Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Them!, directed by Gordon Douglas, is one of the prime examples of the atomic age fear films that imagined radiation causing all sorts of havoc. It really started in Japan (with good reason) with Godzilla, but soon there were giant praying mantises, giant tarantulas, and even giant rabbits (the anti-classic The Night of the Lepus). I think Them! is the best of them, as though it follows the traditional monster movie formula, it's suspenseful and even over sixty-years later the ants look pretty scary.
The film begins with two highway patrolmen in New Mexico finding a little girl wandering the desert. She's in shock and can't talk. They then find her family's trailer, ripped open. Later, they will find a store ripped open, the proprietor dead. One of the cops is James Whitmore, and in a stretch of believability he will be involved each step of the way, without even a scene of him telling the army that he won't back off. The same is true of FBI man James Arness. Do they teach New Mexico state cops to use flamethrowers?
After a footprint of some kind of animal is sent to Washington, a father/daughter pair of entomologists returns with a crazy idea; it's giant ants. The father is Edmund Gwenn, who believes that since the attacks were so near the atomic testing grounds in White Sands, that the ants are mutations. There is no mention of the scientific fact that ants that size would be unable to move, but this is only a movie. Two queens have hatched and escaped the nest. One is killed, but another finds its way into the Los Angeles sewer system.
The film is very heavy on the warnings of radiation. The last lines of the film belong to Gwenn: "When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we'll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict." But since it's been now over seventy years and nothing once benign has grown to monster size, we can ignore the warnings of Biblical prophecy and concentrate on how well made this movie is for a B-movie that probably played in drive-ins. Like Jaws some twenty years later, the ants have an introductory sound--they chirp, like seventeen-year cicadas. Hear that sound and then seeing those large, bobbing heads can get under the skin.
Two actors found big fame as a result of this film. Walt Disney was casting his Davy Crockett film and watched the film to see Arness, but instead was impressed by Fess Parker, as a pilot who has been committed because he says he saw giant ants flying at him. Parker played Crockett, as well as Daniel Boone. But Arness did all right--John Wayne saw the film and recommended him to play Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke (a part Wayne had turned down). That show ran over twenty years.