Movie Review – Them! (1954)

On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that determined the course of history. In it, he urged the president to begin continuous dialogue with American scientists who were surmising

that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.

Einstein was prompted to write this letter after Nazi Germany, which had recently taken over Czechoslovakia, had stopped the sale of uranium from that country, indicating that they, too, were working towards the creation of a nuclear bomb.

Roosevelt heeded Einstein’s warning and ordered the creation of the top secret Manhattan Project, which was tasked with producing these nuclear weapons. He appointed J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, with the task of putting the weapons together. On July 16, 1945, the first atom bomb test, codenamed Trinity, successfully detonated at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. Upon witnessing the terrifying explosion, Oppenheimer would later explain that he had a foreboding Hindu verse going through his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” By this time the Nazis had surrendered, but Imperial Japan, driven by the samurai code, held steadfast in its refusal to admit defeat. President Truman gave the orders to use the deadly new technology on the cities of Hiroshima, on August 6, and Nagasaki, on August 9. Conservative estimates of the number of killed and wounded in the two attacks are placed at around 225,000, nearly half of these from the after-effects of the bomb, including radiation sickness caused by cellular degradation.

Trinity test fireball 1945
Trinity test, 1945.

These terrifying bombs would be at the forefront of the minds of Americans thereafter, moreso beginning in 1946 with the increasing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A 1946 article in Life about the Bikini Island test detonations declared that the “atom bomb test will determine the future of man, animals, birds, fish, plants and microorganisms” (1 July, pp. 41). In other words, mankind now had the capability to destroy all life on Earth. In 1949 the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb, officially entering the growing club of potential planet-killers.

Nagasaki mushroom cloud
Nagasaki mushroom cloud, 1945.

In 1952 the United States would up the stakes by detonating its first hydrogen bomb, and in 1954 would detonate its highest yield bomb ever, the 15 megaton Castle Bravo, the equivalent of 15 million tons of TNT (Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was only around 17 kilotons). I had the pleasure of knowing a man who was present at this moment in history. He was a sailor in the U.S. navy when he witnessed the explosion, and he recalled how the winds had unexpectedly shifted, sending radioactive fallout over the American ships. He spent several days below decks while the surface was scrubbed. Even so, many sailors later contracted cancer. A Japanese fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryū Maru, also came in contact with the fallout, causing the crew to experience acute signs of radiation sickness, reigniting sensitive memories of the use of American nuclear power against the people of Japan.

Certainly, the atomic bomb attacks were a trauma with which the Japanese were still coming to terms. In 1954, the same year as Castle Bravo, the Japanese released Gojra upon theater-going audiences. Awoken by American hydrogen bomb testing, Godzilla wreaks havoc upon Tokyo, the destroyed buildings and melted steel left in its wake immediately reminiscent of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the very thorough American firebombings of Tokyo.

There is no defense against such powerful, indiscriminate weapons, and considering the potential destruction these weapons could unleash it’s no wonder that they were at the vanguard of people’s fears. One way to cope with such anxiety is to give it shape – to make it into a monster which can be defeated by conventional means. Cultural historian David J. Skal writes of monsters in the nuclear age:

Audiences after the war were still interested in monsters, but the suave Mephisto in the black cape was no longer a compelling image for the modern moviegoer. Dracula’s threat of a quaint venous invasion was tired indeed when compared to the overwhelming border violations the world had so recently witnessed. An enveloping cloak was no longer an image of dread. But a mushroom cloud was. The threat of mass destruction was bigger than ever in America’s mind, and so were its monsters… Fifties monsters personified the Bomb as well as the Cold War itself. (Skal 247-248)

Once again in 1954 Americans were looking to cinema to give their fears shape. One of the earliest examples of the “nuclear monster” films, and the first “big bug” picture, was Them! (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas from a story by George Worthing Yates. Produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, it was originally conceived as a 3D color film but the budget was cut and the film was photographed in the traditional black and white. With crisp cinematography and dynamic camera movements, Them! tells a tale of mutated ants grown to gigantic proportions in New Mexico – an unintended consequence of the 1945 Trinity test. The ants spread around the country while a team of professionals, including State Police Sergeant Ben Peterson, FBI Agent Robert Graham, and a father-daughter team of myrmecologists, Dr. Harold Medford and Dr. Patricia Medford, try to hunt them down before it’s too late.

Them! 1954 still2

Them! is perhaps one of the clearest examples of American cinema coping with nuclear anxieties in the thick of tensions with the Soviet Union. As one reporter asks, “Has the Cold War gotten hot?” Or take, for example, this ominous exchange, the final lines of the film:

Robert Graham: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?
Dr. Patricia Medford: I don’t know.
Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.

In the Fifties, it was no longer the figure in the dark that struck terror in people’s hearts, but the blinding flash and what would follow. The nuclear bomb was a Pandora’s box of deadly possibilities, and what it meant for humanity’s survival no one could say with certainty.

The giant ants also bring to the surface another consistent source of anxiety, one certainly suggested in H.G. Wells’s more intimate The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) but shown here more vividly and with further reaching consequences. It is the “fear that other creatures may usurp the place of man or threaten to destroy what we think of as human civilization… creatures of the animal world which we tread underfoot or exploit for our benefit may be able to rise against us,” in this case, “as a result of some unexpected mutations” (Prawer 52). Them! is perhaps one of the first prime examples of this fear being presented in a horror film, and it would certainly be followed by classics of both the horror and science-fiction genres, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Planet of the Apes (1968).

Them! 1954 still1

I had first seen Them! as a teenager, and at the time I didn’t know what to expect from a Fifties monster film. My exposure to the era and to its cinema was limited, as of course was, as would be expected of my age, my knowledge and perspective. I was underwhelmed and afterward lumped it in with the other giant creature and monster movies I saw over the years from the late Fifties and early Sixties. However, upon revisiting it twenty years later, it is clearly a cut above those imitators. Them! is solidly paced – the first twenty minutes unravel like a procedural crime mystery – with scenes which are beautifully photographed. The ants are obviously large puppets, but though they are not entirely convincing, they’re never poor enough to distract from the story, and their memorable high-pitched sounds were created by recording bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker.

The script is clever, moving the story along quickly while moving its characters across the country in search of the ants, and it allows us moments of levity. Though the film takes the ant threat seriously, it doesn’t forget to give the characters some humorous moments to shine, such as when Police Sgt. Peterson is trying to teach a frustrated Dr. Medford how to properly use the military radio.

The cast does wonders to help the material and bring their well-drawn characters to life, particularly James Whitmore as Sgt. Peterson, who is instantly warm and likable, and Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Medford, who most would recognize as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Gwenn’s voice holds the audience, and manages to make even the most rudimentary of exposition captivating. James Arness, who had played the “walking carrot” in The Thing From Another World (1951), is also fitting as the square-jawed FBI agent. Joan Weldon is Dr. Pat Medford, and fortunately we get an intelligent, headstrong female who stands up to the men when they underestimate her resolve or abilities – refreshing for an era in which women were pressured to remain at home and find fulfillment in domestic duties. And while I mention the cast, it would be a violation of my Trekker prime directive to not mention the small cameo by Leonard Nimoy.

There isn’t a great deal to criticize about this film, though a few aspects left me scratching my head or rubbed my sensibilities the wrong way. It’s never explained why a State Police Sergeant is able to join up with Federal investigators, order around a general, or carry a fully loaded machine gun in his squad car. Also, there’s a comfort with, and practically an endorsement of, casual government overreach, such as keeping an innocent man in a mental ward just to keep him quiet or declaring martial law in the name of public safety where it likely isn’t warranted. The script displays little trust in the abilities or intelligence of average citizens, and it appears to embrace an excessive control over the people by a Big Brother-like state when difficulties arise. (Though it’s perhaps interesting to note that the characters must continually enter mental wards to gather legitimate intelligence to help them in their search.) By the end of Fifties and into the Sixties such confidence in authority would have largely disappeared, for instance in The Blob (1958) where teenagers try in vain to convince a distrustful adult authority that danger exists, and average citizens are required to gather and assist the police and military to overcome the threat rather than stay in doors under curfew.

Them! 1954 still3

Them! surprised me, as it surprised audiences at the time. It’s a B-movie concept with an A-movie treatment, and it still holds up. The thought of a film about giant ants was as laughable in 1954 as it is today, but it won audiences over. A New York Times review entitled “Warner Brothers Chiller at Paramount” by A. W., published June 17, 1954, reflects the film’s effectiveness and the shadow of the Cold War that loomed over contemporary viewers’ heads. It reads:

EDMUND GWENN’S final, slightly doleful but strictly scientific observation in “Them!” indicates that when man entered the atomic age he opened new worlds and that “nobody can predict” what he will find in them. The Warner Brothers, fearlessly flouting this augury, have come up with one ominous view of a terrifyingly new world in the thriller that was exposed at the Paramount yesterday, and it is definitely a chiller.

The awesome fact is that the Warner Brothers have planted ants on our planet—giant nine to twelve-footers, with mandibles like the tusks on a mammoth, and keening like all the banshees in a fevered imagination. There’s no point in making for the hills, though. It’s fascinating to watch.

Since it is difficult to assign specific credit, suffice it to say that the combination of three writers, director Gordon Douglas, producer David Weisbart and a cooperative cast have helped make the proceedings tense, absorbing and, surprisingly enough, somewhat convincing. Perhaps it is the film’s unadorned and seemingly factual approach which is its top attribute. At any rate, from the moment James Whitmore, playing a New Mexico State trooper, discovers a six-year old moppet wandering around the desert in a state of shock, to the time when the cause of that mental trauma is traced and destroyed, “Them!” is taut science-fiction.

There are, of course, several unexplained killings before Dr. Gwenn, that eminent entomologist, and his daughter, also a top researcher, whom the Warners specifically term myrmecologists, discover that the destroyers are the formidable formicidae, monstrous mutations resulting from the New Mexico atomic explosions in 1945. The problem, of course, is to destroy the outsized ant colony before the queen ants escape and start propagating their sport species. Well, it appears that a couple of these do get out for a mad mating flight and it is nip and tuck before our scientists, the trooper, James Arness, an F. B. I. man and Army and Air Force contingents wipe out the nest in one of the storm drains beneath Los Angeles.

Edmund Gwenn looks the scientist he is supposed to portray, despite his bumbling, absent-minded manner. His daughter, played by Joan Weldon, is pretty but hardly the academic type, and James Arness, James Whitmore, Onslow Stevens, Fess Parker and Olin Howland (who add a few necessary comic touches) are natural in other leading roles.

The stars, of course, are the horrible hymenoptera. They are enough to make a man welcome the picnic-spoiling variety and give the atomic age back to the Warner Brothers.

Early on in the film, when Dr. Harold Medford has concluded that giant ants are indeed attacking people in the New Mexico desert, he says ominously, looking out into a sandstorm, “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.’” In reality, there’s no such prophecy to be found in the Bible, but Them! is a good enough film to make you entertain the idea that such a prediction could actually come to pass.

Grade: A-

Works Cited

Prawer, S.S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Da Capo Press, 1980.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.

Them! is available on streaming or Blu-ray.