Friday, June 19, 2009

"THEM!"-- Atomic Ants Terrorize The World In 1954 Sci-Fi Classic

At the height of the Cold War, science fiction films and monster movies were often based around themes that involved the ongoing arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union; the bulk of them revolving around the unexpected results of nuclear weapons testing. One of the best of these films was “Them!” a campy romp about giant mutated ants that were born in the New Mexico desert from the fallout of the domestic testing of atomic bombs during World War II.

The film, which was released 55 years ago today, is still a highly entertaining piece of science fiction—the special effects may be somewhat crude, but the well-written storyline and convincing acting still provide for an engaging and fun viewing. James Whitmore, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actor who passed away earlier this year, stars as a small-town cop that encounters a colony of nightmarish ants that have begun to wreak havoc on the region’s residents. James Arness, who also filled the title role of the rampaging alien in 1951’s “The Thing” and later starred in the hit TV series “Gunsmoke,” joins the fight against the ants as an FBI agent sent in by the U.S. government to help the local authorities.

The genre’s requisite eccentric scientist is portrayed by Edmund Gwenn, who won an Academy Award for his role as Santa Claus in the 1947 holiday classic “Miracle On 34th Street,” while Joan Weldon stars as his daughter and the leggy love interest for Arness’ character.

Throughout the film, the arrival of (or at least the allusion to the nearby presence of) the ants is heralded by a high pitched shrieking, which, along with “Creature From The Black Lagoon,” (also released in 1954) likely provided the influence for Steven Spielberg to insert John Williams’ theme music every time the shark in “Jaws” is about to make an appearance.

Fess Parker makes a cameo as a pilot who spots a flying Queen ant in the air, and is locked up in a mental hospital to make sure that he doesn’t make his story public. Walt Disney saw Parker in this role when the film was released and quickly offered him a contract, leading to Parker’s best known part, that of Davy Crockett in several Disney productions throughout the rest of the 1950s.

The dark and serious tone of “Them!” is occasionally broken up with some comedy relief, such as when Whitmore and Arness are interviewing a drunk in the alcoholic ward of a hospital who has seen the ants. When seeing a member of the military that has accompanied the two men, the man seams to offer up a serious deal to help them, but then starts jumping up and down in bed, chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!”

One of the most hilarious moments in “Them!” however, comes from a line which is delivered devoid of any humorous tone; when Gwenn’s scientist is speaking with Whitmore and Arness after the army has bombed the ants’ first nest in the New Mexico desert with cyanide, they ask him if he thinks that all of the ants have been killed. He responds by saying, “Yes, I think the nest was thoroughly saturated.” Arness then looks at his fellow actors and says, “If I can still raise an arm after all this is over I’ll show you just how thoroughly saturated I can get.”

The climax of the film takes place in the tunnels connecting the concrete sections of the Los Angeles River, where the surviving ants have attempted to start a second colony. Although the ending almost feels a little rushed, it does provide a solid conclusion to the storyline, and in fact, it even throws in a plot twist that viewers back in 1954 probably wouldn’t have been expecting—the death of one of the main characters and heroes of the movie.

“Them!” is widely available on DVD today, and for fans of classic science fiction and monster movies, it is definitely worth a watch. You might even think a little differently the next time you see a trail of ants crawling along the kitchen counter or making their way towards your unattended picnic basket.


Unknown said...

I just watched this movie again tonight with my wife. I've seen it many times since my childhood, but this was the first time for my wife. She loved it! It is an absolute classic.

tsitika said...

Its freaky..... (my legs are shaking) when i saw this move. I now that ants are small but still....