The Thing/The Thing from Another World (1951) ***
I seem to be reviewing a lot of “firsts” lately. Not long ago, I wrote up Them!, the original atomic bug movie, and a bit before that, it was the grandfather of all slasher flicks. And here I am again, with a review of the world’s first alien paranoia movie, the film that spawned the entire “commies from space” sub-genre in the 1950’s. The Thing from Another World is based on a terrific short story (almost a novella, actually) by John W. Campbell, called “Who Goes There?”. Unfortunately, the movie’s screenplay renders the tale almost completely unrecognizable, to the extent that only one scene about 30 minutes in (corresponding to perhaps a page and a half of “Who Goes There?”) bears any real resemblance to the source material. The world would have to wait another 30 years for a faithful adaptation, directed by John Carpenter. However, when taken solely on its own merits, without reference to Campbell’s story or Carpenter’s vastly superior film version, The Thing from Another World is quite a good movie, and surely deserves most of its classic status. But be advised: despite a running time of a mere 87 minutes, this movie requires a substantial attention span.
As the film begins, a reporter named Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer, of This Island Earth, who also had a tiny role as a journalist in Them!) is talking with a pair of air force lieutenants in an effort to sniff out some kind of a story. Scott has been prowling around Anchorage, Alaska, looking for something-- anything-- to write about for quite some time, with no success whatsoever. Hey, it is Anchorage, you know. This time, he’s in luck, though. The men’s immediate superior, Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey, from It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), has been issued orders to proceed to the North Pole to look in on a strange discovery that a group of scientists stationed there has made-- something about a downed aircraft of unknown origin stuck in the ice. Hendry takes the two lieutenants and what looks to be most of whatever unit it is that an air force captain commands (does the air force have companies?) along with him to the pole, and he allows Scott to tag along.
That was a wise decision Scott made, trying to horn in on Hendry’s action. As Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite, of Colossus: The Forbin Project), the top man at the research station, explains, his instruments have picked up some very strange things. To begin with, something has been throwing the compasses off within a 50-mile radius of a point roughly 48 miles from the station; Hendry had noticed the phenomenon flying in. Secondly, the station is equipped with cameras on the roof that film the skies whenever anything radioactive passes overhead, setting off the Geiger counters to which they are attached. The day before, one of those cameras filmed an object moving at extremely high speed that behaved in such a way as to suggest that it was being controlled. (Objects in free-fall don’t suddenly change course, you know.) The notion of a hypersonic, radioactive aircraft buzzing the station is pretty wild, but the fact that the object’s collision with the ground is throwing off local magnetic fields makes it even stranger. According to Carrington’s calculations, the thing would have to be made of ferrous metal (as opposed to aircraft aluminum) and weigh at least 20,000 tons-- as much as a World War I battleship-- to have that effect.
When Hendry and Carrington lead a team out to the crash site, the men are in for another shock. The object is an aircraft alright-- its vertical stabilizer is the only part of it protruding from the ice-- and though not much can be made out, it is obvious that it has an almost perfectly circular planform. Carrington has found himself a real, live flying saucer. Naturally, the scientist wants to free it from the ice, and when Hendry points out that there’s too much ice covering it to be cut away with axes, one of the lieutenants from the first scene suggests melting it out with magnesium thermite. It sounds like a good idea, but in practice it proves to be a disaster. Whatever the machine is made of, it’s highly inflammable, and the heat from the thermite bombs first sets it on fire, and then causes it to explode, saving the special effects department untold thousands of dollars. All is not lost, though, for one of Hendry’s men notices something in the ice just beyond the area affected by the blast. Closer inspection reveals it to be a humanoid creature some seven to eight feet in height, and Carrington’s attention turns to extracting it (using axes this time-- we wouldn’t want to blow up this prize too).
And now for some character development. A long series of the everyone-talking-at-once expository conversations for which producer Howard Hawks (who had at least as much to do with directing The Thing from Another World as credited director Christian Nyby) is famous follows, in which we get more of a feel for who the major characters really are. All are basically stock types, but it is important to understand just which stereotypes are being hauled in to do what jobs. Hendry is the standard no-nonsense military man, familiar from untold zillions of 40’s- and 50’s-era war movies. His rough exterior is breached only by his affections for Carrington’s secretary, Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan), who is unusually strong and effective for a woman in a 50’s monster movie. Her boss is clearly meant to be the film’s human villain, the ubiquitous misguided scientist whose single-minded search for The Answers nearly gets everybody killed. The extent to which Godless Science has corrupted the professor is first hinted at by his appearance (Satan himself would envy the man’s beard), and confirmed many times over by his dialogue during the main phase of the film, after the creature from space makes its inevitable escape from the ice.
The mechanism of said escape is easily the movie’s greatest weak point. Hendry assigns some of his men to stand guard over the frozen alien in four-hour shifts until such time as he receives instructions from his superiors in Anchorage. By so doing, he explicitly rejects Carrington and his team’s recommendation that the creature be thawed out immediately for study. But all does not go according to plan. By the time the second man’s shift rolls around, the block of ice has cleared sufficiently for the features of the thing inside to be made out, and the alien’s looks are enough to spook the second guard. He throws a blanket over the block to hide what’s inside, and sits down to read until he is relieved. But the poor fool has chosen an electric blanket to hide the frozen spaceman, and in defiance of all logic, the heat from the blanket manages to thaw out the creature without generating sufficient melt-water to short itself out in the process. And because this is a monster movie, the block’s contents are far from dead, despite having spent the last 24 hours encased in ice. The soldier only realizes his mistake when he notices the huge shadow looming over him, too late to do anything but fire a few .45-caliber rounds into the creature (to no avail) and flee from the room as fast as possible. When Hendry goes to check out the situation with a team of armed men, the thing has already vanished into the frozen wastes, though the captain arrives in time to watch through the window as it kills two of the station’s sled dogs.
But the dogs didn’t go down without a fight, and one of Hendry’s men finds the creature’s severed right forearm beneath one of the slain animals. Carrington’s examination of the limb reveals that the alien is a plant. It has no blood, no vascular or nervous systems, none of the tissue differentiation that one would expect to find in an animal’s body. The fingers are tipped with heavy claws, like rose thorns in composition, with backward-pointing barbs on each of the knuckles, and similar projections arm the back of the hand as well. Carrington is also able to extract several seed-pods from beneath the creature’s palm. The most troubling aspect of the alien’s biology, though, is revealed when the hand thaws out sufficiently to soak up the dog blood that was smeared on it, returning to twitching, aimless life as it sits in the dissecting tray. It seems that Hendry and his men have a super-intelligent, inhumanly strong, nearly invulnerable vegetable vampire on their hands. Well, Ned Scott was looking for a story...
Over the next half hour, Hendry will struggle to defend his people from the mostly-unseen monster, while Carrington does everything in his power to open the station up to attack by it. The scientist, you see, believes that the thing can be reasoned with, and that its manifest knowledge of advanced technological principles would be a boon to mankind, if only meatheads like Hendry could be prevented from shooting first and asking questions later. However, because this was 1951, Carrington is clearly mistaken, and the solution to the problem lies more in the direction of Hendry’s gun-toting machismo. It is thus all the more interesting that the monster proves invulnerable to his men’s rifles and machine-guns (you can’t kill a tree with a bullet, after all), and that its destruction requires the expertise of the civilian electrical engineer from Carrington’s group. I’m sure you’ve seen at least a still photo from the scene in question-- James Arness (later of “Gunsmoke” fame) in the monster suit being cooked to death by jury-rigged electrodes in one of the station’s cramped, dismal corridors, one of only three scenes in which the creature actually appears onscreen at a range from which we can see it clearly. I think what we’re looking at here is that old standby, the 1950’s ambivalence toward science, which to many people seemed simultaneously to be ushering the species into a bright new golden age, and dragging it helplessly along at a gallop toward the precipice overlooking Hell itself. This is only one manifestation of intellectual tension in The Thing from Another World; it can also be seen in the treatment of Ned Scott, the journalist. At no point is it suggested, as it is about Carrington, that he’s really one of the bad guys, yet he spends the entire movie complaining about and railing against the secrecy with which Hendry and his superiors want the situation handled. At one point, he even accuses Hendry of subverting the Constitution itself, remarkably strong words for a 50’s screenwriter to put in the mouth of a basically sympathetic character talking about the military. It’s things like this that suggest that the 50’s were a more complicated time, ideologically speaking, than people today give them credit for. Eisenhower’s warning to the nation to beware of the military-industrial complex was still many years in the future, but here in 1951, buried in the middle of what is widely (and, I think rightly) regarded as a stridently right-wing movie, we already have evidence that, at least subconsciously, somebody other than died-in-the-wool liberals was worrying about the direction in which the military seemed to want to take us.
And while we’re on the subject of warnings, I’d like to issue one of my own. There are two different edits of The Thing from Another World circulating, the original 87-minute cut, and an 80-minute version which has, regrettably, become the more common of the two. The short version was edited for TV, mainly to provide space for commercials, and most of the cuts have little effect from a content perspective-- though they do adversely affect the flow of the movie. There is one scene, however, that was removed in its entirety from the short version, probably because it made the prudes at the networks nervous. Shortly after Hendry’s return to the station from his flying-saucer-hunting trip, he meets up with Nikki Nicholson at the station’s bar. She buys him a drink, and the two get to talking. They seem to have a history together that the screenplay leaves tantalizingly unexplained, but the implication is that Nikki is turned off by Hendry’s temper. The two talk about going back to Nikki’s room, and she hints that she does not trust him to be alone with her. He jokingly suggests that she can tie his hands if she wants to, and the camera cuts to a close-up of Hendry’s bound wrists. The shot then zooms out to reveal Nikki pouring a drink into the restrained soldier’s mouth. I think you can see what about this scene might have bothered the top brass at NBC or CBS. Frankly, I’m amazed that a scene that smells so strongly of bondage even made it into the theatrical version! Unfortunately, most VHS copies of The Thing from Another World contain the TV edit, but keep your eyes open. A restored version, courtesy of Ted Turner, occasionally shows up on cable, and may be available on videotape or DVD as well.