Movie: Them (1954)

 I’m watching a movie that starts with police officers looking into devastation at two different desert locales.  At a destroyed trailer, they take note there is a box of sugar cubes on the counter.  Later, at a general store, they note sugar seemed to be focus of some bizarre heist.

Already, I couldn’t stop thinking about “Lisa’s Rival”, an episode of The Simpsons, where a subplot has Homer discovering an overturned sugar truck, filling the car full of stolen “white gold” and hoards it in a giant pile in the backyard.

Swarms of bees inevitably descend upon Homer’s sugar pile but what he should have been watching out for are giant ants.  At least that was my takeaway from 1954’s Them.

This sci-fi film casts a long shadow—a long ant-shaped shadow.  The general consensus is this is the best of the 50’s “giant creature” trend, and I don’t think I have seen one to surpass it.

This is a film full of surprises, starting with the title in bright red in a movie that is otherwise black and white.  As for that black and white photography, it is crisp throughout.  Not sure why the desert is always used as the locale for 50’s giant insect movies, but it looks great on the screen. 

What the movie does best is a lingering atmosphere of dread.  The film starts with a dazed little girl in her bathrobe walking through the desert and carrying a doll with a broken head.  For roughly the first quarter of the picture, we follow two police officers who find the girl and try to determine what has happened. 

As we stay with the officers, we only know what they themselves find out.  We are instantly drawn into the picture as if we are investigating alongside them.

Of those officers, James Whitmore plays the lead.  I had to overcome my severe doubts a New Mexico police officer would be asked to accompany an FBI agent and a couple of scientists around the US.

That FBI agent is played by James Arness.  I was amused, as he had played the title creature in The Thing From Another World three years prior.  Needless to say, he drains far fewer humans of their blood in Them.

Rounding out the investigating team are father and daughter doctors played by Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon.  Boy, was I startled to see Edmund Gwenn, as I will always associate him with his portrayal of Santa in Miracle on 34th Street

As for Weldon, she is solid but not really exceptional.  What I was happy to see is she has lines where her character’s expertise in the field is used, and everybody address her as “Doctor”.  Alas, she is also subjected to much leering from Arness, though I probably wouldn’t have been above doing some leering myself back in that time.

The effects range from decent to surprisingly advance for a movie of this ear.  I’m sure many today would laugh at the giant ants.  At least they are a physical mechanism and very well-done for their time.  They look especially realistic when set on fire by scientists wielding flamethrowers.  And if “scientists wielding flamethrowers” doesn’t make you want to see this movie, nothing will.

But the most startling visual is a room containing the giant eggs of giant ants.  It so instantly and thoroughly reminded me of a similar scene in Alien that I believe that later film had to be influenced by this scene.

I thoroughly enjoyed Them and can recommend it for anybody with even a passing interest in 50’s sci-fi.  You may need to suspend your disbelief and temper your judgment, but you could end up having a great time.

If nothing else, you will be better prepared if you have a mountain of purloined sugar to defend.

Dir: Gordon Douglas

Starring James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon

Watching on blu-ray