Alien Invasion Month: ‘THEM!’
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by Ted Sherdeman
In that filled-to-bursting canon of 1950s science fiction cinema, movies range from true film classics – like the Hawksian The Thing from Another World (1951), and that alarm bell about human desensitization, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – to cheapie craptasmagoriums like Beginning of the End (1957 – giant grasshoppers crawling over photographs of downtown Chicago), and It Conquered the World (1956 – “It” being an alien that looks like a devil-faced carrot with lobster claws). I’d go as far as to say the consensus is probably there’s just a few of the former, and a whole stinking pile of the latter. But scattered (thinly, I’d have to say) between those poles are movies neither classic nor crap, but made with enough craftsmanship to be eminently and repeatably watchable. You know: just good, damned fun! One of my faves from that group: Them! (1954).
A small girl is found wandering through the New Mexico desert, mute with shock. Her vacationing family’s trailer is found torn apart, her mother and father missing. Since her dad was an FBI agent, that bring Fed James Arness out to help local cop James Whitmore with the investigation. One thing leads to another and they find themselves confronted with a nest of 12-foot-long ants; mutants created by the first desert nuke tests. The nest is destroyed but not before a queen ant escapes and sets up housekeeping in the storm sewers of Los Angeles which leads to a bing-bang-boom climax as Army troops go head-to-head with the ant army.
Ok, in synopsis, it sounds like just another Giant Bug Movie (actually, Them! was the first Giant Bug Movie, and its success instigated a parade of giant spiders, grasshoppers, scorpions, Gila monsters, crabs, shrews, leeches, praying mantises, and even – I swear, I’m not lying – giant mutated bunny rabbits across drive-in screens). But a lot of what keeps Them! so easily watchable 60 years later owes a lot to screenwriter Ted Sherdeman (who took over adapting George Worthing Yates original treatment when the first screenwriter, Russell Huges, died suddenly) and director Gordon Douglas.
Sherdeman (who was also the prime mover in getting the film made) treats the story about as intelligently as you can treat a story about big bugs, and shrewdly as well. The ants are kept off-screen for nearly the whole first third of the film which plays out more like a terse, hard-edged Dragnet-like police procedural than a monster pic. And even after, Sherdeman keeps his script smart…and witty.
As Whitmore and Arness accompany lady bug professor Joan Weldon through the desert nest, she points out how the ants secured their tunnel walls with saliva. “Spit’s all that’s holding me together right now, too,” cracks Whitmore.
Sherdeman’s efforts to keep Them! from being the usual Saturday matinee juvenilia would’ve been for nought without Gordon Douglas at the helm. Neither a great director nor a major one, Douglas was, however, a solid, capable craftsman whose later career would include respectable efforts like Rat Pack musical Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), the noir-ish Western Rio Conchos (1964), James Bond parody In Like Flint (1967), and gritty cop drama The Detective (1968).
Douglas catches that tight-lipped, fast-paced Dragnet rhythm perfectly, and he also nailed himself strong leads in Arness and Whitmore (who’d already earned an Oscar nod for his supporting role in the 1949 WW II classic, Battleground), backed up by such reliable Familiar Faces as Onslow Stevens, Sean McClory, William Schallert, Dub Taylor, a young Fess Parker (supposedly, Walt Disney’s seeing Parker in this flick led to him casting Parker as Daniel Boone), and, in one of his earliest role, Leonard Nimoy.
Giant Bug Movie or not, according to Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films, by Kenneth von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock, Douglas gave the flick his best. The desert sequences were shot on location in the Mojave Desert in 110 degree heat, and the entrances to the L.A. nest were also shot on location in that concrete-lined channel that passes for the Los Angeles River. For the set of a destroyed general store, Douglas had the set fully stocked, then set his crew loose tearing it apart to get the right effect. And, while Douglas may not have a seat in the lodge of all-time great helmsmen, he did have an eye.
My favorite shot: Arness, Whitmore & Co. have finally found the desert nest by helicopter search and come upon the giant ant mound just as one of them is getting rid of some leftovers: a rib cage which Douglas’ camera tracks in its tumble down the mound to where it comes to rest among other bones and the skull and gun belt of Whitmore’s missing partner.
Douglas is at his best during the climactic shoot-out in the L.A. sewers; frantic, desperate, wonderfully cathartic, it’s a satisfying Big Finish delivered with no small amount of style, an especially commendable accomplishment considering Warner Bros. cut the film’s already tight budget to under a million – scrapping plans for color and 3-D — before shooting.
Even in its time, Them! stood above the usual sci fi swill, receiving universally positive notices, becoming Warners’ biggest earner of the year, and topping out at #51 in the national box office race.
Look, it ain’t Shakespeare, it ain’t even Planet of the Apes (1968). But if you’re looking for a fun way to spend an hour and a half, Them! beats out any number of the nine-figure sci fi blockbusters that steamroll into the plexes every summer.
– Bill Mesce