Some of my favorite movies were made in the 1950s. They were shot in black and white and had no computer generated effects. Among these were Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Crawling Eye, Godzilla, and Rodan. These are, of course, all fantasy, sci-fi, monster movies and, unlike fifty years ago, I own a copy of each and every one. But, my all time favorite, is Them!
In brief, it is the story of what could happen if radiation from nuclear bomb testing caused mutations in animals turning them into dangerous giants. In the case of this film the animals are ants.
By today’s standards they are very limited stars but, at least, they are not the bad, computer generated images I see too often on the movies shown by the Sy-Fy Channel. As in reading a book, one’s own imagination must come into play while watching this film. I had an Ant Farm and would watch ants for hours; imagining them as the ten foot long monsters in Them! was not very hard, despite the lack of realistic movement in the movie.
I remember nuclear testing. We would set off an H-bomb and the Soviets would set off a larger H-bomb, a suicidal game of one-upmanship. I remember radiation clouds being tracked, bomb shelters and bomb drills held in school. Giant ants, sure, easier to think about than nuclear war.
The acting was good and a lot of the cast members were, or would become, quite well-known.
James Whitmore (Sgt. Ben Peterson) – The Asphalt Jungle and The Shawshank Redemption
James Arness (Agt. Robert Graham) – Gunsmoke – There were scenes in Them! in which he appeared in uniform with a bazooka and an M-1. During the Second World War, Arness participated in the Anzio landings in Italy and was wounded. He also received a Bronze Star as well as a Purple Heart during the war.
Edmund Gwynn (Dr. Harold Medford) – The Keys of the Kingdom and Miracle on 34th Street
Joan Weldon (Dr. Pat Medford) – Home Before Dark and Have Gun, Will Travel
Fess Parker (Alan Crotty) – Daniel Boone and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (Davey Crocket)
William Schallert (Ambulance attendant) – The Patty Duke Show and Star Trek (The Trouble With Tribbles)
Willis Bouchey (bigwig in meeting) – Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter
It begins with the New Mexico State Police searching for a reported little girl wandering the desert. One officer in a plane and two in a patrol car. (Please no comments on how someone could see a five-year old girl in her night-clothes wandering alone in the desert and driving a dozen miles into town to report it rather than walking fifty yards off the side of the road and getting the kid. Remember, suspension of disbelief is critical.) They find the girl and her family’s destroyed travel trailer. Evidence (including a footprint) is taken at the scene; the mute girl is transported to town and the police go to a nearby general store to talk with the owner. The store has been destroyed and the owner killed. One policeman stays to wait for the evidence squad while the other (James Whitmore) goes back to town. The officer at the store is killed by an unseen something after emptying his sidearm into it.
The FBI (James Arness) comes into the case because the trailer was owned by a vacationing agent. The store owner’s body is autopsied and is found to contain a large amount of formic acid. The footprint is sent to Washington and a pair of doctors (Joan Weldon and Edmund Gwynn) from the Department of Agriculture fly to New Mexico on a B-25. The little girl reacts to the odor of formic acid by shouting “Them, Them!” And, the chase is on. On a visit to the trailer’s site the group is attacked by a giant ant, which is killed by Whitmore’s Thompson sub-machine gun. An ant nest is found and destroyed but not before two queen ants fly away. And, the chase is on again.
Boy, if I can still raise an arm when we get out of this place, I’m gonna show you just how saturated I can get.” – Graham
A secret national search for UFOs, and other weird stuff, is launched. A flying Texan (Fess Parker) sights giant flying ants and is put in a loony bin (to be released only on government orders). Ants hide in a merchant ship, kill the crew and are sunk by a navy cruiser. One queen accounted for. And the hunt is on for the other queen.
Whitmore and Arness go to Los Angeles to investigate a large sugar theft and end up discovering a murder by the ants. They determine that the ants are hiding in the storm drains under Los Angeles. The Marines and National Guard troops are brought in to find and kill the ants (and find and rescue two missing boys). Whitmore rescues the boys, but not himself and the nest is destroyed – no new queens escape.
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.” – Harold Medford
It’s a fun movie, a few good quotes, story holes, continuity errors and just plain goofs. But, after nearly sixty years, it still holds together.