OK, let’s state the obvious from the start: movies about giant insects or reptiles, whether they are ants, tarantulas, scorpions, or lizards, are silly, sophomoric, and stupid. There, I said it. But some can deliver loads of fun and warrant critical acclaim. Them! certainly falls into both categories, not only because it was the seminal giant-insect creature feature film of the 1950s, but because amidst its surreal premises lurks an army of portents that foreshadow the absurd cosmological repercussions of the dawning Nuclear Age.
And its popularity in 1954 is evidence of how resonant these ominous, apocalyptic signs were. Them! was Warner Brothers most financially successful film in 1954, and studio executives were caught off guard. The film was originally slated to be shot in 3-D and Technicolor, but the BigWigs thought otherwise; their investment was not worth the risk for such an unusual plot. This is why some opening credits are shot in bright red color and why the flamethrowers, lent by the U.S. Army and used by actual combat veterans, shoot directly into the camera. Those scenes along with the many close-ups of the ants themselves were originally designed for 3-D. The film’s success led to many copycats including Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Giant Gila Monster (1959), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), the Godzilla franchise, and many others. Soon after Them!, giant-everything movies were the rave.
The film begins with two New Mexico State Police officers discovering a shocked young girl walking alone in the desert with a broken doll. They find other sites where carnage and destruction occurred, and strangely, sugar has apparently been the primary target. Since the structures appear to have been damaged from the inside out, and no money has been stolen, the local officials are baffled, so they bring in experts from the FBI, Department of Agriculture, and eventually, the U.S. military. One expert, a myrmecologist or ant expert, helps lead them to the culprits: a colony of gigantic ants that has been exposed to radiation and has exponentially increased in size. The military uses chemical weapons and kills what appears to be the entire colony, but shortly thereafter, odd reports throughout the American Southwest emerge, and it becomes clear the ants have escaped. A dramatic confrontation unfolds in the underground tunnels of Los Angeles’s water system.
The movie’s realism is ironically important. Set near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the film immediately raises legitimate questions about the natural environment surrounding the Trinity Site, located near White Sands Missile Range, the original test site for the first atomic bomb. The film is also shot in real, chronological time since at one point characters refer to the U.S. military’s use of the atomic bomb being nine years ago. In 1954 America, this made eerie sense.
Most of Them!’s characters work for city, state, or federal governments, which conveys the ubiquitous nature of government in 1950s America. In Them!, representatives from the FBI, Department of Agriculture, New Mexico State Police, Los Angeles City officials, Los Angeles police officers, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Force play key roles in destroying the ants. While some tensions between some agency officials are revealed, most characters place blind faith in each other and their government’s ability to solve catastrophic problems. If one arm of the government does not succeed, then call in another. This attitude resonates throughout Them!. Ironically, it shows the hope governments offered their citizens and the incompetence and inertia found in all bureaucracies.
The film is full of Biblical allusions and does an excellent job in equating the dawning Nuclear Age to a Judeo-Christian apocalypse. The film opens with a still shot of a Joshua tree and a young girl walking alone in the desert. Upon finding the ants, Dr. Harold Medford, the myrmecologist, prophetically proclaims, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true and there shall be destruction and darkness that come of the creation and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” Later, it is no coincidence that the ants are destroyed in the City of Angels.
The film also masterfully uses many horror movie staples that have become conventions today. Them! wastes no time in establishing a brisk pace. Within minutes, we are fully entrapped in a rapidly unfolding mystery turned monster film. The ants’ eerie calls to each other still echo in many fans’ ears today. Like so many horror films since including Jaws, Halloween, and Jurassic Park, sounds, not visual images, foreshadow the monster’s arrival, adding further tension and dramatic irony to the scene. Although not without mistakes, the film revolutionized the concept of reversing the scale of one’s size: make large objects small and small objects large and you have, almost instantly, a disorienting and horrific situation. The cinematography that unfolds in the ants’ underground burrows and the many skulls and skeletons, some human, that litter those burrows are claustrophobic and haunting. The footage in the underground tunnels of Los Angeles is reminiscent of The Third Man, but nevertheless effective in reminding us that we’re not that different than the monsters we loathe. Them! was one of the first films, and one of the best, to wrap these techniques into a unified, successful whole.
Them! never appears to take itself too seriously, which is perhaps its greatest trait. Subtle jokes are sprinkled throughout the film and provide appropriate counterpoints to the underlying tensions. Edmund Gwenn is wonderful as the equatorial, absent-minded professor of myrmecology, who constantly appears both brilliant and pathetically out of place. James Whitmore is equally effective as the stoic Police Sergeant leading the charge to save the world amidst such chaos and absurdity. Both actors launch their share of memorable barbs.
Them! should not be taken lightly. One of the landmark films of the 1950s,the film should appeal to fans of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Them! truly is, as its tagline suggests, “The Sci-Fi Classic of the Atomic Age”.
Leonard Nimoy has a small cameo as an Air Force sergeant.
The film was titled The Spiders for its original release in Sweden.
The film was nominated for an Oscar in 1955 for Best Special Effects.