Director: Gordon Douglas
Writer: Ted Sherdeman
Producer: David Weisbart
Composer: Bronislau Kaper
Production Companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents A Warner Bros.-First National picture
Principal Cast: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Chris Drake, Sandy Descher
The archetypal 50s Big Bug movie, Them! has justifiably become something of a classic of its kind. Utilising the same parched desert settings familiar from the best works of Jack Arnold to the same devestating effect, Douglas’ skilled direction and the documentary-like quality he brings to the film makes for a tense and often quite unnerving viewing experience.
The opening is unbeatable – a pair of cops and a spotter plane discover a young girl wandering through the deserts of New Mexico, terrified beyond the power of speech and virtually catatonic. Not far away they find the shattered remains of a mobile home and an unidentified animal track in the sand. Strange chirruping sounds drift in from the deep desert and the discovery of further ruined building and mutilated bodies only adds to the chilling sense of foreboding. It’s an exemplary opening, cleverly tantalising the audience with just enough clues to keep them on the hook while never quite giving away too much. A radio newscast cheerily informs us that Mankind’s ingenuity has eradicated many previous fatal diseases from the Earth, yet there’s a terrible sense even this early on that the forces of Nature are massing in the windswept night.
In the light of modern film-making technique, Them! may at times seem crude and naive but one needs to remember historical context and keep in mind the effect the film had on its original audience. Today, the notion of gigantic ants, mutated by exposure to radiation from atomic testing, is patently ridiculous, but in a world suddenly paranoid over the proliferation of both technology and weaponry, it packed a considerable punch. The ants themselves aren’t the epitome of special effects wizadry, it’s true, but their first appearence, a single specimen emerging from a sand storm to put the frighteners on Patricia Medford is an unforgettable moment. Equally unsettling is the sudden, violent emergence from her catatonic state of the terrified little girl – when exposed to the stench of formic acid, she suddenly screeches “Them! Them!” before bursting into uncontrollable tears.
The film’s assertion that Man has only learnt to play with Nature, not master her, is particularly evocative – the desert setting heightens the sense of the human characters adrift in a world to which they are utterly alien, a world they are increasingly losing touch with. While the rest of Hollywood’s SF community were busy cranking out anti-Communists tracts, Douglas and co seemed content to go off in their own direction, suggesting that we had to more to fear from a vengeful Mother Nature than we did a few imaginary Reds under the bed. Some have tried to read Them! as another of the paranoid political fantasies of the era, but it has more in common with the subsequent Revenge of Nature cycle that was popular in the 1970s, occupying the same niche as Jaws (1975), Grizzly (1976), Prophecy (1979) and the rest – one can even see, in the atmospheric egg chamber sequences, the influence it had on the Alien films. It has less to do with a supposed take over by stealth of an unfriendly power (a staple of the anti-Communist SF of the time) than with the utter destruction of everything we hold dear by forces we simply don’t understand.
This reading is strengthened by the second half of the film – by far the weaker – as the action moves out of the desert and into the more familiar and controllable environs of the city. Having escaped the poison bombing of the nest, a pair of queens and their consorts flee to Los Angeles where they set up home in the sewers. In the nick of time, the army arrive and fry the egg chamber just as the new swarm are being hatched. The message is clear – we can only hope to beat Nature when we face it on our own turf; out in the desert, on her turf, despite our brute strength and the appalling efficiency of our technology, we’re strictly amateurs – “Ants are savage, ruthless and courageous fighters… but even the most minute of them have an instinct, and talent for inustry and social organisation, and savagery that makes man look feeble by comparison.”
The point may be somewhat laboured at times, particularly by the increasingly gloomy Dr Medford whose every appearence is accompanied by doom-laden prophecies and predictions. But it’s compelling stuff nonetheless (the lengthy biology lesson in the mid-section not withstanding!), powerfully delivered – and it certainly made a change from the relentless Commie bashing that most SF buffs of the 50s were used to.
Warner Bros. saw Them! as a fairly important production and were rewarded by a spectacular showing at the box office, where it turned out to be their most successful film of the year. Its immediate influence extended to Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957) and the most obvious lookalike, The Black Scorpion (1959). While all very entertaining in their own ways, all three lacked the vitality, chilling sense of menace and the intelligence of Them!