Them! (1954 USA)

ant 4The interesting point here is this film takes and uses actual events, such as the atomic weapon testing at New Mexico’s military base, the White Sands Missile Range, and references the first nuclear bomb test: Trinity, during 1945. Later that same year the US proceeded to use this new age weaponry to end World War II by atomizing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ants, victim of the Trinity bomb test nine years previously, have grown to a gigantic size and are now roaming the desert of New Mexico. Rummaging for food and killing innocent locals in their path, it is up to the local police force, an FBI agent and two entomologists to take control and save man from his own fate. Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) investigates a strange series of disappearances and murders happening in New Mexico’s desert, and since one of the missing persons was an FBI agent, agent Robert Graham (James Arness) is sent to collaborate with Peterson in the investigation, however, the only clue they have is the strange prints found at the crime scenes.

As the death toll increases, they send the print to be analyzed in the FBI headquarters, but in return the FBI sends Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) from the Department of Agriculture and his daughter, Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon), in order to aid them in their work. While the two law enforcers are confused at first by this decision, soon they discover that the Medfords were sent because the responsible of the killings is not human. Based on a story by George Worthing Yates, “Them!” presents a story that still feels fresh in this its original form (despite having been copied countless times). Playing on the Cold War fears of Nuclear technology, “Them!” starts out as a murder mystery that grows bigger and bigger until suddenly it becomes a matter of global security.

ant 1What truly makes “Them!” to stand out among the rest of the movies of its time, it’s the way it takes its plot (as silly as it may sound to today’s audiences) with a respect that few works of science fiction (not only films) do. Another of the elements that makes “Them!” a very special movie, is the way the characters are fleshed out in a very realistic and human form. While basically stereotypes, every one is given enough depth to stand out and become really multi dimensional characters. Director Gordon Douglas brings the story to life in a sober yet very effective style that at times echoes his work in Westerns and Film Noirs.

Douglas takes the plot of his movie seriously and with a strong basis on reality; creating an atmosphere of dread and a slight dose of pessimism that adds a lot of feeling to the movie. Unlike his imitators, Douglas favours suspense over visual shock, and by hiding the monster during most of the time and giving a really brilliant use to the score and sound effects, he transforms it into a terrifying and very real threat despite his low-budget effects. Combined with the serious take on the plot, this really makes the whole movie be more believable and adds an powerful feeling of impending doom that makes it haunting and truly terrifying.

ant 2The four actors that give life to the key roles in the film really make the most of the characters they play, starting with James Whitmore, as the county cop whose simple and quiet life gets changed after his discovery in the desert. James Arness is excellent as agent Graham, and shows off the natural talent and charm that would make him a star in “Gunsmoke”. Joan Weldon is also very good in an atypical (for the 50s) role very ahead of its time. However, the true highlight of the film is the performance done by Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Harold Medford.

It is he who gives the film the heart and becomes the basis for the “old scientist” role of future creature features. “Them!” is a film that offers not only a glimpse of the 50s attitudes, but also an example of a movie that twisted the conventions of its time. While James Arness and Whitmore play the typical archetypes of the “hero” in this kind of films, they are shown as confused at first, and later afraid of the nature of the beasts they must fight. They are not know-it-all macho men ready to save the world, but everyday people who must learn to overcome their own fears. This was a monster movie that blazed trails through the desert.

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