Young Leonard Nemoy gets a bit part with a couple lines, as a sergeant in the intelligence office. Fess Parker, who would become Disney's TV Daniel Boone, gets the small role as the Texas pilot institutionalized for crazy talk about ant-shaped UFOs.

Pseudo-biblical -- At one point, Dr. Medford worries aloud about mankind's chances against giant ants. "We may be witnesses to a biblical prophesy come true. 'And there shall be destruction and darkness come over creation, and the beasts shall reign over the earth.' " That sounds biblical, but there is no such prophecy in the Bible. Movies today can spout fake verses and get away with it because most viewers are biblically clueless. But, back in the 50s, the general public had much more Bible awareness.
To give the writers the benefit of the doubt, it could be a paraphrase of Jerimiah's prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem at Nebucanezzer's hands. Or, perhaps it's conflation of events in the Book of Revelation. The trouble with both, is that the beasts never rule. They just move in because God removed the people. This doesn't resolve Dr. Medford's non-verse, however, so it remains a bit of movie mystery.

Flattering Imitators -- Many of the scenes in Them! were so strong that they were repeated in later movies. These were sci-fi "firsts" in Them!. Look for the searching-through-sewers scenes. You'll see it again in the 50s, but even as late as T2. The egg chamber and burning the eggs shows up again in Alien and others. The big critter head popping into the scene will get copied almost ad nauseum. The images from Them! made a big impression on the sci-fi movie culture. Watch for the repeats in later films.

They're NOT After Our Women -- Despite the movie poster, which shows a giant ant clutching a scantily clad screaming beauty in its mandibles, no such scene ever happens in Them. In fact, the only people the ants kill are men (excluding Mrs. Ellinson, whom we never see a trace of). There's only one brief scene in which the lone scout ant startles Pat. She scrambles away and the men loose a hail of gunfire on the beast, killing it. It is interesting that no attempt is made to evoke the tribal abduction angst. The ants were never after our women. Refreshing.


erz213 said...

I've always loved this movie. It's a classic.

Unknown said...

Howdy Film Critics,

What can be said that is not covered above, and elsewhere?

The plot line and acting were great.

When Pat climbs down the ladder of the Air Force plane, the double take that James Whitmore and James Arness give each other is classic.

When James Arness comments about getting sick if she is that kind of doctor is classic 40's and 50's style.

The three short appearances of Leonard Nimoy, William Schallert and Fess Parker mean more today than at the time.

The scenes of the Los Angeles river meant a lot to me as I lived not far from them - concrete rivers, cool.

A great movie.

Just remember what the little girl said,"Themmm, Themmm, Themmm."



Don't forget your bottle of formic acid.

Unknown said...

One of my all time classic favorites!