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Grade: BThem! (1954)

Director: Gordon Douglas

Stars: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness

Release Company: Warner Brothers

MPAA Rating: NR

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Gordon Douglas: Them!

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And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation, and the Beasts shall reign over the earth.
Gloom and doom obsessions permeate many Cold War era science-fiction films of the 1950s. Scary times of our own making since the U.S. launched the Atomic Age full force, rushing testing in order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima before understanding the after effects of radiation. As Them's closing statement indicates, We have entered the atomic age. We've opened the door into another world. What we'll eventually find nobody can predict.

Those who went through the Duck and Cover drills and saw the various government "educational" propaganda films about the atom bomb and radiation will remember the naive notions of protection and Civil Defense. In reality, the government didn't know what the hell it was doing. Just watch a few post WWII documentaries to get the idea—visiting Hiroshima after the bombing and declaring that Duck and Cover drills could have saved thousands of lives and observing unprotected military personnel gleefully approaching an atomic test site immediately after explosion. In time it became obvious that extreme radiation was not a good thing, but this was definitely entering unknown territory.

Thus, science-fiction B movies about the aftereffects of the atomic bomb exploded on the scene in the 1950's. While The Incredible Shrinking Man proposed the premise that a mysterious radiation cloud could reduce a man to the size of an ant, most of these films mutated creatures into giant monsters: Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Attack of the Giant Leeches. The best of these thrillers stands as a monument to that fear-struck era—1954's Them!, where ants from the first atomic testing site in the White Sands of New Mexico have mutated into nine to twelve foot man-eaters.

Better scripted than the run-of-the-mill mutant monster flicks of the period, Them! builds suspense artfully. Something is wrong in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. A five year old girl walks zombie-like away from a travel trailer that has been mysteriously trashed, a local store similarly trashed and its owner murdered, and sharp shooting state trooper Ed Blackburn screams and dies off screen. The biggest clues: The murderer wants mass quantities of sugar instead of cash, and he's injected enough formic acid into the storekeeper to kill 20 men. There's also a curious circular footprint that FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) sends off to Washington, D.C.

Soon two agents—both named Dr. Medford—from the Agricultural Department arrive. The elderly Harold (Edmund Gwenn) provides alarm and dire warnings, and Patricia (Joan Weldon) gives Graham a chance to display 1950's male chauvinism, which she convincingly rejects. Continuing the mystery identity ploy, the elder Medford refuses to identify the killer until he is sure, leading to a dramatic scene where he passes a flask of formic acid under the mute little girl, who awakens from her waking coma to scream "THEM! THEM!"

Still, the film has built up "Them" to a great degree without showing the monsters. Like The Third Man's Harry Lime, the main characters are the focus of the film, but still haven't shown their faces forty minutes into the film. This works extremely well here, so we don't even care that the monster ants are clumsy and amateurishly mechanical when they finally appear; we're ready to scream along with Patricia at the sight of their first antenna looming over the desert mound. We've seen the damage they can wreak already and suspend belief as Medford explains how the menace can destroy mankind within a year unless they act quickly and prudently.

As with any low-budget film, continuity and accuracy are apt to be sacrificed. How is it that a New Mexico state trooper like Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) gets to accompany the FBI agent to Washington D.C., and later ends up fighting the giant bugs in Los Angeles? Filming in the high deserts of California certainly saves on expenses, but quite a few will be puzzled that this is supposed to be in the New Mexico desert, where Joshua Trees do not grow. These are all details that must be overlooked for the sake of the story.

Other details work quite well. Any science-fiction piece must contain a certain degree of plausibility, and in 1954 we simply couldn't realize what radiation could do to the environment; it truly was entering unknown territory. The old Medord character gives reason to fear an insect revolt against mankind, just as Hitchcock will scare us to death with birds in a few years. He shows a documentary film within a film about ants to educate about their incredible energy and tenacity—how an ant can lift twenty times its own weight and fight for long hours. Medford drolly points out that Man and the Ants are the only species that wage war.

Credit the scriptwriting team and director Gordon Douglas for including other details that make Them! remain watchable. The elder Dr. Medford supplies touches of humanity and humor with his fascination for the simple goggles to protect his eyes from the whipping sandstorm, and watch his indignant frustration in trying to master the fine art of modern radio communication protocol—he thinks it totally silly to have to say "over" and "over and out" after every statement. His daughter knows when he's through talking, he reasons. They also personalize the deadly situation in Los Angeles by building up a life-and-death situation with two small children, giving the giant ant menace more urgency.

Of course much of Them! strikes us today as hokey and silly, but this 1954 classic represents the best of the Cold War radiation scare films. Expertly scripted and well crafted on its limited budget, it builds suspense and surprisingly involves the audience as the characters seek out the giant menace deep in the earth. The spiders may look mechanical, but the idea of environmental disasters looming when man blunders his way into the future remains relevant for today.
 


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