Who'd think a film featuring giant ants could be so real? There's actually 28 full minutes of mayhem and a good deal of mysterious chirping setting things up before Them! even shows one of the big bugs to audiences. But while giant ants may be the hook for Them!, there's plenty else going on to keep audiences interested. As I watched Them! for the first time in several years to prepare for this article what struck me about the story was how plausible it managed to be at every turn. And yes, the giant ants are still cool too!
Them! opens with a pair of policemen played by James Whitmore and Chris Drake discovering a traumatized little girl (Sandy Deschler) wandering alone in the New Mexico desert. From there they discover the ransacked trailer she had stayed in (no sign of her parents) and soon after that the mutilated corpse of local merchant Gramps Johnson inside his store which has been torn apart worse than the trailer. No money has been taken from either crime scene and despite the presence of some odd footprints in the sand, a weird odor that we later learn to be formic acid, and the perpetrator's strange penchant for sugar, audiences are left thinking, along with our screen police, that there's a madman on the loose.
In Bill Warren's classic science fiction compendium, Keep Watching the Skies!, he writes about a friend who sat through this first portion of the picture under the assumption that it was a crime thriller. Warren wrote that this friend "envisioned some kind of lunatic with a giant hypodermic needle" (189) as the killer in Them! At the time of its 1954 release the giant ants were supposed to be a secret and Warren writes that most period reviewers did their best not to give it away. I can imagine there was likely a fair share of moviegoers rapt in suspense through that 28 minute mark who then let out a laugh and shouted "Bunk!" when they caught first glimpse of an oversized ant sidling up behind Joan Weldon's scientist in the desert. But even if that were the case it didn't stop Them! from becoming Warner Brothers top grossing film in 1954 (Warren 194).
Surely the sensationalism of the giant ants claim much of the credit for that initial success of Them!, however; it is the well-told story on top of that which has helped to maintain the film's popularity over the past several decades so that even today it retains its classic status. Fifties sci-fi is often more fun than it is good, but there's a well-known handful that are both and Them! certainly makes that list despite the seemingly ridiculous presence of the big ants. Viewers would be right to question aspects of Them!'s story as it unfolds, though I found that Whitmore's police Sergeant and the FBI agent played by James Arness more or less anticipate every relevant question I might have had along the way. And where science flies over their heads the little old scientist played by the wonderful Edmund Gwenn spouts off those facts that none of us would have thought of anyway.
With Whitmore, Arness and others wondering who could possibly be crazy enough for this rampage, logic in the form of the Doctors Medford arrive to provide answers. Doctors being correctly plural because Gwenn brings his daughter, Pat (Joan Weldon), along and she's gone into the family business as well.
The tension heightens as old Doctor Medford and Pat seed us with clues. They speak to one another about the unlikely possibility that they suspect, but refuse to reveal any details to the police or FBI until they are absolutely sure in order not to "risk a nationwide panic." That gets Whitmore and Arness to raise their eyebrows!
Formic acid seems to be the key separating these cases from the work of a more typical homicidal maniac. As the cornoner, Putnam (Joseph Forte), explained to the lawmen, local shopkeeper Gramps Johnson could have been killed by anyone of four different injuries he suffered: his neck and back were broken; his chest crushed; his skull fractured; and he had "enough formic acid in him to kill 20 men." Now if it's 1954 and you're not looking for ants yet that last part probably seemed odd.
Odder yet, Gwenn's Doctor Putnam asks Whitmore and company about where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. Wouldn't you know, right around the general area where the attacks took place. Still refusing to reveal his suspicions, Gwenn has Whitmore and Arness bring him to see the little girl they'd found in the opening. He decides it'd be a wise move to wave a beaker of formic acid under her nose which succeeds in triggering memories of the terrible ordeal she's been through and giving voice to her only lines of the film, the repeated cry of Them! with stress on the exclamation point. Gwenn is just about convinced that his suspicions are correct but would like a trip into the desert for some first hand evidence before giving voice to his conclusions.
"Rather slim pickings for food, Dad," says Weldon's very serious Doctor Medford, Jr. out in the dust and tumbleweed of the desert. She adds, "They turn carnivorous what for lack of a habitual diet." Score cult points for Weldon's character as she's gorgeous and nerdy, taking this entomologist stuff totally serious, despite as she tells interviewer Tom Weaver, "hoping that somewhere along the line there would be some romance or love interest" for her Pat. That's hinted at with James Arness' FBI agent Graham, who's a bit too protective of her character to be just a casual acquaintance acting the gentleman, but whatever relationship that does or will develop is left to the imagination of the viewers.
Despite Pat's offerings, the best lines of Them! belong to Gwenn, his character both the smartest guy in the room and a bit of your doddering grandfather all at once.
While James Whitmore is wielding a machine gun it's Gwenn who directs his fire by shouting "get the antennae," and then correctly adjusting his grammar to advise "get the other antenna," after the first one goes down.
We see that the giant ants can be killed, but it is Gwenn who tells us they may have spread too fast for that to matter anyway.
Gwenn follows up on his earlier question about the bomb when he surmises, "A fantastic mutation. Probably caused by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb." The idea of the lingering radiation explains the past nine years as the Doctor doesn't think that the mutation has developed until recently which is a big part of why no one had run into any giant ants until now. For the benefit of first run period audiences this allowed Them! to be set at the time of release, giving greater immediacy to the threat than a 1945 setting would have allowed.
Upon discovering the ants' tunnels the military is ready to immediately commence bombing. Again, Gwenn saves the day by advising they wait until the hottest portion of the next day since the giant ants were likely to be out and about during the cooler evening. Their best shot at extermination would come when the ants are dulled by the great desert heat.
When Gwenn realizes that they didn't get the ants in time he tells the audience just how serious the threat may be: "We haven't seen the end of them. We've only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us." There is a potential for the human race to be overwhelmed unless the ants are snuffed out immediately.
Throughout Them! Gwenn acts as guide, educator, speculator. He knows all of the possibilities and while he may not have all the answers he does have a pretty good idea of worst case scenarios. If the ants are not stopped he forecasts that "man as the dominant species of life on earth will probably be extinct" speculating that this outcome could develop within a year.
James Whitmore's police Sergeant is intended to be the hero of Them! with the assistance of James Arness' friendly FBI man. While Whitmore's character is zeroed in completely on the menace at hand, Arness' does manage to have a side interest in Pat. Both men have lost co-workers to the fury of the ants, though Whitmore's loss was a more immediate one in his partner. While Whitmore and Arness are in this battle every step of the way, I found myself drawn more to the elder Gwenn, who's drawing up the plays for the younger men. Gwenn emerges as the unlikely hero of Them! battling the ants with his wit and intelligence, his plans executed by the younger actors. Higher knowledge supersedes even the power of actual military men on hand and Gwenn dispenses orders as if he were the highest ranking of them all.
Them! was a Warner Brothers' movie originally intended to be a 3D release in color but the studio pulled back the purse strings at the last minute. The general consensus is that that was all for the better and I couldn't imagine Them! in anything but black and white myself. Joan Weldon told Tom Weaver that Jack Warner wasn't enthusiastic about it; nor at the outset was director Gordon Douglas, whom Weldon added "didn't take it seriously when he was first assigned to it" (262). The end result was a money making cult classic which not only spurred on copycat giant so-and-so movies for years after, but also told a crisp story that made sense and was played by a professional cast who've only grown in esteem as time has passed by.
Weldon recalls that Gwenn, most famous for his Kris Kringle in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), was pretty much just working for the paycheck by this point as he needed the money to afford his arthritis medications.
Arness had already locked-up sci-fi immortality as the monster in The Thing from Another World (1951) but would soon make his science fiction status a footnote to a career defined as TV legend Marshall Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. And speaking of TV Westerns, Fess Parker has a much heralded brief part in Them! as a sane man locked up in a mental ward for having seen some UFO's that looked just like giant flying ants of all things!
I'm sad to report that between the time I began writing this piece and posted it to the site actor James Arness has died at age 88. Here is coverage from The Associated Press and The New York Times as well as a link to The Official James Arness Website.
Whitmore is top-billed in Them! and is in the midst of his long and varied career with some top notch work already behind him including his breakthrough Oscar nominated supporting role in the war film classic Battleground (1949); further support in the crime noir thriller The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and the musical Kiss Me Kate (1953).
After Them!, Weldon, a trained opera singer, finished out her 7-year contract with MGM, before returning to the stage where unlike her film career, she'd sing again.
Besides Gwenn a couple of other interesting old-timers appear in Them!: Onslow Stevens, very active on screen from 1932-37, but probably best remembered for appearing in House of Dracula (1945), directs James Whitmore's bazooka firing in Them! as the Brigadier General; and Olin Howlin, who's best remembered in this space as Perry Mason's doctor pal in the 30's Warren William series of movies, but you probably recall him best as The Blob's (1958) first victim a few years after Them!. Howlin steals his scene in Them! as the institutionalized alcoholic who tells what he knows about the giant ants in between cries of "Make me a sergeant in charge of the booze!"
No matter how you slice it, giant ants will always be the first thing associated with Them! And they should be.
But Them! will remain a classic because those big eyed ants enhance a suspenseful story that is otherwise believable. Beyond the suspense inside of Them! is the wider terror of the times which eclipsed story and permeated the minds of Cold War era audiences. Just before the press conference where the world is told of the mutant horror on the loose, one of the reporters there to cover the developing story asks, "Has the Cold War gotten hot?" There's no attention given to the line, it's almost a throwaway, but it is there. While giant ants are the what of Them!, the cold war and nuclear fears are the why, but that's a larger story lingering over the entire genre.
Weaver, Tom. I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers. Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2001.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company, Inc.: 1997.
Joan Weldon Calls "Them" As She Sees "Them" by Tom Weaver - A condensed version of the interview with Weldon from I Was a Monster Movie Maker listed above.
Them! article on TCM.com - Goes into great details about the making of after the brief intro to the movie itself.
Them! article on the New York Times - Original review published June 17, 1954.