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Thursday, 1 January 2009

Them! (1954)

The state police are looking for something out in the deserts of New Mexico when they find a little girl walking out of the desert in utter shock. They find her trailer just up the road mysteriously torn to pieces from the inside out and as the medics turn up they hear weird noises. They head over to the general store to see if the proprietor knew anything and find that torn up too, along with its owner. They can safely rule out robbery because money was left at both locations, but given that the only thing taken seems to be sugar, what do they rule in?

Well, this was 1954 and world cinema was beginning to pay attention to the fact that it was the atomic age. This one came out in June, five months before the granddaddy of all atomic age monster movies, Gojira, making it something of an original. Of course, as any classic movie monster buff knows, this one doesn't have a giant monster lizard, it has a whole bunch of giant monster ants. What's hard to really get to grips with is that in 1954 everyone knew that there were atomic tests going on in the deserts of the southwestern US, but nobody knew that things like this weren't going to be the results of those tests.

This one took advantage of that knowledge. It's set right in the location where the first atomic bomb was exploded, the Trinity test at what is now the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. That was in July 1945, a few weeks before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus providing only nine years for the residual radiation to die down. Even now, sixty years afterwards, that's ten times more the normal. I don't know what it was in 1954 but I'm sure it was pretty high. And that's about all that your average American knew at the time. No wonder this film scared so many.

It doesn't hurt that this is an archetype: it has everything you could expect from a monster movie. There's a giant mutated menace that doesn't get too much screen time and doesn't get shown right off the bat. There are capable local cops who are out of their depth plus an FBI agent specially flown in. There are a couple of scientists: one elder man with an eccentric personality and his beautiful daughter. There's plenty of science, some politics and even a dab of religion too. We get a little film presentation by the scientist that ends with dire threats about the extinction of the human race. We even get two separate trips into giant ant nests, one with flamethrowers and the other with the army.

What we get that we don't expect from a monster movie is a bunch of decent acting, but the names here aren't your average B movie regulars. James Arness, who seems to have spent most of the film standing in trenches, did make something of an impact as the title role in The Thing from Another World, but was far better known for his westerns, including a very long run as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. Dr Harold Medford is played by Edmund Gwenn, who had won an Oscar six years earlier for playing Father Christmas in The Miracle on 34th Street.

His daughter is played by Joan Weldon, who was a little disappointed that her beautiful scientist role wouldn't get a romance but that's another of the plus points here. She brings the glamour but she's no dumb blonde. She's there to be a scientist because the ants are the stars. There are also name like Fess Parker and even Leonard Nimoy, who both like Arness would soon become famous on TV. All these talents lend a credence to the story, which started out high up on the ranks of monster movies because there weren't many but remains there sixty years later when there are far too many. It doesn't hold up quite as well as I remembered it from years ago but it's still effective today.

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