Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness
DIR: Gordon Douglas
Blurb: Man has split the atom and ushered in a new era. But how could he know he would also create Them?
Them! (1954) is a landmark movie about giant radiation-mutated ants that gets better with age and boasts remarkable, Academy Award-nominated special effects. Starring (yadda-yadda), Them! begins in New Mexico [spoiler, spoiler for the entire basic set up of the movie and its ending] ... they spawned a generation of films about radioactive creatures. Some approximate the terror but few have equalled the artistry of Them!
My Blurb: Wow, that back cover is wordy. And it says way too much! Also, you can forget about that ... creative... cover artwork. You'll not see any ants sporting bloodshot, cat-eyes with obvious forward-facing binocular vision. Apparently, someone had never seen an actual ant, before -- or they wanted to grace us with alien ant-monsters.
Also, I really love the way that this DVD opens -- we get sounds from the movie presented through the radio broadcaster, ending with the noise-effects for the ants that makes it sound like L.A. is in pandemonium. It was nicely put together. Spoilers within, naturally.
Scene 01: We open on a prolonged shot of the desert landscape during a minor earthquake as the credits roll. Oh, wait, no, it's a static shot... it's just bouncing around unintentionally.
Commentary: And I want to give my second kudo -- after that first one for the opening menu screen presentation -- to the music director, Bronislau Kaper. This theme music is really distinct in ways that many of the 50/60's era films that I've reviewed don't match. I really like it.
Scene 02: The movie proper begins with a low flying, small plane gliding over the desert. We soon see that this plane is a working vehicle for the New Mexico State Police.
Scene 03: The pilot calls down to a pair of cops in the vehicle driving beneath him. Our two officers are Sgt. Ben Peterson and his partner, Trooper Ed Blackburn.
The pilot reports that whatever they're out looking for must've been a crank, because he doesn't see anything out of the usual. But then, conveniently, he says oops- there's something.
Through vehicle-windshield-pov we see the little plane fly over the road and dip its wing ahead of us.
Scene 04: We rejoin our pilot as he makes a gentle turn to stare at something out on the scrubgrassed landscape. He & we see a little girl wandering in what looks like a bathrobe!
Little girl shows no obvious signs of having taken notice of said plane over her head.
Scene 05: Back in our radio car, Pilot reports in that he's spotted the previously reported little girl. He reports he'll circle around her until the car-cops reach her.
Commentary: Leading to my first question: WHO the hell reports in that a little girl in a robe is wandering the desert by herself -- BUT DOESN'T STOP TO CHECK ON HER?!?
Scene 06: We return to watching the plane make a low pass over the little girl, who continue to trudge with a look of blank shock.
She gives no notice of having heard the plane just behind her and continues to trudge forward in an apparent daze.
Scene 07: When Ben and Ed reach the scene, Ben calls out to her, but she doesn't respond except to continue her single-minded trudge through the desert.
Ben and Ed share a glance with one another, before Ben runs off the road to intercept our wanderer. She continues to be unresponsive to his calls for her attention.
Even when he's waving a hand before her face, there is just a blank from her. Ben scoops her up and brings her back to the car.
Meanwhile, Ed receives a radio call from pilot. He reports that there is a trailer-house pulled to the side of the road further up from their position, that may explain the little girl's being out there.
Ben arrives and confirms to Ed that she appears to be in shock, but that she couldn't have been out there for long as she's not looking sunburned. Ed reports in that our pilot reported a car and trailer ahead.
Scene 08: We timeskip to minutes later with Ed, Ben and Little Girl in the front seat. She remains blankly passive as they drive down the road. The motion of the car sends Little Girl into a doze, just as the officers are arriving at the car and trailer. No one seems to be about.
Ed gets out of the car to check things out, but quickly calls to Ben that he needs to see something. Even as Ben jostles the Little Girl around like a doll as he gets out of the car, she remains in blissful unconsciousness in an abnormal manner.
Commentary: And give it up to our little actress. Sandy Descher has done a great job for what little her character has to do. She's been careful not to look directly at James Whitmore during their scenes, when he's laying her down across the seat as he gets out of the car, she really does look boneless in sleep, and if you look, you can see a fly that made it into the car crawling across her fingers... but she doesn't react a whit.
Scene 09: When Ben joins Ed, they find the little trailer with the entire side torn open.
Inside, the scene isn't much better. A quick look around reveals no body else there, but they find a ripped up shirt covered in blood. Ben guesses it's 10 to 12 hours old. They also find money on the floor, suggesting that whatever befell little girl's family wasn't a violent robbery.
Ed goes to check the perimeter.
Scene 10: We follow Ben to the back of the tiny trailer in what would've been the sleeping quarters, where he finds a gun lying on the floor. He uses a pencil to pick this up by the barrel to preserve fingerprint evidence. He gives it a quick sniff to see if it's been fired recently and then lays it back down.
[I see Sara Sidle arriving and throwing a complete fit over his moving evidence around like that.]
Ben continues to look through a cupboard, where he finds bits of robe and a piece of broken doll's head - indicative of the Little Girl's recently having balled herself up in it.
Scene 11: When he rejoins Ed, the younger officer reports it definitely wasn't a traffic accident. Ben agrees, pointing out that the walls weren't shoved in, but pulled outward. Ed also reports no footprints [well, presumably he's an aware enough cop to notice the little girl's at least] or tire treadmarks [except, presumably the family sedan and trailer].
He did take note of a few sugar cubelettes scattered about, which is odd enough. He next calls Ben's attention to some odd and distinct marks in the sand a few feet from the trailer. Ed first thinks bobcat, but says they never come down into the desert and Bob confirms that the track, whatever it was that made it, wasn't from a cat's foot.
Ben sends Ed back to the car to radio in for the mid-50's CSI. With it obvious they're going to be there a while, he also has Ed call for medics to pick up Little Girl.
Scene 12: At the car, as Ed is radioing in, Ben confirms the piece of doll and the bits of robe are from Little Unconscious Girl.
Scene 13: Later, our officers have been joined by a photographer and a cast-maker. Ben joins the ambulance driver as he tucks Little Girl into the back, who remains blissfully unaware of anything around her.
Just then, from out of the desert an odd noise that they can't identify is heard coming from off in the distance.
It's a chirping, whirring sound. Little Girl seems to recognize it, because she reacts by sitting up in her ambulance cot. The men with her don't notice the look of terror that briefly is on her face as their attention is on the sound. As it fades out, she lies back down on her cot, the fearful look replaced by the blank acceptance again.
As the ambulance driver wraps things up in back for the drive into town, Ben rejoins the cast-maker, who says he can't even guess what the impression they found might be.
Ben rejoins his partner, stating that they've done what they could there. He suggests they go up to the in-the-middle-on-nowhere store to see if maybe the proprietor might've seen the family earlier.
Commentary: I want to take a moment to discuss pacing a bit here. Because, as you can see we've spent an extended amount of time with a trailer in the desert doing not-much of anything. In past reviews, I've been quite critical of dragging pacing issues for scenes that go on and on without giving us anything while here I'm not. I paused the movie at this point and tried to figure out why, exactly, I found this scene just beginning to get a bit slow, but didn't feel the need to rag on this film for that when in a lesser movie I may have.
I think the difference in perspective is really down to what is happening around the scene. In a dialog heavy setting, a lot can be made of having extras in the background performing tasks, side-players like our Little Girl reacting, and things like sound and movement occurring [the Them sounds, the wind picking up, the sand blowing] that keeps things from being dead weight.
In a similar scene where we're ahead of our characters, these type of scenes could've brought the movie to a screeching halt if it was only Ben and a person in a room dumping out dialog -- and sharing things that we've already intuited. In a similar scene in another movie, I would've been commenting that the scene wasn't doing anything, and wishing they'd get on with it... especially in a killer-animal flick where I want to see some carnage.
But, by simply having the scene outdoor - rather than in a plain office where such a scene could've taken place - we're able to stay in the moment with the officers and the lab techs until we reach the point where another clue is presented in the THEM-sounds coming from offscreen.
I guess what I'm saying is that it's easy to rag on dialog heavy scenes talking about things which we as viewers already understand when you've got two people in a neutral place gabbing in a static shot. It's the context of the scene that saves these type of necessary nuts-and-bolts scenes from being deadly to pacing. Filmmakers should always have things happening around the folks chatting, and should always open the viewpoint a bit more than they usually do. Nothing is more boring than having an unending close up shot of two people talking at one another. This movie saves such scenes by having the location and background characters helping out.
So despite spending 10 minutes so far with a Little Girl Lost being unresponsive, and a pair of cops having no answers about what is going on, the pacing of the scenes isn't a deadly turn to the film. We're being given plenty for our eyes and ears to do as we sift through the "we know nothing but what we see" dialog.
That's why, in another film, if we were on scene 13 and still in our same location and investigating our same lack of evidence I would've been complaining about pacing issues but here I don't feel the need to. Just as the scene is starting to drag, we have things happening to distract -- in ways that other films fail by setting such dialog in a plain, grey office.
Scene 14: It's after dark, when the squad car pulls up at the middle-of-the-desert general store. The wind has picked up to a constant howl and sand is obscuringly blowing around.
Ben and Ed walk into the store to find a scene of devastation within. Everything is torn up, very much like the little trailer they'd just left.
They shout out for "gramps", but all they hear as far as human voices is a radio from the back.
There they find the leftovers of dinner on the table and kettles of water on the wood burning stove. In the wreckage, Ben finds gramps' rifle on the floor, its barrel bent and nearly broken off.
Further, there is a crawlspace door half open. When our officers open it, they find the body of gramps -- the open eyes suggesting that he's made his exit from the world.
As our officers are dealing with this, they notice that the entire wall of the store is missing... just like the wall of the trailer. And, like at the trailer, they find sugar spread around the area.
[And, I like the clever nod toward our monster, as we see normal sized ants swarming through the spilled sugar.]
Ben then confirms that the money in the register wasn't touched -- just like the dollars on the floor of Little Girl's trailer hadn't been taken.
Ben tells Ed that he's going to radio the lab guys to come out there, but that he wants to get to the hospital to be there when Little Girl starts talking. Ed says he'll stay and secure the scene, catching a ride in with the lab techs.
[Oh, poor silly and doomed partner....]
Scene 15: As we hear the car pull away, Ed turns off the radio. He then hears the odd chirp-whirr from the desert.
Drawing his gun, Ed turns off the light and then creeps up to the opening in the store wall. With the sounds getting louder, Ed wanders out into the blowing sands. We stay in the general store, watching blowing sand in front of the window. We can hear several gunshots, whirring and then the last cry of a doomed police officer. The desert sands pick up and obscure the window as the whirring noise gets even louder.
Scene 16: Sometime later, a group of men including the Captain and our Sgt. Ben are sitting in an office. On the table are the scant pieces of evidence collected from the trailer, as well as Ed's gun and cap [Bagging & Tagging?? Oh, you silly little audience and your fancy-shmancy evidence handling techniques...].
The Captain is a bit flabbergasted that all they know so far is the name of who owned the trailer. Ben is sitting hunched over, clearly devastated over leaving his partner at the general store alone, only to have him missing now.
Captain isn't a complete hardass and recognizes what Ben is going through. He tells Ben to stop blaming himself; somebody had to stay at the store to secure it, and it just happened to be Ed. Ben claims to know that, but it is weighing on his shoulders.
He next turns to the lab tech with them and asks if he's been able to identify the odd print taken from outside the trailer, but that is so far a nothing. The Captain tries to walk his way through the crime scene, but none of it makes sense, as tearing down half the wall seems a stretch if the idea was just to kill "gramps" over a vendetta of some sort [it clearly isn't robbery as a motive].
Ben tells Captain that he's checking the local asylums, but Captain points out that will be a dead end, too. Gramps got off 4 shots and Ed was a great shot. Unless the maniac was armored like a battleship, he'd have been found full of lead -- plus there is gramp's bent to hell rifle.
Da Captain orders all available manpower to scour the desert and suggests he'll go to his boss for more help if their two local police planes aren't enough for the task. As he is issuing orders, including telling Ben to get some food and some sleep, an officer comes in with results from the fingerprints collected. They discover that Mr. Ellinson was FBI on a vacation with his family. Ben is instructed to call in the Feds.
Commentary: And here is an example of what I was talking about above in regards to pacing. Whereas all of the detective work at the scene wasn't dull because there was plenty of things going on, movement of characters, etc., here we're in the static office of grey. The Captain does walk around a bit, but the scene is very still and full of talking about things we've already seen. Now the scene itself isn't exactly unnecessary -- it's de rigeur to show the police stymied -- but it definitely could've been shortened, perhaps by having us come into the tail end of the discussion and just getting the bullet points of what they haven't figured out and then move on.
The scene runs a bit long for the audience because we're already way ahead of the police, and there isn't anything to keep our wandering attention engaged as they rehash things we've witnessed. This would've actually been better if Captain and Ben were onsite, outside of the store as a different perspective from what we've seen, just before the finding of the missing Ed's gun & cap. They could give us both the info dump of what they've not figured out, and had movement and a discovery in the scene to keep our eyes from glazing over.
Scene 17: A short time later, the hulking James Arness shows up as FBI Agent Robert Graham. Ben explicates that they've been out to the sites all day already, and Robert is just as stumped as our local PD over what exactly happened out there.
As the men chat about the bizarreness facing them, Robert's attention is taken by the odd cast. Captain hopes it looks familiar to him, but no dice. Captain mentions that one of the officers had taken it to the Zoology Department at the local university, but they didn't know what to make of it, either.
Ben brings up their only witness, but Captain tells him she's had no change from her catatonia. The Medical Examiner then arrives to give the update on what was found in Gramps' autopsy: Broken back and neck, Crushed chest, Fractured skull ... and the kicker -- he had enough Formic Acid to kill off 20 men.
Scene 18: We fade-cut to a telegraph message.
We jump out and we see the message is being held by Ben who is at the small airport waiting for the plane's arrival. With him is Robert. Ben and Robert are both confused as to what the Department of Agriculture's interest could be, but we find out that this is sometime later after Robert had sent a copy of the print found to Washington, D.C.
Our new arrival is a doddering professor. But of more interest is 'OH MY GOD -- A WOMAN!!!!' who gets off the plane with him and immediately sparks Robert's interest, because 'OH MY GOD -- A WOMAN!!!!!!!!!!!!'
Our doddering professor is Doctor Medford, while our WOMAN! is Pat, also Doctor Medford. Robert makes comments to Ben about Pat's being hot.
Scene 19: In the police office, the Doctors Medford review the clues so far, and are most interested in the ME's report on Gramps.
Commentary: What I really liked here, is the touch of having the elder Medford address his daughter as "Doctor" when he hands over the report for her inspection. It's an unusual sign of respect and equality that you don't often see in movies of this vintage, where you'd expect Mr. Medford to be "Doctor" and the younger to always be only "Pat". The fact that her father, who could be forgiven for only using her name, is the one to address her by title while they're working was great.
As Pat is reviewing the results, Harold asks about the White Sands atomic tests and finds out from Robert that they were in the same area as the now missing Ellinson's, Gramps' store, and the latest missing Ed. Harold tells Pat the timeline would fit for the genetic blah-blah, but naturally won't tell Robert or Ben anything because "we have to be sure before we can tell you anything", which Robert resents.
Commentary: Okay, so let's take a minute to address the Giantification Elephant in the room. Obvs, these ants could never exist because of the problems of surface area vs. mass that would play havoc with multiple systems including the ability to support their own weight, absorption of nutrients and even oxygen. Please -- You think I care??
You cannot be a giant monster fan (of which, I am) and still be concerned by these silly issues. So, no -- radiation cannot produce some genetic anomaly and cause gigantic-proportioned ants... or mantises... or tarantulas... or lizards who can also breath atomic breath. I hand wave it all.
Harold next insists that they visit the Ellinson girl over the objections of Ben that she's still unresponsive and of no help.
Scene 20: At the hospital, [she's not given a first name, so now it's Sandy Ellinson] Sandy is still sitting completely in her own little world. Harold retrieves a sample of formic acid from Patricia and in a glass holds this under Sandy's nose.
The results only take a few moments and is dramatic. Sandy jumps up out of her chair and screeches about "THEM!"
Having gotten the results that he expected, Harold then orders them all back to the desert, despite Robert's pointing out that it is getting late.
Scene 21: At the site of the Ellinson's campsite, there is nothing left to see due to the high winds and sandstorms sweeping the area. Harold asks Ben about reports of mounds, perhaps cone shaped, but no such reports have been received that he knows of. She mentions to her father that if they're right about the nature of what is going on, the mystery would definitely turn carnivorous due to the lack of a stable diet.
Robert interrupts to get answers about what Pat and Harold suspect, but she won't give it up until her father decides he is positive.
Commentary: Yes, it is annoyingly coy! But, I can almost justify this one in-universe by the news that they're dealing with giant, mutated ants as being so preposterous that the scientists feel they must be absolutely sure before they will even think of voicing such an opinion to those in authority. The touch of Law Enforcement vs. Science is cliche, to be sure, but was perhaps less so(?) at the time the movie was made. And I don't like how Robert gets up in Pat's face like he does, but at least he seems aware that he was coming on a bit strong and backs off a bit.
Scene 22: Harold calls Pat over to check out a print in the sand against a tree that hasn't been completely obliterated yet [and again, Harold addresses Pat as 'Doctor' as he's discussing work].
Robert again demands answers, this time from Harold, but the old man insists he isn't being coy. He states that if he's wrong, then no harm will be done, but if he's right, there could be a national panic. He simply will not reveal his theory about "IT" until he knows that he knows that he knows.
Scene 23: Meanwhile, Pat is wandering looking for other shielded locations where more prints might be located. She finds at the foot of a rock escarpment. As she's brushing at the sand around the print, we hear the whirr-chirp.
Pat is confronted by a Giant Black Ant [and it is sooo cute!]. Our lawmen leap into action with their guns, as Harold tells them they need to disable the attenae. Meanwhile, Ben gets a submachine gun - apparently this small time police department carries heavy weaponry as standard - from the car. He's able to kill the ant [which dies with a muted roar, because it has apparently also grown vocal chords as giant monsters seem to do - whatever their starting nature].
With the ant's death, Harold's hypothesis is correct -- they're dealing with a nest of mutated ants. They discuss the formic acid scent around the carcass and Harold points out the ant's stinger, confirming it is how Gramps ended up with a body loaded with the stuff.
As Harold is pointing out that there has to be a colony in the area, more whirr-chirps are heard. Everyone stands their guard, but the noises fade into the distance. Harold warns that they may be looking at the end of times if the ants are breeding out of control. He quotes the Bible about the beasts reigning over the Earth.
Scene 24: On that cheery note, we join Ben and Harold later in a copter scouting the desert landscape for signs of the nest. For reasons, a GENERAL is PILOTING! He asks the doctor for details on how many ants they may be fighting. The doctor shocks them by stating it could be hundreds - even thousands if the nest is old enough.
General also wonders about their not being noticed up to now, but the doctor supposes that in addition to being in the middle of nowhere, they're also a recent phenomena. We get mild comic relief as doddering doctor refuses to figure out the rules to making a call from his copter to the search team B copter in which Pat is riding.
Scene 25: Aboard Search Team B, Robert asks after Pat's dad and her obvious worry. She worries that he isn't a young man anymore and shouldn't have made the trip. They then run across a giant hole in the ground, with a mound surrounding it. As Pat has the pilot hover, a worker ant comes out of the nest carrying the ribcage of a person for disposal.
Commentary: The scenes aboard the copters are, naturally, blue screened and look it but I was impressed with the special effects of having the copter circling behind the ant, with both in the same shot. Also, despite the giant ants being obvious puppetry, the effects team did a wonderful job with their realization in practical effects - especially the full-body mock-ups. The only bit that doesn't quite work for me is the eyes -- but they're not as bad as the cover!
As the rib cage rolls down the mound, we see Ed's belt and bits of his uniform. Charming.
Scene 26: Back at the office, the General informs Harold that he's been instructed to follow the doctor's orders in regards to killing the ants, but he's a bit frustrated at the scientist's insistence that the operation both be speedy and immediate, and yet completely kept secreted from anyone else. It's difficult to see how he can do both.
He suggests calling in bombers - but Harold goes on to explain why that won't work. Specifically, he tells the General that they must attack during the hottest part of the day, when the colony will be sheltering from the heat in the nest. A night attack would result in half of the nest missing - further, the nest is likely to be much too deep for conventional bombs to reach the all important queen.
With water shot down, as there isn't a line anywhere nearby to divert it and there isn't any chance of seeding clouds, a plan is hatched to fire phosphorus around the opening, making the surface so hot the ants will stay in place. They'll then drop cyanide down the tunnel opening to exterminate them. The General worries that they won't know if they've killed them all, but Harold states they'll have to go in to find out after the operation. This is met by Drama-Stings.
Scene 27: The plan is carried out the following day. Naturally, Robert and Ben are intimately involved in loading/firing bazooka shells.
Once completed and the fires have mostly died down, it also falls to Robert and Ben to deliver the cyanide cannisters down the ant hill opening.
A scout pokes its head out, but is summarily gassed as it backs away deeper into the nest. Excited-Horns BLARE.
Scene 28: Later still, after the phosphorus fires have died away, it's time to take a trip down into the ant tunnels. Guesses about which two men will be the ones to enter the lair?
But as Robert is securing a rope for the climb down, Pat shows up with her camera. The men get a pair of flamethrowers. Robert objects to Pat going in with them, but she points out that they need someone down there who knows what they're looking for. No one mentions that she could wait until it's secure, and then go down. But Bob does tries to forbid her from going -- Harold tells him that being a scientist himself, he can't very well forbade her from doing a researcher's job and he's far too old for the strenuous activity. Rob must pissily accept the state of affairs.
Scene 29: In the nest, our trio wear gas masks as the cyanide hasn't dissipated fully. They make their way past dozens of dead soldier ants and continue downward into lower chambers.
Commentary: This is some particularly good set work, except perhaps for the too much light. But it is appropriately ominous and the giant dead ants they pass does give the scene some frisson. The behind the scenes staff really did an excellent job with the ant-related details.
Scene 30: As they are walking, a sound catches the group's attention. This is sand falling from a wall. This is an ant, digging through the tunnel wall in an attempt to make an escape. He's quickly torched.
Commentary: Flame throwers lighting things up is never not cool.
Scene 31: A while later, and they've reached the Queen's Chamber in the nest, where a bunch of dead workers and egg sacks lie around. Pat finds something that scares her... some eggs that have already hatched. Robert offers that anything that had come out must still be dead, but Pat insists that the hatchlings aren't in the nest. She orders everything burned behind them and rushes back toward the surface to share her findings with her father.
Scene 32: Later, after her film is developed, she reports that there were no signs of pupae at all - as if the ants had hatched directly from the eggs. The thing feared is that the hatchlings were Queens themselves... complete with wings and that they and their winged-male paramours have already separated from the colony prior to its destruction, able to start new nests wherever they land.
Scene 33: Later, again, we're in Washington, D.C. where Harold and Pat brief The Pentagon about what they're facing.
Commentary: Unfortunately, the briefing is carried out with a Junior High nature film and is basically Ant Biology 101, which is a bit dull. But this is combined with the next scene of all of the "prep-work" before the Queen's are located, which makes this section of the movie the most protracted with very little going on to hold interest.
Scene 34: We next join a Senator as he's rushed away in his private car. The media is there, with reporters complaining that they've gotten no information about the mysterious 3am briefing and are frustrated by the new blackout. Senator tells them he can't share a thing.
Scene 35: Upstairs at the same building, a command center has been set up with agents collecting police reports from all over the southwest looking for any strange phenomena that could be indicators of giant ant activity. Due to fears of widespread panic, everything is being kept as quiet as possible.
One such report is from a pilot currently being held in a Psychiatric Hospital for reporting a UFO shaped like a flying ant that brought his plane down outside Brownsville, Texas. The report is stamped and handed upstairs, and we find out that even those taking reports of the strange don't know why.
Scene 36: Above the gatherers, Pat and Bob get ready to head to Texas to follow up. Harold and Ben remain in Washington.