Them! (1954) – a film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper.

‘The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms’ did well enough for Warner Brothers that they followed it up with another monster film, ‘Them!’ In fact, ‘Them!’ was one of the better 50s Science Fiction films and one of only a handful that are still fairly effective forty years after it was made due in large part to some very intelligent script choices.

The style of the film begins as a straightforward police procedural in which the killer turns out to be giant mutated ants. The feel of the drama is no less than one would find in ‘Dragnet’. The terrible poster used in the ad campaign gives away that this is a monster movie but, with the exception of the comic scientist, the parts are all played with grim realism.

Certainly the opening does not immediately give a clue of what is to come. A girl is found wandering in the desert of New Mexico. The police investigate as they would a human crime and besides some odd clues there is no evidence that the police are not dealing with human criminals. Investigating is Police Sergeant Ben Peterson (played by James Whitmore) and his partner. As the police investigated keep finding apparent crime scenes and odd clues. The partner is killed after having been left at a crime scene.

One of the first victims was an FBI agent, so another agent is assigned to the case, Robert Graham (played by James Arness). He had been in two previous Science Fiction films: ‘Two Lost Worlds’ and, more notably, in the title role of ‘The Thing From Another World’. The plot unfolds tensely, but has time to have several comic vignettes. Some of the comedy involves entomologist Dr. Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn) brought in to when somebody discovers that the clues point to giant ants. Dr. Patricia Medford (played by Joan Weldon) appears as his daughter and scientist. Reportedly, one of the minor players built an entire career on this film. Walt Disney, who reportedly was a fan of ‘Them!’, saw Fess Parker and decided he would be a good Davy Crockett.

Some of the touches have their problems. Multiple times ant footprints are found, but always singly. Do ants hop on one foot? In the ant colony, Whitmore’s and Arness’ voices are muffled by their breathing gear, but Joan Weldon’s voice seems to be clear and unmuffled. The ant props are surprisingly well-handled to give the impression of many more ants were than props than there actually were. In fact, there is only one and a half adult ant mock-up built for the film and half of another that were used in the films.

The audience never sees more than one ant and a half ant in any one scene. The film was made in colour, by the way, and the ants were purple. ‘Them!’ was released in black and white and that probably helps the tension of the film.

BEST TOUCH: The combination of realism with the science fictional plot.

WORST TOUCH: The usual expository lectures about ant natural history seem particularly awkward.

This film stands up very well today because it was taken seriously by the filmmakers. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

© Mark R. Leeper 2020

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