February 25, 2011

Ground Zero

Them! (1954)
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Starring:
James Whitmore - Police Sgt. Ben Peterson
Edmund Gwenn - Dr. Harold Medford
Joan Weldon - Dr. Patricia Medford
James Arness - Robert Graham
Sandy Descher - The Ellinson Girl

"And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth." Genesis 6:12

Gordon Douglas' atomic age masterwork, Them!, begins with visions of a desert land blighted by divine retribution; a wasteland where sunlight is sifted and made pale by the dark-silver air of sandstorms; where wind sounds a thin keening as though blown across ragged tears in the sky.

The Ellinson girl (Sandy Descher)

The setting in question is the stretch of baked desolation in the deserts of White Sands, New Mexico; the site of Trinity - the point upon the earth which absorbed the first detonation of an atomic device. Them! treats this epicenter as the focal point for a corruption deeply entrenched in biblical prophecy - a final and everlasting ground zero. This cursed place shall be as an irradiated portal from where the beasts will rise.

In the beginning: Police are investigating a missing persons report - a whole family, in fact, gone missing in the desert near not far from Alamogordo. A single engine plane casts a black speck of shadow racing across the vast, flat tableau as the pilot scans for signs of life. On the ground, two policemen in a car communicate via radio with the pilot. All seem bored, heat-blown from the mid-day sun. Then the pilot sees something, a tiny figure, impossibly tiny - a small girl walking across the immense pan of the desert. She is so very small and straight, walking across a land of Cholla cactus and mesquite - of Joshua trees gnarled and ancient. We see her now, close, and the plane roars over her, making a pass. We see her walking, walking - her eyes blank as still water, her mouth slightly open. She is very young, maybe five or six, with blonde pigtails, and she's in a nightgown as though having just brushed her teeth for bed. She carries a doll absently - a porcelain doll with a broken head.

The policemen pull up near her on a flat stretch of sand, park their car. They get out, and one cop calls to the girl through cupped hands (his voice clipped of all resonance in this mammoth space). When she doesn't respond, he jogs over on bandy legs and kneels in front of her, puts his hands on her shoulders. What's your name? he asks. Little girl? Who do you belong to? He waves a hand in front of her face, stares into her blank eyes for a moment, then his expression registers understanding and a flat, unsentimental compassion. We hear the plane roar overhead again, the sound moving off into the distance. Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) picks up the unresisting girl gently and carries her back to the patrol car bundled in his arms.

Peterson's partner, Trooper Blackburn (Chris Drake) is talking on the police radio to the circling pilot as Peterson places the girl onto the car seat as though unpacking a china doll. There is a trailer about three miles up the road, says the voice over the radio. Maybe the girl came from there. You better check it out. Ten-Four, says Blackburn, and hooks the mike back on the dashboard.

"What's wrong with her," says Blackburn softly, looking now at the blank, staring face of the little girl. "Sunstroke?"

"She isn't sunburned," says Peterson. His eyes take in the girl's face. His own is covered in sweat from his exertions in the desert heat. "It looks like she's in shock."

Behind the wheel, Blackburn studies her a moment, the staring eyes - the flat expression. He makes a sound of agreement. Both men are probably veterans of WWII, considering their age and occupation. They have seen shock before. As they pull out, Sgt. Peterson sits next to the girl, puts his arm around her shoulders, and cradles her head against his chest. As they drive along, she falls asleep against him.

As the cops pull up to the trailer, things appear abandoned. A station wagon nestled in the sage out front appears hastily parked and has the back tail down. The wind is beginning to kick up, tumbleweeds are blowing around. Blackburn hops out to have a look, walks around to the side/front of the trailer and stiffens. He signals for his partner to join him, and Peterson carefully sets the sleeping girl's head upon the seat and smoothes her hair.

Chris Drake and James Whitmore

The scene is of such destruction that neither cop says anything. The entire side of the trailer is nothing but a gaping hole ragged at the edges with shredded curtains and siding hanging like shattered teeth. Material is littered over the desert floor nearby. The rend in the side is so large, neither man has to stoop when entering. They walk into the trailer warily, looking around, their boots crunching. Both men have their hands covering the straps on their holstered .38s.

Inside is complete devastation. The trailer now is simply a pit with the specifics of life hurled about, broken beyond recognition. Debris is pressed mostly to the edges of the trailer's main room as if it were flotsam washed up on a filthy shore. Light from the trailer's gaping side floods into the place; and behind the men, through the hole, the desert sky is flat and clear and goes on forever. Inside, with the men, things are cramped and ruined and the edges go quickly to shadow. Paper money is littered about with the other stuff, some clothes, broken dishes, a single shoe - all the material now lacking the significance of any purpose.

And there is blood, which never looses its significance. Peterson holds up some torn clothing, spattered. He guesses the blood to be about 12 hours old. "Whatever happened here," says Peterson, "happened last night or early this morning." The wind blows sand and dust into the ravaged interior. Soon, the trailer will be shorn of mortal use, will simply be part of the harsh landscaped - sand scrubbed and gray.

Trooper Blackburn is sent outside to investigate the exterior while Sgt. Peterson remains inside, sifting the clues. He comes to a bedroom. Under a bunk bed he finds a piece of torn cloth and a bit of ceramic. Perhaps a broken piece of lamp or a bit of pottery. Whatever it is, Peterson seems to recognize it. Is face becomes still, thoughtful. He places the items in his uniform pocket and joins his partner outside the wreck.

"This sure wasn't a traffic accident," says Blackburn.

"No," says the sergeant. He puts a hand to a mangled piece of trailer side. "This wasn't caved in. It was caved out.

Blackburn as found sugar cubes strewn about in the sand, just odd enough to warrant a mention; as well as a strange track or marking in the sand. The cops kneel over it. Mountain Lion? "No, says Peterson. "No cat ever left a track like that."

They go back to the car. While Trooper Blackburn calls in the specifics, Peterson goes around to the passenger side, removing the bit of pottery and cloth from his pocket. He goes down on one knee, leaning into the open door where the little girl still sleeps on the car seat. She is still clutching her doll to her, the one with the broken head. Paterson takes the fragment he has found and gently, so as not to wake the child, sets it onto the broken head of the doll. The piece he has found fits onto the gap like a lid set onto a cookie jar. He pulls the bit of fabric he has found from his breast pocket and places it against a tear in the girl's nightgown. Plaid against plaid - a perfect match.

"Anything else, Ben?" asks Blackburn holding the hand mike away from his mouth, finishing up the details of his report. Peterson looks at him, shakes his head no and, making sure his partner sees, simply moves the pieces away and fits them back together again, both doll and fabric. Without a word, the two cops understand one another.

The girl belonged to the trailer. She was there when the trailer was destroyed - blown apart from the inside out. She saw it all, survived somehow, and was cast into the desert wandering in her PJs.

The forensic and medical units come. One man in plainclothes takes pictures of the scene, his flashbulb popping; while another is taking a plaster cast of the markings in the sand. Sgt. Peterson walks through, exchanging pleasantries: How's the kids? Oh, fine, thanks. Another one on the way. Good for you. Peterson walks over to the ambulance. The back is open and the driver (the ever-reliable William Schallert) dressed in white is fussing with the kid stretched out on a cot, making sure she's warm. "Look, take good care of her, huh?" Peterson says, as the driver tucks in a blanket. The driver looks up, nods once; understanding that Peterson has made a point to check on the girl. "I'll give her a nice, easy ride right to the hospital," he says. "I'll be with her all the way." "Good," says Peterson.

Suddenly a noise is heard - an unfamiliar, elliptical, high-pitched whine. It's loud enough to replace the wind, and both men turn toward it out there in the desert somewhere, their faces suddenly focused. They don't notice, but the little girl without a name has sat bolt upright in the back of the ambulance, her face infused with a fearful attention. Neither man moves a muscle until the high, piercing sound fades away and the dry hissing of the wind returns. The girl slowly lies back down. After a moment, the ambulance driver says, "must have been the wind," but his voice is empty, saying something just to say something. He is rubbing the fingers of a half-closed fist together nervously. "It gets pretty freakish in these parts." Peterson says, "yeah."

William Schallert, Sandy Descher, and James Whitmore

Peterson walks over to the lab man working on the cast in the sand and kneels beside him as he works. "You know what that is, Cliff?" He asks, a bit abruptly (clearly, Peterson doesn't like not having answers). "I haven't the faintest idea," says Cliff the lab guy (Cliff Ferre), stiffening. His voice has a bit of an edge as well, not at all at ease working in the desert beside the destroyed trailer. Behind the men, the wind is riffling at debris from the guts of the trailer - a magazine, a collapsed and ruined baby carriage; some odds and ends that can't be identified. Peterson says "Well, you better hurry up before the sand fills it in, looks like a sandstorm's kicking up."

"You and Ed got any idea what happened out here?" asks the lab man.

"Nope," admits Peterson flatly. "Nothing that ads up."

After a bit, Trooper Blackburn and Sgt. Peterson decide to pay a visit to the local store, hoping the propriety, Gramp Johnson, might know something about the folks that missing from the destroyed trailer.

By the time they arrive at the general store, twilight has come and the wind storm is in full blow, giving the evening an unnatural illumination - a pale, desert earthglow of blowing sand. The Joshua trees, stark and top-blown, stand like mute and broken souls against the darkening sky. The store's hanging porch light is swinging wildly, throwing weak splashes of light about in the advancing darkness - sweeping over the storefront, out over the gas pump. The lamp makes a rattling sound as it blows around, jittering at the end of the wire. The wind has a loud, bleak voice now, deep as the horizon at the edge of the world. It comes from there, whipping over the ground, blowing along the scrub - a living thing whistling without teeth.

As with the trailer, it is instantly clear that life is absent here. All is too still, too blown without care by the sandpaper wind.

The cops walk into the place and stand still. The destruction here is worse than the scene of the trailer. Much worse. Here the broken interior seems not so much swept aside but willfully smashed. The torn store has the look of a mammoth, raw wound with the cops standing at the rim. This time, Trooper Blackburn draws his gun, holds it ready as he walks through the remnants. Peterson allows his palm to rest on the butt of his piece. He hears a radio playing from a back room. He carefully pushes open a door and enters, finds more wreckage. A coffee percolator has boiled away to steam. As Peterson looks things over, the radio newscaster extols the recent advances in medical science: ". . . such diseases as malaria, cholera, and sleeping sickness have been entirely wiped out from areas that were formally in a state of plague conditions."

Peterson continues searching - finds a lever-action rifle, the stock splintered and the barrel bent back on itself like a licorice stick. Peterson shows Blackburn the rifle, and the cops look at one other' both knowing things are going from bad to worse very quickly. Neither seem terribly surprised when they find the store owner, Gramp, stuffed bloody and broken into a cellar like a bag of dirty laundry. A hanging overhead lamp swings with the wind filling the torn building; sweeping light over the corpse in pendulum fashion. The body seems unnaturally white in the hard light. The policemen jump at a loud rumbling sound and rush to investigate.

It seems a bit more of the store might have blown off in the wind to make the sound or, maybe, something inside has blown around. They look over the floor and around at the shelves with flashlights and, strangely, find more sugar (like the cubes at the trailer, oddly littered over the sand). This time a barrel of sugar has been crushed and spilled out onto the floor. Peterson runs his hand through the sugar, scattering a covering of ants.

"What do you make of it," says Peterson, having to make his voice a bit loud now against the wind.

"Same thing I made of the trailer," says Blackburn."

"Yep," says Peterson.

It's decided that Peterson will call it in then drive over to the hospital, being eager to hear what the little girl says if she starts talking. Blackburn will stay behind and wait for the lab boys to show up. Sgt. Peterson pauses a moment before leaving, looks at Blackburn, making sure their eyes are locked. He offers his partner a smile. "Stay loose, he say. "Sure, sure," says Blackburn, smiling back easily.

Naturally, this bit of understated maleness is the last the partners will ever have of one another.

After Peterson leaves, Trooper Blackburn pokes around a bit, turns off the radio. Suddenly he hears the noise, the same noise we've heard at the trailer. But this time it's louder. Moving carefully, Blackburn draws his weapon. He reaches up slowly and turns off a hanging lamp. He turns off another lamp as he slowly crosses the room. His eyes are glittering in the darkness, wet and large with focus. The sound becomes even louder, more high-pitched and piercing. Blackburn pauses a moment, straightening at the sound, and his face blanches.

Chris Drake

We see the officer stand a moment in the store's torn opening, his back to us; his figure outlined against the doom-dark sky beyond. The wind ripples his uniform. He moves outside, stepping over debris. From the dark inside, we follow him; see him walk passed a window as clouds of sand blow along with him; and he is gone. All we see now is the storm raging outside behind the panes of window glass. The sound intensifies, becomes something horribly shrill. We hear a gunshot. Then the guttural sound of screaming - a screaming that only can mean an agony onto death.

And we have entered the middle period, the time of witness. We have seen the beginning of an prophesied apocalypse, heralding the coming of a pale rider on a pale horse - of the four riders on four horses. These harbingers will have no scythes or diseases, however; coming instead with winged Queens, mandibles and stingers.

Over the next few scenes our principals are gathered and are established. Police are stymied with an abundance of clues that make no sense. Sgt. Peterson spends some time starring into coffee cups over his partner's death, pulls himself together in short order (after a brisk talking to by his Captain), and declares he has a score to settle. The missing folks from the ravaged trailer, identified through fingerprints, are an FBI agent from Illinois named Ellinson and his family (wife and two girls) on a two-week vacation. This brings in a federal presence in the form of FBI agent, Robert Graham (the towering James Arness). The coroner establishes that along with crushed legs, skull, chest, and back; Gramp Johnson had been somehow injected with enough formic acid to kill twenty men. Agent Graham sends the print casting to Washington, which brings Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Patricia "Pat" Medford (Joan Weldon) from the Department of Agriculture into play. The father and daughter have examined the print and have rushed to New Mexico with a theory.

As the doctors examine evidence and doctor's reports in the police station, Agent Graham points to places on the big wall map where the incidence of devastation took place. Dr. Medford (the elder) is an obvious academic eccentric, ignoring the giant FBI man for the most part as he fusses over evidence, or speaking to him as one would a child. Sgt. Peterson stays in the background, watching the egghead team carefully with his arms folded. "Tell me," says the Doctor, turning his attention to Graham and speaking slowly. "In what area was the atomic bomb exploded? I mean the first one, in 1945?" Graham makes a circle on the map with his finger. "Right here in the same general area." He pokes the spot for emphasis. Pop Pop. "White Sands."

Hmmm. Yes. Hmmm. 1945. Only nine years ago. The Doctor leans in close to his daughter, mumbles something about genetic possibilities, some other mumbo-jumbo leaving the cops out of the brainy talk. The big agent's expression darkens. He steps in and posts his hands on the desk where the two doctor's are sitting, leans over them. He really isn't that big. He doesn't quite block out all the light in the room. "If you two know what this thing is," he says, his voice flat, "I suggest you tell us." The elder doctor wags a finger at Graham and in lecture voice explains he won't discuss his theory until he is certain.

Soon, the doctor and crew visit the little girl (now known as "the Ellinson girl") in the army hospital. She is still completely comatose, still staring at the foot of air in front of her eyes and unable to speak. Dr. Medford the elder pulls a chair up, leans in close an examines her eyes. Nothing has worked, says the hospital doctor. Perhaps a shock might bring her out of it?

The doctor puts some Formic Acid in a small glass (he will later explain that Formic Acid is the agent found in an ant's sting). He waves it under her nose. The girl's nose twitches once, twice; and her eyes blink.

Suddenly her face contorts in an expression of sheer terror. A sudden near convulsion seizes her, twisting her face horribly, uncontrollably. She begins screaming. She no longer looks like a little girl with pigtails, but has become simply a screaming, jagged mouth without age - one eye is squeezed shut, the other seems large - out of proportion. She propels herself out of the chair, skitters like a bug caught in the light to a corner, presses herself flat and small into it. Her feet are digging in, peddling backward, as she tries to make herself vanish.

"Them!" she screams, her eyes seeing whatever has burned into her injured mind. She screams over and over: "Them! Them! Them!" The adults in the room stand and watch her in a shaken, stiff silence. Sgt. Peterson is the first to respond appropriately, scooping the girl up in his arms. Her screaming is reduced to a pathetic sing-song of sobbing as he holds her close.

The other adults take a moment to absorb what they have seen. We have to go to the desert now, says Medford. It's pretty late, says Graham. Later than you think, says the doctor.

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

Out in the desert a sandstorm is blowing so harshly that everyone has to wear eye-goggles, giving them the prophetic look of insects. The four (father and daughter Medfords, Sgt. Peterson, and Agent Graham) investigate a bit, looking where the track was left, while wind whips at their faces, flaps their clothes, hurls their voices away like tumbleweeds. The air is full of light-dimmed waves of sand and grit. Dr. Patricia remarks that there is hardly any source of food; that "they" might turn carnivorous in such barren territory. The elder Medford agrees. Graham and Patricia have a shouting match about the senior doctor's theories, which he has yet to verbalize much to Graham's consternation (He will tell you when he's sure, says Pat).

As the men search the sand for more markings, Pat wonders off; investigating over the ridge of a sand dune. We hear the ominous, high-pitched noise, but it is blown hither and yawn by the storm. And then . . . one of "them" appear.

It rises like a thing prehistoric from behind the dune, over and behind Pat unseen, rising higher and higher; its huge mandibles moving (which produce the intense, whining sound we have heard throughout the movie). Its eyes, the size of truck tires, are bulbous and multi-celled. Its massive head rises higher still, hairy antennas like flagpoles waving, sensing - smelling - food. It sees her, lowering its head as the mandibles open.

Pat turns, begins screaming (This will be Pat's single fear response in the movie). She starts to back peddle frantically (like the Ellinson girl in the hospital room), but her heels tangle in the sand and she falls. Agent Graham is the closest, and we watch him running through the Joshua trees and Cholla, nearly obscured by the sand and wind, firing his .38 as he comes. He rushes to half-fall in the sand near the doctor. He rises to a kneeling position, putting himself In front of Pat, firing now with purpose. The creature absorbs the bullets, squares itself, begins to approach - its mandibles grinding and screeching as they work together.

Sgt. Peterson, standing a bit away with Dr. Medford the elder, takes a few shots with his police revolver, manages to hit an antenna, which snaps and droops as the creature makes a higher-pitched sound. Yet the creature seems largely unaffected. Peterson stares at his revolver, makes a decision, and rushes back to the police car.

"Get the antenna!" shouts Medford to Agent Graham, cupping his hands against the wind. "Get the Antenna!" Graham sets both hands on his revolver, taking careful aim. His third shot makes a ricochet splang off the ant's eight foot antenna, and it folds in the middle as the creature makes a wild, metallic sound like screaming.

Peterson comes running back, short and bowlegged, across the sand carrying a Thompson submachine gun. The cop's obviously through fucking around. Once next to Dr. Medford, Peterson sets his legs in a hip-wide stance, works the cocking lever to chamber in a round, and gets to work. We watch .45 slugs hammer in staccato against the giant beast, blowing off fist-sized chunks. The creature is bellowing now, rocking and rising in agony. Petersen grits his teeth, moving the barrel back and forth like a paintbrush, and the gun pounds out rounds and flashes - bang-bang-bang-bang-bang - with the steady rhythm of a jackhammer. The creature makes a roar, thrashes, roars again; then falls suddenly, its head driving into the sand like some crashed, alien saucer.

The sound of the wind returns, lonely and distant. Dr. Pat and Agent Graham pick themselves up off the sand, and all gather around the carcass of the creature. Peterson keeps his machine gun at the ready. All stare down at the huge, dead thing, covered in hair and gore. Dr. Medford identifies it by species and genus in a blur of Latin; finally adding the common name.

"Ant?" barks the agent. "I don't believe it! It can't be!" Dr. Medford (elder) explains his theory, now proved: The insects have mutated due to the lingering radiation caused by the first atomic blast in 1945 (Trinity). The most important thing now, says the doctor, is that we must get the nest. Destroy it entirely.

Peterson lifts his face suddenly, looks at the old doctor. "You mean there's more?" Yes, assuredly, answers the daughter calmly, clinically. This one was just a scout, looking for food. The sounds it made was a communication to others - the colony - a potentially vast nest of others. Dr. Medford the elder comments on the awful smell of the thing. Formic acid, he explains. An ant packs formic acid in its sting, carries the smell on its body always. No wonder the Ellinson girl reacted so violently when she smelled it, says Graham. Gramp Johnson was filled with the stuff, says Peterson. The doctor points at the end of the creature, to a stinger (thick base, nasty hook at the end). It's the size of a scimitar - about three feet long.

The sound comes again, as they are talking. It becomes loud enough that all turn to the source, way out there in the distance of the desert. Peterson tests his cocking lever, satisfied that he has a round in the chamber, and tucks the Thomson's butt against his hip. The sound fades.

The old doctor stares after it, across the miles of irradiated desert and withered sage. The wind blows at his jacket, at the ends of his white hair; as he stares out over the land through his sand-frosted goggles. He speaks softy, suggesting that a new and horrible age has come. As though uttering tongues, he speaks a prophecy, staring across the sand. He speaks the words as though they have come to him already spoken on the wind.

"And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation; and the beasts shall reign over the earth."

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

No one says anything as the wind blows and blows - a dirge now; a high, plaintive sound without pity. Graham stares down at the creature, his head bowed as if in a schoolboy's half-hearted prayer. The sound begins again, a bit louder, as the minions call to one another. The four mortals raise their faces into the sand storm to stare at the desert - at the unseen but terrible place where the beasts are speaking.

The principals collect themselves and go searching for the nest. Flying over the area by helicopter, it doesn't take long. Hold it, shouts Pat to the chopper pilot, seeing a large depression in the desert floor below.

From above we see a large crater shape in the desert sand, nestled atop a large, concentric rise of bare sand. As the helicopter swings around we see inside the huge pit. There's a massive ant working along the side of the pit, moving something in his mandibles.

As the camera view switches to a ground view, it takes us a moment to realize what the ant is doing, what he's holding: He has a human rib cage held in the massive ridges of this mandibles; tearing of bits. Just finishing, it lets the ribs fall clattering into a large pile of bones scattered about the nest entrance. Horribly, laying next to a skull, we recognize the gun belt of Trooper Blackburn, along with shreds of his uniform.

"We just found your missing persons," says Dr. Pat Medford with her usual cold logic while Agent Graham, looking much too huge for the tiny chopper, sits next to her with mouth agape in horror (from this point forward, Dr. Medford the younger will gradually but firmly assume the role of leader whenever the men confront the mutated ants, displaying a natural authority).

The United States Military, realizing the potential for a public relations disaster of, well, Biblical proportions as well as continent wide panic, enters the picture in the person of General Robert O'Brien (Onslow Stevens). All agree that the entire operation is to be kept on the serious QT. The General, quite naturally, wants to simply, and will all necessary force, bomb the living crap out of the nest. No, no, that would never work, explains Medford the elder. Such a surface bombing regardless of force would only drive them deep into the underground nest, killing few and letting the majority escape. The old scientist shows them a large diagram of an ant nest, pointing to it, stressing the genius of the layout. The entire network of tunnels and compartments is designed so virtually no action on the surface, flooding, fire, etc.; can much endanger the ants living in the nest. And this nest, considering the size of the ants they've seen, might go down hundreds of feet.

It is decided that they will carpet the surface of the nest with phosphorus, which will force the hive deeply into the nest, then they will fill the tunnels with cyanide gas, killing all inhabitants.

"How can you be sure we got all of them?" asks the general.

"We go into the nest and find out," says Medford the elder simply.

Yes. Of course. Go into the nest. The general is left speechless at this suggestion, and a Major sitting nearby simply goes slack jawed.

The men carpet the area with phosphorous, shooting shells of the stuff by bazooka onto the area with white explosions that shoot feathery tendrils in spider shapes across the sand. This scene, with men at work in a quasi-military operation, is quite typical of sci-fi films from this era in that it is assumed and understood that most of the men have seen service during the war. Both the FBI agent and rural, state trooper know how to load and fire a bazooka as a two-man team. Interestingly, only the general is not familiar with the weapon. "It's the first time I ever loaded one of these babies," he says, stuffing a shell into the ass-end of the tube. "That makes us even," says Sgt. Peterson, adjusting the bazooka on his shoulder, fitting his eye against the scope. "This is the first time I've ever given orders to a general." General O'Brien looks at Peterson for a moment without smiling, then taps him on his head as a signal he can fire at will.

After the fire bombing, the men (and one woman) go down into the nest with gas masks and tanks of cyanide on their backs and spray the nest. But the mutant insect holocaust doesn't work, at least not completely. A winged queen and a few winged males have escaped, which - as it turns out - is a worse-case scenario. From this point forward the movie gains speed and moves quickly (but never in a rush) to a slam-bang finish.

Eventually, after trying feebly to keep the affair quiet a bit longer; the general and all principals grit their teeth through a press conference wherein the public is told that the insect threat might mean human extinction. Considering how fast the ants can lay eggs and multiply, man will very soon not be the dominant species on Earth. With this news, the search for the nest quickly becomes a national priority.

The new nest is eventually discovered within the storm drain system of Los Angeles county (itself quite similar in intricacy to a massive ant nest). In a the final, gripping scene, Sgt. Peterson is attacked by a giant ant, sacrificing himself to save two young boys that have wandered into the nest while flying a model plane in a drain basin. The creatures and their eggs are finally destroyed in the only way appropriate: By an army belching massive quantities of cleansing (and yes, biblical) fire. The film ends in the grand tradition of 1950s sci-fi - with a question. With all the ants and their eggs turned into a massive bon-fire, Graham (Arness) looks over the blazing pit and wonders what else may come as the result of atomic testing. This was, after all, just one bomb test of many. Agent Graham could not know, but across the pacific on the still war-torn island of Japan, a film maker named Ishiro Honda would be answering that question the same year Them! was released, 1954; with a creature of vengeance and horror all his own (Godzilla or Gojira).

Watching Them!, a movie near perfect in its parts, is like taking a smooth ride in a huge Caddy - any small bumps in the road are smoothed out by the massive weight and quality of the vehicle.

And now, let's get to the good stuff that makes the ride so enjoyable:

The Good Stuff Part I (of 1): A cast of well-cast characters

The characters in this movie are so well defined - so consistent in their actions and so well scripted - that by end of the movie, all four main principals (Dr. Harold Medford, Dr. Pat Medford, Agent Graham, and Sgt. Peterson) are completely known, so much so that we can guess what they would do in any given situation; even ones as trite as shaving or doing dishes. That is to say, the characters have come to life.

These players have been perfectly cast. In order of appearance, they are:

Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore): The Defender

At the beginning of the movie, Peterson saves and protects the damaged Ellinson girl, carries her in his arms out of the desert desolation, smoothes her hair, wants to be close at the hospital when she begins talking. In the hospital, his impulse is to comfort and protect the girl when her mind spasms in screams, snatching her up and holding her protectively when she has pressed herself into a corner (the rest simply stare at her, maybe even recoil a bit). At movie end, he dies saving children. In the final scene, watching the monster approach and knowing he will not have time to do more than push the two boys into a protective drain, he calmly sacrifices himself to save them.

Sandy Descher and James Whitmore

During the course of the film, it is not only children he will protect. In several scenes with the absentminded, brilliant Dr. Harold Medford; Peterson is seen looking after him - guiding the old, academic scientist through an unfamiliar and dangerous world. In the desert, Peterson gently instructs Medford in the use of the goggles, even adjusts them gently so they cover the old man's eyes during a sandstorm. Later, in a gently comic scene, we see Peterson teach the older doctor how to communicate with his daughter via a military head set.

"But she knows I'm finished," complains the doctor.

"Still," says Peterson, "you have to say 'over and out.' It's a rule."

While the doctor rants in frustration, Peterson takes the head set so gently from his hands, the older man barely notices. "Over and Out," says Peterson softly into the mike.

To Protect And To Serve reads the police motto. Indeed, Sgt. Peterson.

James Whitmore, an actor of immense humanity, fills these policeman's shoes as though born to them. It's a pleasure watching actor, the way he allows scenes to come to him without chasing them. Whitmore never needed to steal a scene, never flailed much. Yet, in scene after scene, it is Whitmore's Sgt. Peterson we remember.

Agent Robert Graham (James Arness): Man of Action

As a young actor, James Arness was six feet seven inches tall. He made John Wayne, a pal, look like a kid brother. I mention this first because it needs to be said. His sheer size (the tallest star in Hollywood) is simply impossible to ignore. In Them!, when the actor steps into a scene, it is like watching Gulliver stepping carefully among the Lilliputians.

James Arness

Not that he couldn't act. Anyone that has watched as many Gun Smoke episodes as I have will know: cast correctly (he really wasn't designed to play anything but "authority"), he could hit the pitch perfectly. And as a man of action, he had something few actors can claim: believability. When Marshall Matt Dillon made the Long Branch Saloon go dead quiet just by walking through the swinging doors, it never seemed silly.

At first blanch, Agent Graham seems an unimaginative if efficient Federal agent, simply moving from Point A to Point B in straightforward, nearly ruthless fashion. He can certainly be no-nonsense to a fault. We have seen him strong arm the Medfords, and we will watch him toss a pilot who has witnessed the flying, giant ants (Fess Parker) under the preverbal bus for the sake of national security (he will insist the patient not be released from the military hospital psych ward even after telling the young flyer he believes him and will work to get him released). Yet, by the movie's end, we have seen this agent in action several times, and it is in action that his worth becomes apparent.

Arness' Agent Graham is perhaps the most interesting, and often undervalued, character in the movie. He is a man who's nature gravitates to action yet, and this is what makes him so interesting, he is not without fear. In the final scene, when trapped in a collapsing tunnel with a giant ant; he actually screams in terror (not pain as does Peterson once in the mandibles). Yet (and this is the man's whole card) his instinct is to fight. His natural response when trapped with a monster is to bring his submachine gun into play and blaze away even though obviously in the grip of blind fear. Despite being scarred to his bones more than once in the movie, he is never paralyzed - and he certainly never runs. He has no flight response at all. None. Zero. He is pure fight. His instinct is to run at danger, despite his fear; as he did when defending Dr. Patricia Medford. Courage is the mastering of fear, not the absence of; and Agent Graham - a tall man racing across the desert, his pistol blasting at the monster threatening fallen Patricia, serves as example.

Dr. Patricia (Pat) Medford (Joan Weldon): The Leader

The first we see of Pat Medford is a view of her legs. She is climbing down out of the military transport plane that has brought her and the elder Dr. Medford to New Mexico, and her dress gets caught on something climbing which pulls it up. While an aide helps her untangle, Agent Graham and Sgt. Peterson take a moment in appreciation. Agent Graham even tilts his head, smiling. This is the first, and the last, bit of prerequisite cheesecake in the movie, and it is handled with subtle reserve. Other sci-fi films of this vintage often take a much broader approach, to say the least. In Forbidden Planet, for example, these bits of sexual fluffery are nearly burlesque, with comic snatches of music; wince-inducing wolfish dialogue; and broad expressions. Here, things are efficient and brisk. As the two men lawmen are walking away from the airplane (Patricia and her father have hustled on ahead, eager to get to work), Graham says, "I'm going to have to get this suit pressed."

Joan Weldon

Later, as Graham and Patricia are having one of their wonderful toe-to-toe standoffs, Patricia smartly turns the voltage down a notch by suggesting that Graham call her "Pat." The agent, towering over her, doesn't smile; yet he visibly relaxes, and his voice warms. "I'd like to," he says. As far as flirtatious repartee goes, that'll about do 'er for the movie entire. Instead of the token romance, we'll watch these two professionals slowly gaining respect for one another, learning to compliment one another, so as to defeat a world-threatening enemy - period. These two haven't "found" each other - they tolerate one another - with only occasional, grudging amusement - only because each needs the other for the work at hand.

After the carpet bombing and gassing of the first nest, a team must be assembled to go underground with flame throwers and burn out any survivors. Graham and Peterson are gearing up, of course, preparing the tanks, strapping them on - working along without much discussion. Patricia Medford pops into the scene and insists on joining them. Graham barely considers it. She presses a bit harder, and Graham turns to face her, now giving her his full, harsh attention (probably in Graham's career not many have withstood this treatment well). Your not going, he says gruffly, issuing an order as he looks down at her upturned face. It's no place for you or any other woman.

Pat returns the favor. She now gives him her full attention. She squares herself to face him straight on, takes a step closer. Warming to the discussion, she catalogues the reasons that she must go: There must be an entomologist on the team, and her father is physically incapable of going along. Only an entomologist will be able to understand what to look for - will be able, for that matter, to understand the significance of whatever they find. She is the only one that can do that job.

"You can tell us what to look for," says Graham, his voice hardening, rising. "You -"

"Look, Bob," she says, cutting him off, "there's not time to give you a crash course in insect pathology. So let's cut all this talk and get on with it."

The two glare at each other for a moment, and Graham turns to look at Dr. Medford the elder, as if for some backup, but no help is forthcoming from that quarter. Knowing his daughter, the old doctor simply looks at Graham with something less than scorn but not quit sympathy. Graham turns back and eyeballs Pat for a moment longer, but the fight is clearly over. Graham is not particularly imaginative, but he's a far cry from stupid; and only a stupid man would argue the point further. It would be like arguing against the perfect logic of mathematics.

"OK, OK," he says, marching off, unable to hide the petulance in his voice.

As they venture underground, Pat quickly assumes the roll of leader. She is the one that gives the orders, directs the two men; her voice ringing with steady authority. Once in the trenches, even Graham follows her directions without question. While down in the labyrinthian nest, Pat Medford demonstrates another trait of leadership: she never, ever shows fear. She is, in fact, fearless. Unlike Graham, who can use his fear, Medford is very close to being without fear entirely; and it is this trait the two lawmen respond to.

"Look," she says, running her hand over one of the nest walls as they descend into the heart of the nest. "Held together with saliva."

"Yea?," says Peterson, "Spit's about the only thing holding me together right now, too."

The two men look at one another through their gas masks, but Pat doesn't respond. She simply goes on rubbing the wall with her hand, neither understanding or judging how anyone could be frightened in such fascinating surroundings.

Joan Weldon's performance as Dr. Pat Medford is one of the strongest female characters in all of atomic age sci-fi, ranking alongside Beverly Garland's work in Alligator People; and she is easily the most believable "beautiful scientist" (or beautiful lab assistant) the genre ever produced (among many). Weldon convinces beyond the range of her substantial beauty, bringing home a character so real that the men around her finally respond to nothing but her authority and her knowledge.

Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn): The Prophet

Actor Edmund Gwenn is best remembered for his great performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street; and the Kringle of Miracle is not terribly dissimilar from the Dr. Medford of Them!. In fact, if you watch the movies back to back, one will morph into the other. Both characters stand a bit apart from the world, observe the actions of regular mortals with a pleasant curiosity. Both characters see the world only in large strokes, and both characters are untouched by the petty trivials that dominate and corrupt our human lives. Kringle would never be jealous of a co-worker, and Medford would never be secretly happy over a friend's divorce. Both characters are "good" and "true" not from a saintly impulse but rather from complete separation and disinterest regarding the minutia of emotion. They neither notice or care about these frail human connections. It is impossible to imagine either character doing something foolish for the sake of love or cheating on their taxes (or even knowing how to do their taxes). Santa, and Dr. Medford, live in a worlds of their own creation, are observers of the trails of man. And both men have a head full of visions (Kringle’s are visions of a paradise come to earth – Medford’s of Hell).

Edmund Gwenn (with hat)

Dr. Medford certainly sees the world latent in prophecy - rich in ancient meaning. When the doctor stares into the shimmera of desert heat and says "there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation . . ." it is clear he has been seeing signs in the sands, hearing their meanings in the wind.

Them! is a prototype film - the first of the irradiated "big bug" movies that captured in end-time terms the powerful, nearly-spiritual misgivings Americans felt over the vaulting science of the atomic age. The film was made a mere nine years after the first atomic testing in the deserts of White Sands. Them! is an American touchstone, a piece of art which helped clarify and archive a culture's inchoate feelings about the atomic bomb on the one hand; and was a thrilling piece of film making on the other.

Summer, 1945.

White Sands, New Mexico.

Watching that first horribly beautiful mushroom cloud boom and then flatten out, crushing the sand under it - then billow and rise magnificently into the clouds, many of the atomic scientists and physicists watching began to cry. Some giggled in a kind of awestruck panic. Robert Oppenheimer, laboratory leader, famously thought about a bit if Hindu scripture: " . . . Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Like Dr. Medford - Dr. Oppenheimer was a scientist seeing terrible prophecies shimmering in the desert.


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29 comments:

  1. I didn't get around to seeing Them until I was an adult, but I love it. It's a darn near perfect monster flick, with brilliant gimmicks to make the absurd threat of giant ants actually seem plausible and dare I say possible.

    As you say, the snap of the script is so polished, that watching this one over and over is like listening to a great piece of music, you wait for the perfect bits to reveal themselves yet again.

    Rip Off

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  2. The Little Girl is perfectly cast in this one; and you can never go wrong with Edmund Gwenn. I loved the build up, the mystery, before seeing the Giant Ants. When they are finally shown, it's like, BUH-ZOING~! Holy Crap ! A Giant Ant !

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  3. One of my favorites from the 50s, and what a fantastic post!! Great job.

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  4. The one aspect of the initial atomic bomb tests that has always left me quite chilled is that some scientists involved worried that detonating the A-bomb might actually "ignite" the atmosphere of the entire planet and yet....they blazed right ahead and pushed the button. No consensus, just full speed ahead, and to hell with the consequences!

    As a teen, that gave me an understanding of how absolute authority corrupts that still informs my opinion on many subjects.

    "THEM!" was a terrific genre film and the scene where James Whitmore bites the big one remains a great payoff.

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  5. Rip: I have watched this one many times (and just recently again twice for this post). It seems each time I watch it I see something new to admire.

    Lysdexicuss: I think that little girl (Sandy Descher) deserved an oscar for her performance. She was such a little craftsman in this small, meaty role.

    Johnny: Thanks for the kind words, sir!

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  6. Mykal

    I really love your site and look forward to these thorough write ups.

    Them is a favorite.

    I look forward to visiting regularly.

    Take care,
    SFF

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  7. as far as i'm concerned this(Them)is the one that started it all, maybe i need to re-watch Beast From 20,000 Fathoms but i'm mostly glad that it inspired the making of Gojira! i'm glad i didn't see this as a kid though...great review, Mykal. the Oppenheimer quote was a nice touch.

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  8. Sci-FI Fan: I'm glad you like it around here. Thanks for the kind words, and don't be a stranger!

    Prof. Grewbeard: My man! yeah, this is the king daddy of the radiation big bug movies. The first, and there were none better (although I have a real soft spot in my heart for Jack Arnold's Tarantula.

    I'm still working up my nerve and strength to do Gojira, which is, I would have to say, my favorite.

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  9. Another epic post and I have nothing to add, it's all been put so well here.

    Have you ever heard The Misfits' song "THEM"? Michael Graves on vocals; a fitting anthem to this classic.

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  10. J.: Thanks, brother. Yes, I have heard the Misfits song. What's so cool about it to me is that the guys seem real fans of the film. It's feels like a real heart-felt homage to me.

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  11. I do love Them! This is a great write-up. The thing with this movie, though, is that I always get the notion into my head that I'm watching Santa Claus vs. The Ants. Not that that's a flaw, mind you, but that's just the echo in my mind. Pesky iconic performances.

    I also usually get this into my head.

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  12. Dr. Morbius: Another possible theme song!

    Luckily, I saw this film before I saw Miracle, so for me, I'm always seeing Natalie Wood sitting on Dr. Medford's knee who, disturbingly, is dressed up like Santa. As I say in the post, the characters are so similar in character they can sometimes morph into one another.

    Thanks for commenting.

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  13. Chuck: Oops, I missed your comment, buddy. Yeah, that was an actual concern: that, once an atom split, it could cause a chain reaction and just keep going, splitting, literally, all the atoms. Just a massive fireball of all creation.

    Which is sort of terrifying when you read that the citizens of Hiroshima thought that the Americans had devised some new fire device that had managed to set everything on fire at once.

    That scene when James Whitmore sacrifices himself is indeed a whopper!

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  14. Mykal, I appreciate having the .pdf file to read, since reading the reverse lettering is hard on my eyes.

    My dad took me to all the science fiction movies of the era, including THEM! Wow, what a movie that was; James Whitmore was a great actor and played his part perfectly. As a 7-year-old I felt terrible when his character sacrificed himself.

    I haven't looked at your archives to see if you've already had a review of TARGET: EARTH. I remember Dad being embarrassed when the movie opened with a girl in a slip lying on a bed, and the teenagers in the theater erupted in wolf whistles. Ah, we were very innocent in those days... I haven't seen that movie in at least 50 years, and am curious to know if my memories of it are correct.

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  15. El Postino: I have heard others say the white on black is tough on the peepers. I may have to try something different at some point. Glad you appreciate the .pdf! Thanks for the comments.


    I have not reviewed yet Target Earth!; but it is in the que.

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  16. This is one of my top 10 fav's of that era of b&w scifi. Such a classic! I remember hiding behind a pillow the first time I saw it.

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  17. Autmnforest: Thanks for stopping by. Please come again.

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  18. Ooops, make that "Autumnforest"

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  19. Mykal, I'd love to see your thoughts on Gojira as well as your comments on my own take of the film.

    Your RadiatioN Expertise would be welcomed. I've only had time to revisit three of the classics in Gojira, Godzilla Rides Again and The Mysterians. I'd like to do more but, as your thoughtful site would attest, these entries take some time.

    I was reading David Kalat's book. Very good, but have yet to finish it as a result of being sidetracked by other sci-fi studies.

    ANy other books you'd like to recommend would be welcomed.

    Again, a terrific review of THem! I look forward to seeing the film again and you are inspiring me to get cracking on another RADIATION-styled sci-fi entry of my own. Thank you.

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  20. Sci-Fi: Kalat's book is wonderful. I also recommend Steve Ryfle's Japan's Favorite Mon-Star. My all time fave book on the subject of Kaiju genre is a book about the special effects master, Eiji Tsuburaya by August Ragone: Eiju Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters..

    I am gathering all my strength for Gojira and will be sure to check up on your take on it! Thanks for commenting.

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  21. LOVING THIS Post... and your blog is THE BOMB!

    Keri

    alwayscurtsywhenyousneeze.com

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  22. I am loving the pdf option, Mykal! I think I will download this one and read it on the go! :)

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  23. Jacque: Grat! I'm glad folks tend to be using that option. Being as verbose as I am, I figuered it might increase the chances on the thing being read.

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  24. Another epic post Mykal! I finally saw THEM within the past two months, and absolutely loved it! Went hand in hand with BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS when I watched them back to back. Easily one of my new favorite giant creature features =D

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  25. Carl: That would make an awesome double-feature! You an Outer Limits fan? I've got a post coming up in a couple of days about two great episodes. Hope to see you there.

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  26. I love THEM! It's possibly my favorite US sci film from the era and still holds up remarkably well despite the rickety ant effects. Even so, they're far more accomplished than what passed for monster effects in some later similar pictures. Speaking of TARANTULA, I am partial to the BLACK SCORPION (1957), an unusually violent big bug movie. Both those movies have something else "big" in common and that's the lovely attributes of Mara Corday!

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  27. Venom: Them! is one of my favorites as well - top 5 at least. is absolutely in the que. I will watch and love absolutely anything that has the stunning Corday in the credits. Thanks for commenting.

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  28. Reportedly, Walt Disney chose Fess Parker to play Davy Crockett after seeing him in his bit part in Them. Disney had gone to see the movie to watch James Arness' performance, as he was considering Arness for the part of Crockett. I doubt if either Arness or Parker had any regrets about the way things worked out.

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