Original film poster
|Directed by||Gordon Douglas|
|Produced by||David Weisbart|
|Written by||Ted Sherdeman
George Worthing Yates (story)
|Music by||Bronislau Kaper|
|Editing by||Thomas Reilly|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Release date(s)||June 19, 1954|
|Running time||94 min.|
|Box office||$2.2 million (US)|
Them! is a 1954 American black and white science fiction film about a nest of gigantic irradiated ants. It is based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates. It was developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes for Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., and was produced by David Weisbart and directed by Gordon Douglas. It starred James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon and James Arness.
One of the first of the "nuclear monster" movies, and the first "big bug" film, Them! was nominated for an Oscar for Special Effects and won a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing. The film starts off as a simple suspense story, with police investigating mysterious disappearances and unexplained deaths. The giant ants are not seen until almost a third of the way into the film.
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New Mexico State Police troopers Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) discover a little girl in shock, wandering the desert near Alamogordo. They retrace her steps to a mobile home owned by an FBI agent named Ellinson, who was on vacation in the area with his wife and two children. The side of the trailer was ripped open from the outside, and the rest of the family is missing and presumed dead. The girl briefly responds when strange sounds echo out of the desert wind, but the troopers and a medic miss this.
More mysterious deaths and disappearances occur in the area. A general store owner named "Gramps" Johnson is found dead in his store, which was literally torn apart. No money was taken from the register, but a barrel of sugar was smashed open. Gramps' empty rifle has been fired and is twisted out of shape. Peterson leaves to check on the little girl and make a report, leaving Blackburn to guard Gramps' store. Not long afterward, Blackburn hears a strange noise outside and leaves to investigate. Off-camera, there is the sound of gunshots, the strange sound gets louder, and Blackburn screams.
A single strange footprint bigger than a mountain lion’s is found near the trailer, and a plaster cast of it is made and sent to Washington, D.C. The police think there is a maniac killer on the loose, but Peterson's boss points out that Gramps, a known marksman, fired all of his ammunition at his attacker. Even more puzzling is the coroner's determination of Johnson's cause of death: broken neck and back, skull fracture, crushed abdomen, and "enough formic acid in his body to kill twenty men".
FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) is unable to identify the footprint, and it attracts the attention of Harold (Edmund Gwenn) and Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), a father/daughter team of entomologists from the Department of Agriculture. Harold has a theory, but he won't present it until he tries an experiment on the Ellinson girl and examines the footprint site. He exposes the girl to formic acid, reviving her from a catatonic state; she screams, "Them! Them!"
Harold's theory is validated when he sees the footprint, measuring eighteen centimeters across. Both Graham and Peterson are frustrated that Medford has not revealed his theory, but Harold explains that he is trying to avoid a nationwide panic. Pat encounters an eight foot long specimen of foraging ant. The lawmen fire their revolvers at the monster, to little effect. On Harold's advice, Peterson and Graham shoot off the creature's antennae, blinding it, and then kill it by firing a submachine gun into it. Harold finally relents and reveals that the ant was mutated by radiation from the first atom bomb tests, conducted near Alamogordo.
A U.S. Air Force General O'Brien (Onslow Stevens) brings in a squadron to locate the ants' nest and exterminate the inhabitants with poison gas. Pat finds evidence that two queens have hatched but are absent; they have flown away to establish new colonies. Trying to avoid a general panic, the government covertly investigates reports of unusual activity or sightings of "flying saucers".
One report leads them to a rail yard where a crushed boxcar is missing its cargo of forty tons of sugar. Another report takes them to a Brownsville, Texas, hospital and a pilot who claims that his small plane was forced down by UFOs resembling giant ants. One of the queens is finally discovered, having invaded the hold of a freighter. The vessel is sunk by a U.S. Navy cruiser. The investigators use unusual methods to ensure that the general public does not learn about the ants.
An alcoholic in a Los Angeles hospital "drunk tank" reveals that he saw giant ants flying around outside his window. The investigators receive a report of a man and his two young sons who have disappeared while flying a model airplane near the Los Angeles River; the man's mutilated body and the airplane are found near a large storm drain system. Given the significant threat to the city, the U.S. Army holds a press conference to reveal the existence of the giant ants. The Army declares martial law and a curfew for the city. More troops are assigned to the area to find and assault the new nest.
Peterson finds the two missing boys alive deep in the storm drain, but they are trapped near the ants' nest. He calls for reinforcements but goes in alone to rescue the boys. He gets the boys to safety, but before he can escape he is mortally wounded by an ant. Graham arrives with reinforcements and they fight off the swarming ants. A cave-in temporarily cuts off Graham from the rest of the men; several ants charge him, but he is able to hold them off long enough for the other troops to tunnel through the debris and come to his rescue. The queen and egg chamber are then destroyed with flamethrowers.
Harold issues a grim warning that "The atomic genie has been let out of the bottle," and further horrors may await mankind. "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, no one can predict."
Other actors who appear in small parts include John Beradino, Willis Bouchey, Booth Colman, Richard Deacon, Lawrence Dobkin, Ann Doran, William Schallert, Douglas Spencer, Dub Taylor and Harry Wilson.
When casting his planned Davy Crockett episode of the Disneyland television show, Walt Disney viewed the film to see James Arness, who had been recommended for the role. However, Disney was impressed by a brief scene of Fess Parker in the mental ward of a Texas hospital. Disney realized he had found his Crockett. John Wayne saw this movie and, impressed with Arness' performance, recommended him for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, a role that lasted from 1955 to 1975.
When Them! began production in the fall of 1953, it was originally conceived to be in 3-D and WarnerColor. During pre-production, tests were to be shot in color and 3-D. A few color tests were shot of the large-scale ant models, but when it was time to shoot the 3-D test, WB's "All Media" 3-D camera rig malfunctioned and no footage could be filmed. The next day, a memo was sent out that the color and 3-D aspects of the film were to be scrapped, and that black and white and wide-screen would be the preferred format, trying to emulate the "effective shock treatment" of Warners' The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Ultimately the film was not shot in wide-screen. Because of the preparation of certain shots, however, many of the camera set-ups for 3-D still remain, such as the opening titles and flame-throwers that are shot at the camera.
Although WB was dissatisfied with the color results, the opening titles were printed in color against a black and white background to give the opening of the film a "punch". This effect was achieved by an EastmanColor section spliced into each print. The VHS release in 1985, the subsequent laserdisc, and the current DVD release have retained this effect.
The entrance to the ants' final nest was along the concrete spillways of the Los Angeles River between the First and Seventh Street Bridges, east of downtown. The depiction of the Chihuahua Desert of southern New Mexico is actually the Mojave Desert near Palmdale, California. Mercy Hospital was a real institution and is now Brownsville Medical Center. The geography of South Texas is unusually accurate for Hollywood.
Whitmore wore "lifts" on his shoes to compensate for the height difference between himself and Arness. It has also been noted that Whitmore employed bits of "business" (hand gestures and motions) during scenes in which he appeared to draw attention to his character when not speaking.
The Wilhelm scream, created three years earlier for the film Distant Drums, is used multiple times during the action sequences, e.g., when a wooden beam falls on top of a soldier in the storm-drain sequence.
The giant ants were constructed and operated by unseen technicians supervised by Ralph Ayers, and were actually purpleish-green in color. However, during the climactic battle sequence in the Los Angeles sewers, there is a brief shot of one ant moving in the foreground with its side removed, revealing its mechanical interior. This "glitch" has been obscured in recent DVD releases of the film.
The New York Times review noted " . . . from the moment James Whitmore, playing a New Mexico state trooper, discovers a six-year-old moppet wandering around the desert in a state of shock, to the time when the cause of that mental trauma is traced and destroyed, Them! is taut science-fiction." "Brog" in Variety opined it was a "top-notch science fiction shocker. It has a well-plotted story, expertly directed and acted in a matter-of-fact style to rate a chiller payoff and thoroughly satisfy the fans of hackle-raising melodrama."
Since its original release, Them! has become generally regarded as one of the very best science-fiction films of the 1950s. Bill Warren described the film as “… tight, fast-paced and credible…[T]he picture is suspenseful." Phil Hardy’s The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction noted, "Directed by [Gordon] Douglas in semi-documentary fashion, Them! is one of the best American science-fiction films of the fifties." Danny Peary believed the film "Ranks with The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the best of the countless fifties science fiction films." Of the 24 reviewers included in a Rotten Tomatoes survey of critics regarding the title, 100% reflect a positive reaction.
The film is rated M in New Zealand.in Australia and
American Film Institute Lists
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