Them! (1954) ***½
Of all the atomic monster movies that followed in the wake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, forming (in conjunction with the equally prolific efflorescence of alien invasion flicks) the principal obsession of America’s exploitation filmmakers in the 1950’s, Them! is probably the best. Only Toho Studios’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters/Gojira is significantly better (as is only to be expected-- the Japanese know a thing or two about the horrors of nuclear war, after all), and of the American films, only The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms offers Them! credible competition. And if its sheer quality were not enough to secure this movie a place in history, the fact that it was the very first of the atomic bug (as opposed to atomic dinosaur) movies would.
Them! largely owes its effectiveness to two features: the intelligence of its script and its comparatively taut pacing. The movie drops us right into the action, as a pair of policemen-- Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore, whose career has run the gamut from The Red Badge of Courage to The Relic) and his partner-- stumble upon a lone little girl wandering the Nevada desert with a mostly decapitated baby doll under her arm. The girl is in shock, and is unable to tell Peterson anything, but on a hunch, he pays a visit to the trailer of a former federal agent, the nearest dwelling to the spot where Peterson picked up the girl. The trailer is a shambles, one of its walls ripped down from outside by some incredible force, and its interior almost totally destroyed. The trailer is confirmed as the girl’s home when Peterson finds the missing section of her doll’s head in the wreckage, but that does nothing to solve the greater mystery of what happened there. There is no sign of the girl’s parents, though the mostly empty pistol Peterson finds in the kitchen suggests that they did not go without a fight. But the strangest thing about the crime scene is that nothing seems to have been taken-- nothing, that is, except all the sugar in the kitchen.
The next day, Peterson finds a similar scene at a nearby general store. Like the trailer, the store’s front wall was torn down from outside, and the interior was ransacked, apparently in a frantic search for sugar. The principal difference is that, this time, there is a body for the medical examiner to look at, but even so, the police are little closer to an answer. The dead man could have succumbed to any one of a dozen injuries, both blunt traumas and lacerations, but the doctor is inclined to believe that it was the formic acid that did him in. The store-owner’s system contains enough of the chemical to kill twenty men his size and age.
The case catches the eye of the FBI, and the agency puts an agent named Robert Graham (James Arness, whom most people seem to remember from the TV show “Gunsmoke,” but whom I remember more for his role in The Thing from Another World) on the case. It is Graham who, after the police discover strange animal tracks in the sand around both crime scenes, calls in a father-daughter team of biologists, Doctors Harold (The Walking Dead’s Edmund Gwenn, who also played Santa Claus in The Miracle on 34th Street) and Patricia (Joan Weldon) Medford, to assist in the investigation. The Medfords become extremely alarmed when they see the mysterious tracks and hear about the formic acid in the dead man’s body, but they refuse to reveal the nature of their hypothesis, claiming that it is too radical an idea to be put forward until they are both certain. Certainty comes another step closer when the elder Medford holds a vial of formic acid under the nose of the little girl from the trailer, bringing her out of her catatonia and into a fit of shrieking hysterics. “Them!!!!” the girl screams, over and over again, “Them!”
I think it’s about time we meet “them,” don’t you? The Medfords have the police summon the commander of the nearest military base (Onslow Stevens, from The Creeper and House of Dracula), convinced at last that they have enough evidence to make their case. The Medfords believe that the problem is ants. Not ordinary ants, mind you-- the problem is rather, well, larger than that. You see, the region of the desert around which the attacks have occurred has a name that will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in World War II: White Sands. Allow me to explain, for the benefit of those whose knowledge of that conflict is confined to a vague sense that Germany and Japan were somehow involved. In 1945, nine years before Them!, White Sands was the site of world’s first explosion of a live atomic bomb. The way Harold Medford tells it, the fallout from that explosion has, over the intervening years, given rise to a mutant strain of ants which, judging from the size of their tracks, must be at least eight feet long and about as heavy as a rhinoceros. This would explain why the walls of the trailer and general store were pulled out, rather than pushed in; it would explain why only sugar, which is of little value to humans but much value to ants, was taken; and it would explain the formic acid, which the worker and/or soldier castes of most ant species use as venom. After giving a brief presentation on the biology of the family Formicidae, intended to impress upon his guests from the army base the magnitude of the crisis humanity is facing if his theory is correct, Medford has the general take him, his daughter, and some representatives from the local police force and the FBI up in a pair of helicopters to look for the ants’ nest.
They find the nest alright, and the situation is just as grave as the Medfords feared. At the elder Medford’s suggestion, the army bombards the nest with white phosphorus incendiaries to keep the ants inside, and then floods the entire hive with cyanide gas. But when Patricia Medford and a pair of soldiers descend into the nest to assess the effectiveness of the gas attack, the scientist discovers a number of empty eggs in the brood chamber. The great size of the eggs, even in proportion to the rest of those in the nest, alarms her, and her agitation only increases when a search of the nest turns up no dead ants with wings. Those outsized eggs can only have belonged to the ants’ breeding caste-- and two are so large that they can only have hatched into queens-- and if there are no winged reproductives in the nest, that means they must have survived, and are even now on their way to establish new colonies elsewhere.
It doesn’t take long for the young queens to make their presence felt. One queen finds her way into the cargo hold of a transoceanic freighter, and her efforts to establish a colony kick into high gear when the ship is halfway to Singapore. The cruiser USS Milwaukee responds to the SOS (which, by the way, is impossible, because the Milwaukee was sold for scrap in 1949, after a brief tour of duty with the Soviet Navy under the name Murmansk-- am I a big fucking dork or what?), but by the time she arrives on the scene, the only possible course of action is to sink the unfortunate freighter, and take aboard any survivors. The second queen makes herself rather more troublesome by setting up shop in the sewers of Los Angeles. If you’ve ever wondered which movie was the first to pit flamethrower-armed soldiers/policemen against man-eating monsters in a labyrinth of ill-lit tunnels, look no further. This climactic scene may not have the same impact as the very similar ones in, say, Aliens, but it gets extra points for being first, and it comes across better than many latter-day imitations even without the extra credit.
The thing that really elevates Them! over the great majority of 1950’s atomic monster flicks, though, is the fact that it is the only American movie of its type to so explicitly make the monster-as-metaphor-for-nuclear-Armageddon angle the centerpiece of the story. In movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or the endearingly brain-dead works of Bert I. Gordon, this aspect of the story is almost subconscious, more the result of the filmmakers’ need for something to explain and excuse the creation of a wildly improbable monster than the product of any deliberate allegorical intent. Nukes seem to have been pressed into service as monster-makers largely because they were scary, destructive, new, and poorly understood. The same thing would happen 20 years later, during the rash of toxic monster movies that hit the theaters in the 70’s and 80’s. For that matter, you can see it today in all the genetic-research-gone-bad movies-- Bats, Mimic, The Deep Blue Sea, etc. But that is not what’s going on in Them!. Like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this movie means to confront its audience directly with the idea that the Manhattan Project unleashed a very real monster on the world, and that we will now have to find a way to deal with it. Hell, the movie even takes the extra step of blaming the White Sands experiment-- the first nuclear detonation-- for the birth of the monsters. If it is less successful in its efforts than Godzilla (and I think it is), it is only because the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave the Japanese a first-hand insight into the subject that no American could possibly match. What I said in my review of Ishiro Honda’s masterpiece is exemplified in this movie: the army, under the guidance of the Doctors Medford, stops the giant ants before they can do any serious damage, in stark contrast to the devastation that Godzilla inflicts before he is destroyed. When you really think about it, this is only to be expected. It isn’t just nuclear war that America has never experienced directly. No war of any kind has been fought on American soil since 1865. Even the bombing of Pearl Harbor is of minor consequence in this context, because, in 1941, Hawaii was no more an integral part of the US than were the Philippines. In 1954, the notion of the United States suffering the kind of destruction that afflicted all of the other major belligerents in World War II (and, for that matter, most of the minor ones as well) was probably literally beyond the capacity of most Americans’ imaginations. And in those days, the balance of power was such that it actually made sense to talk about a nuclear war having clear-cut winners and losers; it wasn’t until the nuclear paradigm shifted from attack by squadrons of manned bombers (which can be shot down before they reach their targets) to attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles (which cannot) that Mutually Assured Destruction became a reality. So if the oft-made point that horror movies crystallize the anxieties of society into a proxy form that the individual mind can cope with has any validity, it makes perfect sense that our understanding of the threat posed by a fictional A-bomb proxy should reflect our sense of the threat posed by the actual article. When Them! was made, it was still possible to contend with a straight face that the United States would emerge from a nuclear war reasonably intact, and there was nothing in our recent cultural memory that might have served as a counter-example. (Who, in 1954, would have remembered Sherman’s march to the sea as anything more than a story in a school textbook?) And that is exactly how Them! portrays the struggle against the giant ants-- the threat may be a grave one, but it is also mostly abstract, and there is little suggestion that the ultimate victory of humanity over the insects is anything but a foregone conclusion. But even so, Them! must be given credit for taking its subject seriously, and tackling it in an intelligent, thoughtful manner, which is more than can be said for War of the Colossal Beast.