Them!

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Them!
Them02.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byGordon Douglas
Produced byDavid Weisbart
Screenplay byTed Sherdeman
Russell Hughes
Story byGeorge Worthing Yates
StarringJames Whitmore
Edmund Gwenn
Joan Weldon
James Arness
Music byBronislau Kaper
CinematographySidney Hickox
Edited byThomas Reilly
Production
company
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Release date
  • June 16, 1954 (1954-06-16) (New York)[1]
  • June 19, 1954 (1954-06-19) (US)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Box office$2.2 million (rentals)[2]

Them! is a 1954 American black-and-white science fiction monster film from Warner Bros. Pictures, produced by David Weisbart, directed by Gordon Douglas, and starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, and James Arness.[3] The film is based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates, which was then developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes.

Them! is one of the first of the 1950s "nuclear monster" films, and the first "big bug" feature.

A nest of gigantic irradiated ants is discovered in the New Mexico desert; they quickly become a national threat when it is discovered that two young queen ants and their consorts have escaped to establish new nests. The national search that follows finally culminates in a battle with Them in the concrete spillways and storm drain system of Los Angeles.

Plot[edit]

New Mexico State Police Sgt. Ben Peterson and Trooper Ed Blackburn discover a little girl wandering the desert, near Alamogordo, in shock and in a catatonic state. They take her to a nearby vacation trailer, located by a spotter aircraft, where they find evidence that the little girl had been there when it was attacked and nearly destroyed. It is later discovered that the trailer was owned by an FBI Special Agent named Ellinson, on vacation with his wife, son, and daughter; the other members of the girl's family remain missing. Now in an ambulance, the child briefly reacts to a pulsating high-pitched sound from the desert by sitting up in the stretcher. No one else notices her reaction, and she lies back down when the noise stops.

At a general store owned by "Gramps" Johnson, Peterson and Blackburn find him dead and a wall of the store partially torn out. After a quick look-around, Peterson leaves Blackburn behind to secure the crime scene. Blackburn later goes outside to investigate a strange, pulsating sound. Gun shots are fired, the sound grows faster and louder, and Blackburn goes missing. Peterson's chief later points out that both Johnson and Blackburn had fired their weapons at their attacker. More puzzling is the coroner's report on Johnson's brutal death, which includes a huge amount of formic acid found in his body.

The FBI sends Special Agent Robert Graham to New Mexico to investigate. After a strange footprint is found near the Ellisons' trailer, the Department of Agriculture sends myrmecologists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Pat Medford, to assist in the investigation. The elder Medford exposes the Ellinson girl to formic acid fumes, which rips her from her catatonia into a state of panic from "Them!" Medford's suspicions are validated by her reaction, but he will not reveal his theory prematurely.

At the Ellinson campsite, Pat encounters a giant, eight-foot-long foraging ant. Following instructions from the elder Medford, Peterson and Graham shoot off the ant's antennae, blinding it; using a Thompson submachine gun they kill it. Medford reveals his theory: a colony of giant ants, mutated by radiation from the first atomic bomb test near Alamogordo, is responsible for the deaths. General O'Brien orders an Army helicopter search, and the ants' nest is found. Cyanide gas bombs are tossed inside, and Graham, Peterson, and Pat descend into the nest to check for survivors. Deep inside, Pat finds evidence that two queen ants have hatched and escaped to establish new colonies.

Peterson, Graham, and the Medfords join a government task force which covertly begins to investigate reports of unusual activity. In one a civilian pilot (Fess Parker) has been committed to a mental hospital after claiming that he was forced down by UFOs, shaped like giant ants. Next, the Coast Guard receives a report of a giant queen hatching her brood in the hold of a freighter at sea in the Pacific; giant ants attack the ship's crew, and there are few survivors. The freighter is later sunk by U.S. Navy gunfire.

A third report about a large sugar theft at a rail yard leads Peterson, Graham, and Major Kibbee to Los Angeles. An alcoholic in a hospital "drunk tank" claims he has seen giant ants outside his window. The mutilated body of a father is recovered, but his two young sons are missing. Peterson, Graham, and Kibbee find evidence that they were flying a model airplane in the Los Angeles River drainage channel near the hospital. Martial law is declared in Los Angeles, and troops are assigned to find the ant nest in the vast storm drain system under the city.

Peterson finds the two missing boys alive, trapped by the ants near the nest. He calls for reinforcements and lifts both boys to safety, just before being attacked and grabbed by an ant in its mandibles. Graham arrives with reinforcements and kills the ant, but Peterson dies from his injuries as others swarm to protect the nearby nest. Graham and the soldiers fight off the ants, but a tunnel collapse traps Graham. Several ants charge, but he is able to hold them off with his submachine gun just long enough for troops to break through. The queen and her hatchlings are discovered and quickly destroyed with flamethrowers. Dr. Medford offers a philosophic observation: "When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict".

Cast[edit]

Cast notes[edit]

Production[edit]

Opening title card with the background in black-and-white and Them! in red-and-blue.

When Them! began production in the fall of 1953, it was originally conceived to be in 3D and Warner Color. During pre-production, tests shots in color and 3D were made. A few color tests of the large-scale ant models were also made, but when it was time to shoot the 3D test, Warner Bros.' "All Media" 3D camera rig malfunctioned and no footage could be filmed. The next day a memo was sent out that the color and 3D aspects of the production were to be scrapped; widescreen black-and-white would now be the film's presentation 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 never made in widescreen. Because of the preparation of certain scenes, many of the camera set-ups for 3D still remain in the film, like the opening titles and the flamethrowers shots aimed directly at the camera.[6]

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 in order to give the film's opening a dramatic "punch". This effect was achieved by an Eastman Color section spliced into each release print.[4] The 1985 VHS tape release, the subsequent LaserDisc and later DVD release have retained this black-and-white-with-two-color title effect.[citation needed]

The entrance to the ants' final nest was filmed along the concrete spillways of the Los Angeles River, between the First and Seventh Street Bridges, east of downtown. The depiction of the Chihuahuan 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.[4]

James Whitmore wore "lifts" in his shoes to compensate for the height difference between himself and James Arness. Whitmore also employed bits of "business" (hand gestures and motions) during scenes in which he appeared in order to draw more attention to his character when not speaking.[4]

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.[4]

The giant ants, painted a purplish-green color, were constructed and operated by unseen technicians supervised by Ralph Ayers. 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.[4] This blunder has been obscured in the DVD releases of the film.[citation needed]

The film poster shows a gigantic ant with menacing human-like eyes rather than the normal compound eyes of an ant.

The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler, and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.[7]

Reception[edit]

Them! was released in June 1954,[4] and by the end of that year had accrued $2 million (US) in distributors' domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals, making it the year's 51st biggest earner.[8][Note 1] According to an article in The Slate, this was Warner Bros. highest-grossing film that year.[9] However, 1954 In Film lists two other films from Warner Bros. that earned more in gross.[citation needed]

From contemporary reviews, the Monthly Film Bulletin stated that despite the science fiction film genre being new it had developed several sub-divisions including "the other-worldly, the primaeval-monstrous, the neo-monstrous, the planet-ary-visitant, etc." and that "Them! is a "well-built example of the neo-monstrous", "less absurdly sensational than most"[10] Discussing the ant monsters in the film, the review referred to them as "reasonably horrible--they do not entirely avoid the impression of mock-up that is almost inevitable when over-lifesize creatures have to be constructed and moved", while noting that they were "considerably more conceivable than those prehistoric remnants that have recently been emerging from bog and iceberg".[10] The review commented on the cast as "like most science-fiction, [the film] is on the whole serviceably rather than excitingly cast" and the crew was noted, stating the direction was "smoothly machined" and the film has "decent writing" though "more short cuts might have been [taken]", finding that the start of the film was too slow.[10] A. H. Weiler's review in The New York Times 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".[11] The reviewer 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".[12][13] John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote, "If you're willing to let your imagination off its leash, you may have a fairly good time at 'Them!'"[14]

Since its original release, Them! has become generally regarded as one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s. Bill Warren described it 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".[15] Danny Peary believed the film "Ranks with The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the best of the countless '50s science fiction films".[16] 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".[17] The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 100% approval rating with an average rating of 7.69/10, based on 27 reviews. The website's consensus reads, "One of the best creature features of the early atomic age, Them! features effectively menacing special effects and avoids the self-parody that would taint later monster movies".[18]

Them! was nominated for an Oscar for its special effects[19] and won a Golden Reel Award for best sound editing.

In popular culture[edit]

Attempted remake[edit]

Screenwriter Neil Ruttenberg and producer Richard Donner pitched a remake in which the ants would be intelligent and terrifying. Warner Bros. decided instead upon on Bob Gale's pitch, which included mechanical effects.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "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.[8]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Them! - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved June 23, 2018.
  2. ^ "The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954." Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955.
  3. ^ "Them!". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved April 24, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Warren 1982, pp. 188–195.
  5. ^ Smith 2012, p. 167.
  6. ^ Herzberg 2007, p. 176.
  7. ^ "Hyla avivoca : Bird-voiced Treefrog - Hylidae - Early wildlife recordings - Environment and nature | British Library". Sounds. 1947-04-11. Retrieved 2018-05-06.
  8. ^ a b Gebert, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards (listing of "Box Office (Domestic Rentals)" for 1954, taken from Variety magazine). New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1996. ISBN 0-668-05308-9.
  9. ^ Waldman, Katy (31 January 2013). "The Nuclear Monsters That Terrorized the 1950s". slate.com. Retrieved 2015-10-22. Them!, a cautionary tale about giant irradiated ants, was Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing film in 1954.
  10. ^ a b c "Them! U.S.A., 1954". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 21 no. 240. British Film Institute. 1954. p. 131.
  11. ^ Weiler, A. H. (A.W.). "Them (1954); Warner Brothers chiller at Paramount." The New York Times, June 17, 1954. p. 36.
  12. ^ "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.
  13. ^ "Them! (1954)." Variety, April 14, 1954.
  14. ^ McCarten, John (June 26, 1954). "The Current Screen". The New Yorker: 61.
  15. ^ Hardy, Phil, ed. The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction. London: Aurum Press, 1984. Reprinted as The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction. London: Overlook Press, 1995. ISBN 0-87951-626-7.
  16. ^ Peary, Danny. Guide for the Film Fanatic. London: Fireside, 1986. ISBN 0-671-61081-3.
  17. ^ Pirie, David, ed. "Them!" The Time Out Film Guide, 2nd Edition. London: Penguin Books, 1991. ISBN 0-14-014592-3.
  18. ^ "Them! (1954)." Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: June 30, 2019.
  19. ^ "The 27th Academy Awards, 1955." Oscars.org, Retrieved: January 9, 2015.
  20. ^ Mills, Peter (2010). Hymns to the Silence: Inside the Words and Music of Van Morrison. London: A&C Black. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-8264-2976-6.
  21. ^ Greenberg, Allen (April 1990). "It Came from Out of the Disk Drive" (PDF). Computer Gaming World (70). Retrieved 16 February 2019.
  22. ^ Jasper, Gavin (4 August 2018). "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Complete Marvel Universe Easter Eggs and Reference Guide". Den of Geek!. Retrieved July 12, 2018.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Herzberg, Bob. The FBI and the Movies. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2007. ISBN 978-0-78642-755-0.
  • Parish, James Robert and Michael R. Pitts. The Great Science Fiction Pictures. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1977. ISBN 978-0-81081-029-7.
  • Smith, Dave. Disney Trivia from the Vault: Secrets Revealed and Questions Answered. New York: Disney Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4231-7857-6.
  • Strick, Philip. Science Fiction Movies. London: Octopus Books Limited. 1976. ISBN 0-7064-0470-X.
  • Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies, American Science Fiction Movies of the 50s, Vol. I: 1950 - 1957. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.

External links[edit]