Them! is a 1954 American black-and-white science fiction monster film from Warner Bros. Pictures, produced by David Weisbart, directed by Gordon Douglas, and starring James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon and James Arness. The film is based on an original story treatment by George Worthing Yates, which was then developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes.
Them! is one of the first of the 1950s "nuclear monster" films, and the first "big bug" feature.
A nest of gigantic irradiated ants is discovered in the New Mexico desert; they quickly become a national threat when it is discovered that two young queen ants and their consorts have escaped to establish new nests. The national search that follows finally culminates in a battle with Them in the concrete spillways and storm drain system of Los Angeles.
New Mexico State Police Sgt. Ben Peterson and Trooper Ed Blackburn discover a little girl wandering the desert in a catatonic state of shock near Alamogordo. They take her to a nearby recreational trailer, located by a pilot in a spotter plane. They find evidence that the little girl had been in the trailer when it was attacked and nearly destroyed by someone or something. Later, it is discovered that the trailer was owned by a FBI Special Agent named Ellinson, who was on vacation with his wife, son, and daughter; the other members of the girl's family remain missing. After being placed in an ambulance to be taken for hospital treatment, the child briefly reacts to a strange, pulsating high-pitched sound from the desert by sitting up in the stretcher. No one else notices her reaction, and when the noise stops, the girl lies back on the stretcher.
While passing a general store owned by "Gramps" Johnson, Peterson and Blackburn find him dead, and a wall of his store partially torn out. After a quick look-around, Peterson leaves Blackburn behind to secure the crime scene. Blackburn later goes outside to investigate a strange, pulsating sound; gun shots are fired, the sound grows faster and louder, and Blackburn goes missing. Upon inspecting the evidence left behind, Peterson's chief points out that Johnson and Blackburn had the chance of firing their weapons at their attacker, eliminating the possibility of a homicidal maniac. More puzzling is the coroner's report on Johnson's death, which includes an abnormally huge amount of formic acid found in his body.
The FBI assigns Special Agent Robert Graham to New Mexico to investigate. After having analyzed a strange print found near the Ellisons' trailer, the Department of Agriculture sends myrmecologists Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Pat Medford, to assist in the investigation. The elder Medford exposes the Ellinson girl to formic acid fumes, which rips her from her catatonia into a state of panic from "Them!" Medford's suspicions are validated by her reaction, but he will not reveal his theory prematurely.
At the Ellinson campsite, Pat encounters a giant, eight-foot-long foraging ant. Following instructions from the elder Medford, Peterson and Graham shoot off the ant's antennae, blinding it, then kill it with a tommy gun. Medford reveals his theory that a colony of giant ants, mutated by radiation from the first atomic bomb test near Alamogordo, is responsible for the deaths. The Army is alerted, and General O'Brien orders a helicopter search, in which the ants' nest is found. Cyanide gas bombs are tossed inside, and Graham, Peterson, and Pat descend into the nest to check for survivors. Deep inside, Pat finds evidence that two queen ants have hatched and escaped to establish new colonies.
Peterson, Graham, and the Medfords join a government task force which covertly begins to investigate all reports of possible giant ant activity. One shows that a civilian pilot (Fess Parker) has been committed to a mental hospital after claiming that he was forced down by UFOs, shaped like giant ants. Next, the Coast Guard receives a report of a giant queen hatching her brood in the hold of a freighter at sea in the Pacific; giant ants attack the ship's crew, and there are few survivors. The freighter is later sunk by U.S. Navy gunfire.
A third report about a large sugar theft at a rail yard leads Peterson, Graham, and Major Kibby to Los Angeles. An alcoholic in a hospital "drunk tank" claims he has seen giant ants outside his window. The mutilated body of a father is recovered, but his two young sons are missing. Peterson, Graham, and Kibby find evidence that they were flying a model airplane in the Los Angeles River drainage channel near the hospital. Martial law is declared in Los Angeles, and troops are assigned to find the ant nest in the vast storm drain system under the city.
Peterson finds the two missing boys alive, trapped by the ants. He calls for reinforcements and lifts both boys to safety, just before being attacked. Graham arrives with reinforcements and kills the ant, but Peterson dies from his injuries as others swarm to protect the nearby nest. Graham and the soldiers fight off the ants, but a tunnel collapse traps Graham. Several ants charge, but he is able to hold them off with his submachine gun just long enough for troops to break through the collapse. The queen and her hatchlings are discovered and quickly destroyed with flamethrowers. Dr. Medford offers a philosophic observation: "When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict".
- James Whitmore as Sgt. Ben Peterson
- Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Harold Medford
- Joan Weldon as Dr. Pat Medford
- James Arness as FBI Agent Robert Graham
- Onslow Stevens as General O'Brien
- Sean McClory as Major Kibbee
- Chris Drake as Trooper Ed Blackburn
- Sandy Descher as Ellinson girl
- Mary Ann Hokanson as Mrs. Lodge
- Don Shelton as Captain Fred Edwards
- Fess Parker as Alan Crotty
- Olin Howlin as Jensen, the alcoholic
- Dorothy Green as police matron
- Leonard Nimoy has a small, uncredited part as a U.S. Army Staff Sergeant in the communications room.
- 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, Dorothy Green and Harry Wilson.
- When casting his planned Davy Crockett episode of the Disneyland television series, Walt Disney viewed the film to see James Arness, who had been recommended for the role. However, Disney was more impressed by a scene with Fess Parker as an inmate in a mental ward of the Texas hospital. Watching Parker's performance, Disney realized he had found his Davy Crockett. John Wayne saw the film and, impressed with Arness' performance, recommended him for the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in the new Gunsmoke TV series, a role that Arness went on to play from 1955 to 1975.
When Them! began production in the fall of 1953, it was originally conceived to be in 3D and Warner Color. During pre-production, tests were to be shot in color and 3D. A few color tests were shot of the large-scale ant models, but when it was time to shoot the 3D test, Warner Bros.' "All Media" 3D camera rig malfunctioned and no footage could be filmed. The next day a memo was sent out that the color and 3D aspects of the production were to be scrapped; widescreen black-and-white would now be the film's presentation format. Warner Bros. hoped to emulate the "effective shock treatment" effect of its previous science fiction thriller The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; ultimately, however, the film was never shot in widescreen. Because of the preparation of certain scenes, many of the camera set-ups for 3D still remain in the film, like the opening titles and the flamethrowers shots aimed directly at the camera.
Although Warner Bros. was dissatisfied with the color results, the film's titles were printed in a vivid red-and-blue against a black-and-white background in order to give the film's opening a dramatic "punch". This effect was achieved by an Eastman Color section spliced into each release print. The 1985 VHS tape release, the subsequent LaserDisc and later DVD release have retained this black-and-white-with-two-color title effect.
The entrance to the ants' final nest was shot along the concrete spillways of the Los Angeles River, between the First and Seventh Street Bridges, east of downtown. The depiction of the Chihuahuan 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.
James Whitmore wore "lifts" in his shoes to compensate for the height difference between himself and James Arness. It has also been noted that Whitmore employed bits of "business" (hand gestures and motions) during scenes in which he appeared in order to draw more attention to his character when not speaking.
The Wilhelm scream, created three years earlier for the film Distant Drums, is used during the action sequences: when a sailor aboard the freighter is grabbed by an ant, when James Whitmore's character is caught in an ant's mandibles, and when an overhead wooden beam falls on a soldier in the Los Angeles storm drain sequence.
The giant ants, painted a purplish-green color, were constructed and operated by unseen technicians supervised by Ralph Ayers. 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 blunder has been obscured in the DVD releases of the film.
The film poster shows a gigantic ant with menacing human-like eyes rather than the normal compound eyes of an ant.
The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Them! was released in June 1954 and by the end of that year had accrued $2 million (US) in distributors' domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals, making it the year's 51st biggest earner. According to an article in The Slate, this was Warner Bros. highest-grossing film that year. However, 1954 In Film lists two other films from Warner Bros. that earned more in gross.
From contemporary reviews, the Monthly Film Bulletin stated that despite the science fiction film genre being new it had developed several sub-divisions including "the other-worldly, the primaeval-monstrous, the neo-monstrous, the planet-ary-visitant, etc." and that "Them! is a "well-built example of the neo-monstrous", "less absurdly sensational than most" Discussing the ant monsters in the film, the review referred to them as "reasonably horrible--they do not entirely avoid the impression of mock-up that is almost inevitable when over-lifesize creatures have to be constructed and moved", while noting that they were "considerably more conceivable than those prehistoric remnants that have recently been emerging from bog and iceberg". The review commented on the cast as "like most science-fiction, [the film] is on the whole serviceably rather than excitingly cast" and the crew was noted, stating the direction was "smoothly machined" and the film has "decent writing" though "more short cuts might have been [taken]", finding that the start of the film was too slow. A. H. Weiler's review in The New York Times 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". The reviewer 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". John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote, "If you're willing to let your imagination off its leash, you may have a fairly good time at 'Them!'"
Since its original release, Them! has become generally regarded as one of the best science fiction films of the 1950s. Bill Warren described it 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 '50s science fiction films". In the Time Out Film Guide, David Pirie wrote, "By far the best of the 50s cycle of 'creature features' ... retains a good part of its power today". The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 100% approval rating with an average rating of 7.6/10, based on 26 reviews. The website's consensus reads, "One of the best creature features of the early atomic age, Them! features effectively menacing special effects and avoids the self-parody that would taint later monster movies".
Them! was nominated for an Oscar for its special effects and won a Golden Reel Award for best sound editing.
Screenwriter Neil Ruttenberg and producer Richard Donner pitched a remake in which the ants would be intelligent and terrifying. Warner Bros. decided instead upon on Bob Gale's pitch, which included mechanical effects.
In popular culture
- Van Morrison's band Them was named after this film.
- Joey and Chandler watch the film on TV in the 1995 Friends episode "The One Where Rachel and Ross... You Know".
- New Jersey punk band the Misfits has a song titled "Them!", with lyrics directly inspired by the film, on their release Famous Monsters (1999).
- The video game series It Came from the Desert was inspired by Them!
- Eight Legged Freaks features a scene in which sequences from the film are included.
- The Counterstrike expansion for Westwood Studios' Command & Conquer: Red Alert had a secret four-part mini-campaign called It Came From Red Alert!; the primary antagonists are giant ants.
- Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch features the film on a TV that Lilo, Stitch, Nani and David watch along with Jumba and Pleakley.
- Fallout 3, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic irradiated wasteland, has a side-quest involving giant mutated fire ants titled "Those!" in homage to the film.
In Tim Burton's film Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) explains to Ed (Johnny Depp), "Nobody wants vampires anymore. Now all they want is giant bugs". The scene takes place in 1952, but the actual movie came out two years later.
- In the 1950s E.C. Comics parody comic, Panic, a companion to the highly successful Mad, there is a parody of this film titled "Them! There! Those!" featuring art by Wally Wood.
- The 1960s Remco toy line titled Hamilton Invaders featured giant bugs versus military defenders. One of the larger mechanical bugs, "The Spooky Spider", was designed after the giant ants in Them!, even though the creature sports only six legs. Another creature in this line also featured a giant bug, called "Horrible Hamilton", designed after the giant wasps from the 1950s sci-fi feature Monster from Green Hell.
- The scene where Pat is attacked by the foraging ant appears as a movie replay in the 2018 Marvel film Ant-Man and the Wasp.
- Script error at the TCM Movie Database
- Script error at AllMovie
- Script error at the American Film Institute Catalog