Geektoberfest: THEM!

THEM!

Kill one and two takes its place!

THEM! (1954) Is an American science fiction/monster movie produced by David Weisbart and directed by Gordon Douglas. It stars James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn, and Joan Weldon. The film is based on a story by George Worthing Yates, which was developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, and adapted by Russell Hughes. 

Cast

JAMES WHITMORE as Sergeant Ben Peterson

EDMUND GWENN as Doctor Harold Medford

JOAN WELDON as Doctor Pat Medford

JAMES ARNESS as Special Agent Robert Graham

SEAN McCLORY as Major Kibbee

Several people in the New Mexico desert are missing or dead and this includes an F.B.I. agent and his family. 

State Police Sergeant Peterson then teams up with F.B.I. Special Agent Graham to find out what is going on. 

They send a strange print found at a crime scene to Washington DC and elderly Doctor Harold Medford shows up along with his daughter Doctor Patricia Medford. At the scene of one of the disappearances they are stunned when they find giant ants – mutated by the atomic bomb tests nine years earlier. 

They manage to destroy the nest of ants, but not before two winged queens and some drones escape.  One queen is found nesting in a cargo ship at sea and is destroyed. But now it becomes a race against time to find the last queen before she and her ants can overrun the world! 

  • The flamethrowers used in the film were standard World War II ordinance on loan from the U.S. Army. The actors handling them were combat veterans who had used them in battle. 
  • Walt Disney watched a screening of the film because he was thinking of casting James Arness as Davy Crockett but he was more impressed by Fess Parker and he got the job. 
  • There were days that the temperature reached 110 degrees and Edmund Gwenn was wearing wool clothes. Gwenn had advanced arthritis and although you can’t tell he was in pain he had to be helped off-set by his valet. 
  • The movie was originally set to be shot in color and 3D. However, shortly before shooting the budget was cut and there went that idea. 
  • The old man in the drunk tank is Olin Howland. He later played the old man absorbed by the monster in THE BLOB (1958)
  • The original idea was to have the giant ants invade New York City’s subway system. But the idea was tanked mainly due to the horrified reaction of New York City’s Transportation Secretary William J. Daley. 
  • This film was included among the American Film Institute’s 2001 list of 400 movies nominated for the top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies. 
  • James Whitmore was 5ft. 8in. tall. James Arness was 6ft. 7in. tall. To make up for the height difference Whitmore wore lifts in his shoes. 
  • The giant ants were mechanical and constructed and operated by unseen technicians. 
  • THEM! Is the first of the “Big bug” films to use giant insects as the monster. 
  • The cast includes several bit actors who would go on to television fame including: 

Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek)

Fess Parker (Daniel Boone)

William Schallert (The Patty Duke Show)

Dick York (Bewitched)

John Beradino (General Hospital)

  • Director Gordon Douglas recalls this conversation with his editor:

DOUGLAS: How does it look?

EDITOR: Fine.

DOUGLAS: Does it look honest?

EDITOR: As honest as 12-foot ants can look. 

Dislikes

  • This is a minor point but it did bother me. When Bob, Ben, and Pat go into the underground ant nest the tunnels have flat bottoms like floors. Ants building tunnels would make them roundish not with floors. I understand this was probably to make it easier to bring in camera equipment, but an opportunity was missed here. Making the actors climb thru round tunnels would have added to the tension and suspense since they would be off balance. It would also have lent more to the atmosphere of the scene especially in a black and white movie with deep shadows and dark corners. This was a mistake. Not a big one but still a mistake.  

Likes

  • I love this story. I love the way we have two male leads, and it is a monster movie and a buddy movie at the same time. I like that the scientist is a really old man. He may be somewhat cranky, he may have to be helped to get up, he might be absent-minded, but he is still the smartest man in the room and saves the world. There may be chauvinistic moments – after all it is 1954 – but the female lead stands up for herself and even orders the men around. I love it! This is the first of the giant bugs movies, so it is not cliché. All the tropes are there – for example, the scientist leading the discussion about the monster and showing a film – but this is the first of its kind, so it sets the example. The story is nicely paced, you’re scared when you’re supposed to be, you laugh when you’re supposed to, and you want to cry when you’re supposed to. The exposition is especially well done. There is a lot of information that needs to be given out but instead of losing you they hold your interest. For example, they declare martial law in Los Angeles. Press conferences can be boring but here they cut back and forth from the announcements to people on the street and their reactions to jeeps and troops pouring into the city. Well, done!
  • This movie has a great cast. I loved James Whitemore in BATTLEGROUND(1949) and GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969). I’ve loved James Arness since seeing him in GUNSMOKE on TV. So, it is a delight for me to see them together in this film. Plus, we have Edmund Gwenn who was such a treasure as Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). The chemistry between the cast works and believe me you can’t say that for all these 1950s movies. On top of that this is one of those blessed movies as far as casting is concerned. I’ve already discussed how the bit parts were filled with up-and-coming actors. That means that characters with maybe one scene are played by future stars that are hungry – eye of the tiger!
  • I love the giant ants in this movie, but I must admit I didn’t at first. I came into sci-fi and horror movies of the 1950s late. I was already in my late twenties when I discovered them. By that point I was a little jaded and didn’t like the mechanical ants of this film. I liked the way they looked but I didn’t like the way they moved. However, I later saw other giant insect movies from this period and absolutely hated the way they looked and were presented. It was at that point I revisited THEM! and decided I much preferred them (no pun intended). 
  • This movie has a lot of heart. The little girl in the beginning tugs at your heart (more about her next). Then there are the two little boys at the end and their mother – handkerchief time. Plus, the ending, which I am not going to give away but more handkerchief time. This film plays with your emotions more than you would expect from a 1950s monster movie.  
  • The little girl! If you have seen the movie, you know what I mean – the little girl who gives us the title of the film. She managed to tug at my heart and creep me out at the same time. She comes across as so helpless but those unstaring eyes are the stuff of nightmares. And there is the scene where she hears the sound the ants make and lying down eyes closed she bolts upright eyes staring again. Made me have to change my underwear. 

THEM! is without a doubt my second favorite sci-fi/monster movie of the 1950s. The distinction of being my favorite goes to THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD! (1951). Both movies are intelligent, well-crafted films that do not insult the intelligence of the moviegoer. Both films have casts filled with actors at the top of their game. Both films have screenwriters and directors determined to make the best movie possible. 

THEM! is a monster movie – there is no doubt about that, but it takes itself seriously and more important it takes its audience seriously as well. That is why you walk away from this film more than satisfied, you walk away having been entertained. And that is worth the price of admission and a bag of popcorn. 

I guess it comes as no surprise that if I say this is one of my favorite movies that I then recommend it. See this movie. If you have not seen it before sit down and watch it with a friend. If you have seen it before, see it again. You won’t be disappointed. You will come across nice little bits you did not catch the first time. It is that kind of movie. All great movies are that kind of movie. 

It is with total delight that I give THEM! four and a half gray geeks. 

Well then buckaroos it is that time again. It’s time for me to vamoose and for all of you to get back to your busy lives. Thank you for letting me visit with you for a little while. I love it and I hope you love it too. Until next time, always try to be nice but never fail to be kind. And most of all be kind to yourselves. 

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