Them!

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Them!
Them02.jpg
original film poster
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Produced by David Weisbart
Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman
Russell Hughes
Story by George Worthing Yates
Starring James Whitmore
Edmund Gwenn
Joan Weldon
James Arness
Music by Bronislau Kaper
Cinematography Sidney Hickox
Editing by Thomas Reilly
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates June 19, 1954 (US)
Running time 94 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2.2 million (rentals)[1]

Them! is a 1954 Warner Bros. Pictures black and white science fiction film about a nest of gigantic irradiated ants discovered in the New Mexico desert. The film is based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates, which was developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes. It was produced by David Weisbart, directed by Gordon Douglas, and stars James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon and James Arness.

One of the first of the 1950s "nuclear monster" movies, and the first "big bug" film, Them! was nominated for an Oscar for its Special Effects and won a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing. The film begins as a simple suspense story, with police investigating mysterious disappearances and unexplained deaths; it slowly develops into a horror story about radiation-enlarged giant ants. To build suspense, these giants are only heard on occasion and not seen until nearly a third of the way into the film.

Plot[edit]

New Mexico State Police troopers Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) discover a little girl in shock, wandering the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. She soon falls asleep in the police car. They retrace her steps to a mobile home owned by an FBI agent named Ellinson, who was on vacation in the area with his wife and two children. The side of the trailer was ripped open from the outside, the rest of the family is missing and no money was taken. A single unknown animal track seem to be the only clue. Then a strange, pulsating high pitched noise echos out of the desert on the wind. The little girl briefly awakens in fear when she hears the sound, however this is not noticed by those around her.

More mysterious deaths and disappearances occur. A general store owner named "Gramps" Johnson is found dead; his store is also torn apart from the outside. No cash was taken from the register, but a barrel of sugar was smashed open. Gramps' Winchester rifle was fired and is now twisted out of shape. Peterson leaves by car to check on the little girl and make a report, leaving Blackburn to guard the store alone. Blackburn hears the strange, pulsating sound outside and leaves to investigate; off-camera gunshots are fired, the strange sound grows faster and louder, and Blackburn's scream is heard.

A plaster cast of the oddly shaped footprint found near the trailer is made and sent to Washington, D.C. Peterson's boss later points out that Gramps, a crack shot, had time to fire all his ammunition at his attacker. Even more puzzling is the coroner's determination of Johnson's cause of death: a broken neck and back, skull fracture, crushed abdomen, and "enough formic acid in his body to kill 20 men."

The FBI sends agent Robert Graham (James Arness) to investigate after the bureau is unable to identify the footprint. With him he brings Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), a father/daughter team of myrmecologists from the Department of Agriculture. At the footprint's site, the senior Dr. Harold Medford examines the footprint. He later tries an experiment on the Ellinson girl by exposing her to formic acid fumes, reviving her from a catatonic state; she screams and yells out "Them! Them!"

Even with his suspicions validated by the girl's reaction, Dr. Harold Medford will not reveal his theory quite yet; doing so prematurely might lead "to a nationwide panic". While investigating the Ellinson campsite later on, the junior Dr. Pat Medford encounters a giant, eight-foot long foraging ant and screams. The lawmen run to her and empty their .38 revolvers into the insect with little effect. On directions from Dr. Harold Medford, Peterson and Graham shoot off the ant's antennae, blinding it; they then empty their Thompson submachine gun's magazines, finally killing it. Dr. Harold Medford finally reveals his theory: the giant ant was likely mutated by irradiation from the first atomic bomb test near Alamogordo.

After the Medfords, Graham and Peterson have secured Air Force General O'Brien's (Onslow Stevens) aid, the giant ants' nest is located by helicopter. Poison gas bombs are then tossed into the nest. General Graham, Peterson and Dr. Pat Medford descend into the nest to kill any survivors. Deep inside the nest, Dr. Pat Medford finds evidence that two other queen ants have hatched and have left to establish new colonies. Trying to avoid a general panic, the government covertly investigates any reports of unusual activity, even sightings of "flying saucers."

The Coast Guard receives a Morse Code message saying a giant queen has hatched her brood in the hold of a freighter heading to South America; giant ants attack the ship's crew and only a few survivors escape to be rescued. The freighter is later sunk by heavy U. S. Navy gunfire. Another report leads them to a rail yard with a smashed boxcar missing its 40 ton cargo of sugar. Another report takes them to a state psychiatric hospital in Brownsville, Texas and to a pilot (Fess Parker) who insists that his small plane was forced down after nearly colliding with three UFOs shaped like giant ants; agent Graham believes his story, then quietly but firmly requests the pilot remain hospitalized until further notice.

An alcoholic in a Los Angeles hospital "drunk tank" reveals to agent Graham that he has been seeing giant ants outside his window. The body of a mutilated man is recovered, and Graham and the Medfords connect the body to a report of a missing man and his two young sons; it's quickly discovered the man was flying a model airplane with his sons near the hospital and very close to the Los Angeles River. Given this significant threat, the U. S. Army declares martial law and a curfew for Los Angeles; more troops are assigned to find and then assault the new nest in the storms drains under the city.

State policeman Peterson finds the two missing boys alive deep inside the drain system, but they are now trapped near the ants' nest. He calls for reinforcements and goes in alone to rescue the boys, finally getting them to safety just before he is attacked by a giant ant. FBI Agent Graham arrives with the reinforcements and kills the ant attacking Peterson as other ants swarm to protect the nest. Peterson soon dies from his injuries with Graham at his side. Graham and the other soldiers fight off the giant ants just before a cave-in temporarily cuts off Graham. Several ants charge him, but he is able to hold them off long enough with machine gun fire for the other troops to tunnel through and finally rescue him. The queen and her young "princess" hatch-lings are quickly discovered and then destroyed using flamethrowers.

The film ends with Dr. Harold Medford issuing a cautionary warning: "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, no one can predict."

Cast[edit]

Cast notes

Production[edit]

Opening color title from Them!, with the background in black and white and the title in color.

When Them! began production in the fall of 1953, it was originally conceived to be in 3-D and Warner Color. During pre-production, tests were to be shot in color and 3-D. A few color tests were shot of the large-scale ant models, but when it was time to shoot the 3-D test, Warner Bros' "All Media" 3-D camera rig malfunctioned and no footage could be filmed. The next day, a memo was sent out that the color and 3-D aspects of the production were to be scrapped; black and white and widescreen would now be the film's format. Warner Bros. hoped to emulate the "effective shock treatment" effect of its previous science fiction thriller The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; ultimately, however, the film was not shot in widescreen. Because of the preparation of certain shots, many of the camera set-ups for 3-D still remain in the film, like the opening titles and the flamethrowers shots aimed directly at the camera.[3]

Although Warner Bros. was dissatisfied with the color results, the film's titles were printed in a vivid red and blue against a black and white background to give the opening of the film a dramatic "punch." This effect was achieved by an Eastman Color section spliced into each film print.[citation needed] The VHS tape release in 1985, the subsequent laser disc, and the later DVD release have retained this black and white with color title effect.

The entrance to the ants' final nest was shot along the concrete spillways of the Los Angeles River, between the First and Seventh Street Bridges, east of downtown. The depiction of the Chihuahua Desert of southern New Mexico is actually the Mojave Desert near Palmdale, California. Mercy Hospital was a real institution and is now Brownsville Medical Center.

Actor James Whitmore wore "lifts" in his shoes to compensate for the height difference between himself and James Arness. It has also been noted that Whitmore employed bits of "business" (hand gestures and motions) during scenes in which he appeared to draw more attention to his character when not speaking.

The Wilhelm scream, created three years earlier for the film Distant Drums, is used during the action sequences: when a sailor aboard the freighter is grabbed by an ant, when James Whitmore's character is caught in an ant's mandibles, and when an overhead wooden beam falls on a soldier in the Los Angeles storm-drain sequence.

The giant ants were constructed and operated by unseen technicians supervised by Ralph Ayers, and were actually purpleish-green in color. However, during the climactic battle sequence in the Los Angeles sewers, there is a brief shot of one ant moving in the foreground with its side removed, revealing its mechanical interior; this technical "glitch" has been obscured in the DVD releases of the film.

Response[edit]

Them! was released in June 1954[4] and by the end of that year had accrued US $2 million in distributors' domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals, making it the year's 51st biggest earner.[5]

The New York Times review noted " . . . 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."[6] "Brog" in Variety opined it was a "top-notch science fiction shocker. It has a well-plotted story, expertly directed and acted in a matter-of-fact style to rate a chiller payoff and thoroughly satisfy the fans of hackle-raising melodrama."[7]

Since its original release, Them! has become generally regarded as one of the very best science-fiction films of the 1950s. Bill Warren described the film as “… tight, fast-paced and credible…[T]he picture is suspenseful."[4] Phil Hardy’s The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction noted, "Directed by [Gordon] Douglas in semi-documentary fashion, Them! is one of the best American science-fiction films of the fifties."[8] Danny Peary believed the film "Ranks with The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the best of the countless fifties science fiction films."[9] In the Time Out Film Guide, David Pirie wrote, "By far the best of the 50s cycle of 'creature features'...retains a good part of its power today."[10] Of the 24 reviewers included in a Rotten Tomatoes survey of critics regarding the title, 100% reflect a positive reaction.[11]

American Film Institute lists

In popular culture[edit]

Film and television

Music

  • Van Morrison's band Them was named after this film.
  • New Jersey punk band the Misfits have a song entitled "Them!" which has lyrics directly inspired by the film, on their 1999 release Famous Monsters.

Video games

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  2. ^ "Uncle John's 4-ply Bathroom Reader." New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.
  3. ^ Warner Bros. Inter-office memo from Steve Trilling, dated September 24, 1953.
  4. ^ a b Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies Vol I: 1950 - 1957, pgs. 188 - 195, McFarland, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.
  5. ^ Gebert, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards (listing of 'Box Office (Domestic Rentals)' for 1954, taken from Variety magazine), St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1996. ISBN 0-668-05308-9. "Rentals" refers to the distributor/studio's share of the box office gross, which, according to Gebert, is roughly half of the money generated by ticket sales.
  6. ^ "Them (1954) Warner Brothers Chiller at Paramount". New York Times, June 17, 1954. June 17, 1954. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  7. ^ "Brog". Review from Variety dated April 14, 1954, taken from Variety's Complete Science Fiction Reviews, edited by Don Willis, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985. ISBN 0-8240-6263-9
  8. ^ Hardy, Phil (editor). The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction, Aurum Press, 1984. Reprinted as The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction, Overlook Press, 1995, ISBN 0-87951-626-7
  9. ^ Peary, Danny. Guide for the Film Fanatic, Fireside, 1986, ISBN 0-671-61081-3
  10. ^ Pirie, David. Capsule review of Them! from The Time Out Film Guide, 2nd Edition, Penguin Books, 1991', ISBN 0-14-014592-3
  11. ^ "Them! (1954)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  12. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees
  13. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot

Further reading

  • Parish, James Robert and Pitts, Michael R. Pitts. The Great Science Fiction Pictures. 1977. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-8108-1029-8.
  • Strick, Philip. Science Fiction Movies. Octopus Books Limited. 1976. ISBN 0-7064-0470-X.
  • Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Films of the Fifties, 21st Century Edition. 2009. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-89950-032-3

External links[edit]