Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Them!

THEM!

(1954)

Notes: Warner Brothers Pictures.
Ben Peterson: James Whitmore
Dr. Medford: Edmund Gwenn
Pat Medford: Joan Weldon
Robert Graham: James Arness
With Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, Chris Drake, Sandy Descher, Mary Ann Hokanson, Don Shelton, Fess Parker, Olin Howlin.

Directed: Gordon Douglas
Produced: David Weisbart
Screenplay: Ted Sherdeman
Adaptation: Russell Hughes
Story: George Worthing Yates
Music: Bronislau Kaper


Summary: A plane flies over the New Mexico desert and is in contact with two cops, Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn. They find a traumatized girl wandering and a wrecked trailer with blood stains 10 to 12 hours old. Oddly, the place is caved out, and some sugar ravaging is noticeable. Maybe a bobcat? “Car 5W” calls medics for the kid: “looks like a 914…. 10-10.” They hear a high-pitched noise. A freakish wind or sandstorm “kicking up”?

Next, Gramps Johnson’s store is a wreck. While a radio in the background reports a World Health Organization speech touting the glory of chemicals in the war on diseases, the cops find Gramps dead in the cellar. Sugar is spilled again and is infested with ants. Cop Ed stays there while the other goes, but he soon hears noise outside, investigates, shoots, and screams.

Ben is distraught over Ed’s death. We await fingerprints and wonder if mental institutions have reported missing loons. Gramps had “got off” four shots. The girl is the daughter of an FBI agent Ellison on vacation with his wife, both dead. Robert Graham, another FBI guy arrives and we learn from the coroner that one of the victims had his neck and back broken and his skull crushed, and that he had enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.

Dr. Medford and his daughter Pat deplane and Graham (“Bob” to Pat) is pissy about an atomic test bomb exploded nine years earlier and the scientists’ caution: “There’s no need to play footsie with us!” Medford examines the little girl, who comes out of her stupor screaming, “Them! Them!”

Back in the desert we all wear goggles and look for cone-shaped mounds. When Pat mentions that Dad is a Myrmecologist, Bob pitches a fit about “speak[ing] English!” Medford finds a print and we worry about “nationwide panic.”

Pat explores a bit and is terrorized by a gigantic ant. The others shoot at it, instructed by Medford to aim for the antennae. The thing is machine-gunned down and we speculate about lingering radiation leading to mutations. Its mandibles hold the victims, but its horn poisons them with formic acid. And they can send messages among themselves. Medford ponders the possibility of a “biblical prophecy come true,” but that’s a stretch.

In helicopters we all look for the main nest which should contain anywhere from hundreds to thousands of the ants. Medford and his daughter have to be coached in the use of militaristic language and codes for radio communication. Ultimately we decide ants don’t like desert heat, so we wait until it’s hot and bomb the hell out of the nest with bazookas and artillery. Then the nest is blasted with cyanide gas. Bob fights with Pat about going down, but they all do with gas masks making them look insecty. They find the queen’s chamber and the eggs and use flamethrowers throughout it. Empty egg cases mean two winged queens took off with males and they’re “capable of laying thousands of eggs.” “We haven’t seen the end of them.”

Medford shows an educational film about ants being chronic aggressors, the only creatures besides man who make war. Their talents lie in savagery and social organization. A media blackout gives rise to flying saucer rumors. Fess Parker in a loony bin claims to have seen flying saucers, clearly the ants. Bob makes sure he’s kept locked up even though the psychiatrists know he’s sane.

Panama to Santa Barbara needs alerting, but a ship was sunk at sea. Perhaps one of the queens climbed into the hold when the ship was docked. After interviewing drunks and hussies, the authorities are led to the riverbed, actually the city viaduct with its stormdrains. A woman claims her husband and two kids are missing and were playing with their toy plane. L.A. is under martial law with kerfews and Cold War news panics.

The two brats are rescued thanks to better communication among rescuers like Ben in the drains. Ben is pinched by an ant and dies. Bob is attacked but they find the new queen’s chamber and “burn ’em out.”

The first bomb was dropped in 1945. But “what about all the others that have been exploded since then?” Have we “opened a door to a new world?”


Commentary: The film was to have been in color and 3D, with the giant ants running rampant in the New York subways. But budget cuts removed filming to the desert near Los Angeles. Further budget cuts two days before shooting meant no color nor 3D. This turned out the most profitable movie of the year, inspiring other giant bug flicks, such as Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis, The Black Scorpion.

Relationships between heroes and enemies are usually productive lines of inquiry in monster movies. Here the humans are unaware of their imitation of their ant enemies when they don goggles and gas masks. They never compare their own poor or later improved skills of organizaed communication with that of their enemies. But essentially here, the more they imitate ants the better they do against them.

On a delightful note, James Whitmore now sells Miracle-Gro.